- “Becoming a Part of Her Innermost Being”:Gender, Mass-Production, and the Evolution of Department Store Culture in Edith Wharton’s “Bunner Sisters”
Written in 1892 and published in her 1916 collection of short stories entitled Xingu, Edith Wharton’s “Bunner Sisters” offers a uniquely literary perspective into an era of change in New York City’s production and commerce history. Strategically set in the 1870s, “Bunner Sisters” supplies readers with a critical commentary on the United States’ economic transition from neighborhood shops selling hand-made products to large department stores selling mass-produced, machine-made wares. Wharton locates Bunner Sisters, one of these small neighborhood retailers, in what Gary Totten refers to as “an outpost of the Ladies’ Mile bordering Stuyvesant Square”1 or, according to Wharton, a “side-street already doomed to decline.”2 Indeed, while displacing smaller neighborhood shops like Bunner Sisters, large department stores like Macy’s helped to reconfigure existing retail and consumption practices by drawing shoppers out of close-knit, familial shopping communities and welcoming them into the anonymity of the department store. Drawing from contemporary “separate spheres” ideology,3 Wharton links these economic transformations with an array of social implications, ultimately revealing how changes in manufacturing and retail practices also affect society’s attitudes towards consumption and interactions with consumable products. To these ends, Wharton repositions contemporary definitions of “public space” as an arena in which sociopolitical interactions take place, and instead characterizes it as a space where mass-produced, factory goods are made and retailed. In a similar way, she acknowledges contemporary characterizations of “private” spaces as domestic environments but also reconfigures them as the neighborhood shops and producers of pre-industrial, handmade objects. However, even as she adopts and [End Page 203] manipulates “separate spheres” ideology, Wharton also deconstructs it to reveal its weaknesses and inefficiencies. In particular, Wharton focuses on the inability of “separate spheres” ideology to accurately organize or categorize late-nineteenth-century American society. Ultimately, “Bunner Sisters” seeks to display the inevitability of linked social, economic, and technological transformations. For Wharton especially, whereas “separate spheres” may have at one time been a useful philosophy for organizing social bodies, the gradual and inevitable evolution of manufacturing and retail practices has since dissolved the boundaries between “public” and “private” space, thus necessitating a new, socioeconomically-oriented conceptualization of and organization for American society.
Implicit within Wharton’s calculated naming of her text “Bunner Sisters” (instead of “The Bunner Sisters”) is the text’s central focus. The absence of the article “the” from the title manipulates the referent from the sisters themselves to instead the shop in which they work. In this way, sharing their last name with the title of their store intermingles the sisters’ identities with that of their shop, causing them to participate in their own objectification and consumption. The sisters’ and the shop’s shared naming transforms the sisters into objects, much like the products in their display window, that participants in industrialized retail culture would likely consume. This shared naming, therefore, configures Wharton’s attention within “Bunner Sisters” away from the sisters’ themselves and onto their shop. Ultimately, Wharton’s focus is not working-class sororal relationships or female identity, but is rather the shop, consumable objects, and the role of the individual consumer within an evolving retail society.
Key to fulfilling her critical purpose within “Bunner Sisters,” Wharton introduces the clock, an early convert to industrialized manufacturing processes, as a birthday gift from Ann Eliza, the elder sister, to Evelina. Throughout the text, the clock looms in the background of Bunner Sisters; its constant ticking suggests time’s perpetual and unpreventable forward progression. As the clock’s constant ticking marks the unrelenting passage of time, Wharton seems to suggest that humans will inherently progress from one social climate or condition to the next. Within the context of Wharton’s discussion of evolving retail and manufacturing philosophies, the clock’s nagging presence suggests the inevitability of human society’s technological evolution. At the same time, Wharton also positions the clock as inviting elements of a “public,” industrialized society into the sisters’ “private,” domestic shop. In doing so, Wharton emphasizes elements of the clock...