The House of Mirth is Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel about Lily Bart, a young woman of beauty and breeding who can neither escape nor find refuge within the privileged social class into which she was born. After cultivating their daughter for a life of wealth and privilege, Lily’s parents die and leave her penniless. Unable to settle for the role of a leisure class ornamental wife, and unprepared for any gainful professional employment, she slowly wilts like a hothouse flower, teetering at the precipice and falling from the heights of New York Society.
Anzia Yezierska and Edith Wharton are two writers of social realist fiction with dramatically different styles and strategies. Wharton’s sublime sentences and austere language contrast markedly with Yezierska’s Yiddish-inflected broken-English and overwrought pursuit of the inexpressible. And yet, the two authors demonstrate a shared purpose to provoke the reader’s empathetic reaction to their characters. When confronting the challenges of being women in the early twentieth century, Wharton’s and Yezierska’s writing demonstrate surprising similarities.
Suggested Activity: Compare the excerpts from The House of Mirth and Bread Givers, both of which address the social pressure imposed upon women to perform in public, and to dress and cultivate their appearance to accommodate both the female and the male gaze. Ask students: what is similar about these two excerpts? What is different? What does it tell you that two female novelists of the early twentieth century—from very different backgrounds—were both confronting the idea that women were judged more on their looks and clothes than on their brains or character?
For a more extended study, ask each student to research and bring into class one additional novel from this time period that addresses this theme. They don’t have to read the novel, but they should learn enough about it to be able to tell the class about the author, summarize the plot, and share a passage in which the way women are seen and valued in society is critiqued. It’s ok if several students bring in the same novel. After sharing a number of examples, ask students to consider whether fiction, and art in general, can help to change systemic problems such as misogyny? Is misogyny still a problem today? Which writers and artists are addressing it, and how?