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237 EDITH WHARTON'S CHALLENGE TO FEMINIST CRITICISM Julie Olin-Ammentorp Le Moyne College In the past decade, feminist critics have done much to restore Edith Wharton to her proper rank among American novelists and to shed light on many aspects of her work previous critics had overlooked. Scholars such as Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Elizabeth Ammons, Judith Fetterley, and recently Wai-Chee Dimock have changed the understanding of Wharton's work through their perceptive analyses, focusing particularly on Wharton's insights into the social structures of the early part of this century and the ways in which these structures influenced and limited women's lives. Yet the work of these feminist critics also raises issues of the limitations , or perhaps blind-spots, of current feminist literary criticism, issues which go beyond their application to Wharton and her work. For instance, most feminist critics seem to imply that Wharton, though never one to ally herself with the feminist movements of her day, was a kind of inherent feminist, someone who both fought for and attained her rightful place as a novelist in a period when the novel was dominated by male authors and when upper-class women were taught, as Wharton was, to be more ornamental than intellectual. Moreover, these critics point out, Wharton protested the treatment of women through her portrayals of women caught in the inescapable bonds of social constructs. These points are fundamentally correct; Wharton was and did all these things. Yet in focusing only on these aspects of her life and career feminist critics overlook the Edith Wharton who, despite her mature anger over the random education her parents gave her, wrote that I have lingered over these details [describing the cooking she enjoyed as a child and young woman] because they formed a part—a most important and honourable part—of that ancient curriculum of housekeeping which . . .was so soon to be swept aside by the "monstrous regiment " of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen and the linen room, and to substitute the acquiring of University degrees for the more complex art of civilized living. ... I mourn more than ever the extinction of the household arts. Cold storage, deplorable as it is, has done less harm to the home than the Higher Education.1 One point where feminist criticism seems particularly weak is in its treatment of the men in Wharton's fiction. This is particularly true in criticism of The House of Mirth, probably the best-known as well as the most astutely criticized of Wharton's novels. Judith Fetterley has claimed that in Wharton's novels, social waste is female;2 when one uses this as the guiding principle in reading The House of Mirth, the novel becomes 238Notes the story of a young woman's destruction by a social system that maintains that upper-class women are meant to be ornamental, even while it forces them to prostitute themselves on the marriage market. A woman like Lily, Fetterley argues, has to accept her status as "a piece of property available for purchase by the highest bidder."3 Elizabeth Ammons joins Fetterley in arguing that power in the novel is patriarchal, pointing out that men are the makers of money in the novel and, thus, as the novel focuses on the economics of marriage, the source of all power. These points are important and undeniably true and help to explain the social structure in which Lily moves. But a re-examination of Wharton's fiction in general, and of The House of Mirth in particular, demonstrates that the social structures of Wharton's fictional world cause male waste as much as female. As Dimock has noted, "the actual wielders of power in the book are often not men but women."4 Indeed, women like Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor are hardly subservient to their husbands, despite their economic dependence on them; both of these women seem to have more freedom and power than their spouses. At no point does Wharton suggest that they warrant pity nor that they are victims of the system in the way Lily is. Lily herself is eager to grasp the money that could...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 237-244
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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