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  • Illuminating Sleeplessness in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
  • Hannah Huber (bio)

In The Decoration of Houses, her 1898 home décor guidebook, Edith Wharton scrutinizes the emergence of imitation "bric-à-brac" (184) and domestic electricity. Lecturing on the "unhealthiness of sleeping in a room with stuff hangings" (170), she maintains that "dust-collecting upholstery and knick-knacks" (165) contradict the bedroom's purpose as a resting space. She also critiques the artificially lit home, declaring that "nothing has done more to vulgarize interior decoration than [electric light], which … has taken from our drawing-rooms all air of privacy" (126). Wharton's aversions—to festooned bedrooms and twenty-four-hour lighting fixtures—illuminate her critique of society's devaluation of both sleep and its designated spaces. Thomas Edison, famous for his light-bulb innovation, personifies the impact electric light had on American sleep practices. In 1895 he claimed, "People do not need several hours of continuous sleep, and that a few minutes, or an hour, of unconscious rest now and then is all that is required. … The habit of sleep was formed before the era of artificial light when people had no other way of spending hours in the darkness" (qtd. in Derickson 10). Rather than retire to the bedroom, Edison encouraged professional and social activity throughout the night. He advocated for brief naps, either erect or seated, amidst ongoing activity. Contrary to Wharton's appreciation of private sleep-spaces, Edison's "heroic wakefulness" (Derickson 5) de-emphasized such a necessity, promoting a myth that the mind—via socio-cultural practices—could overpower the body's physiological dependence upon routine rest.

In Wharton's The House of Mirth, perpetual wakefulness does not result from, or facilitate, a healthy, productive lifestyle, nor is it something the body can endure for long. Her 1905 novel critiques the Edisonian cult of [End Page 1] wakefulness by exploring how modern innovation and shifting socialities interrupt bodily rest, something best exemplified in the moments before Lily's death: "She felt so profoundly tired that she thought she must fall asleep at once; but as soon as she had lain down every nerve started once more into separate wakefulness. It was as though a great blaze of electric light had been turned on in her head, and her poor little anguished self shrank and cowered in it, without knowing where to take refuge" (250). This passage reveals the frayed nerves that result from Lily's destructive, cultural surroundings. Despite the darkness of her bedroom, artificial brightness pervades Lily's headspace and prevents her enervated body from attaining the most basic human need—restful sleep.

Much Wharton scholarship reveals the author's reticence toward a society centered upon technologically enhanced ways of living. Carol Baker Sapora, for instance, emphasizes the "conspicuousness" of artificial lighting in Wharton's domestic spaces, noting that electricity "first served only those who could afford the costly installation" (268). Sapora identifies these early home installments of electricity as a form of "conspicuous consumption"—a term coined by Thorstein Veblen in 1899. It defined a turn-of-the century trend in which elites asserted upper-class status through overt displays of consumptive leisure and non-productive social activity. Veblen's socio-economical lens is employed specifically in Mirth studies to understand the effect a milieu, which is centered upon "conspicuous consumption," has on the socially marginalized Lily. Wai-Chee Dimock, whose foundational study focuses on the inescapability of the marketplace, claims: "The fluidity of currencies in The House of Mirth … attests to the reduction of human experience to abstract equivalents for exchange" (784). Dimock argues that Lily's thematic deterioration reflects Wharton's condemnation of a society that would commodify both human bodies and social performances. Indeed, Lily's most coveted items for trade are her raw beauty and youthful energy. However, she comes to realize that her prized resources are fast waning currency in a society newly shaped by technological innovation. Martha Banta, identifying electricity as one of Wharton's "vivid historical markers," observes that electric light "is a threat to … Lily Bart, whose 'last asset' is a waning physical beauty more kindly set off by 'candle-flames'" (62). Furthermore, Lori Merish...


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