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The Multi-Commodification of Women in The House of Mirth

时间:2020-06-29 21:50:50  来源:  作者:张旭

The Multi-Commodification of Women in The House of Mirth

张旭
(四川大学外国语学院,在读研究生)
Introduction
The House of Mirth, the second novel of Edith Wharton, published in 1905, tells a story of Lily Bart, a beautiful girl reaching her 29 years, who intends to marry well both socially and economically, but ends with the demise of both her desire and herself. Through the experiences of Lily Bart, the book represents to readers a vivid picture of the upper class life of New York City during the Gilded Age.
Most of the critiques interpret the text from the perspectives of Feminism, Cultural Studies, and Marxism, which are usually interrelated. Although, all these critiques will put the historical backgrounds, the rapid expansion of the industry and commerce and the culture of consumerism, of the 19th century New York City into consideration, there are still some differences and they can be roughly divided into three groups. Firstly, from the cultural perspective, Lori Merish and Lillian Robinson examine the place and function of gender within a culture of capitalism, but Merish focuses on the female psychology and Robinson criticizes the double standard and the female sexual probity as a woman’s capital in such a society; Clair Hughes, in “Consuming Clothes”, argues that Lily Bart “consumes on behalf of others, which demands a well-stocked wardrobe, and this in its turn consumes and wastes her”(389); Annette Larson Benert and Ann Jacobsen, both of them, discuss the function of the houses and rooms in the book with specific studies of the relations between the architecture with human interiority. Secondly, from the view of feminism, Carol, in “Female Doubling”, and Frances Restuccia, in “The Name of the Lily”, both analyze Lily as a symbol and how Wharton uses this symbol to explore the “woman question” on who or what is a real woman; Kim Vanderlaan, in “Lily White and Virginal”, argues that Lily cannot ultimately abide marriage because she cannot endure the act, or even the idea, of sex, and the characterization of Lily would be also a fictional reflection of Wharton’s own lack of sexual knowledge. Thirdly, from the Marxist perspective, Goldner, in “The Lying Woman and the Cause of Social Anxiety”, talks about Wharton through this novel presents readers such a culture that while highly anxious over volatile Wall Street fortunes, cannot clearly envision the cause of its own anxieties; Dimock, in “Debasing Exchange”, examines how class structures and the system of economic exchange construct and position Lily within a capitalist marketplace where she is not an agent but a commodity, an item of exchange.
In China, the critiques mainly focus on the conspicuous consumption, consumerism, and the commodification of women in that period of American society and analyze how this kind of culture leads to Lily’s tragic death. Sun Chao argues that the consumerism and the culture of the conspicuous consumption of the old New York City makes Lily a female consumer and further a victim; Zhang Yin focuses on the phenomenon of the commodification of women in the novel, and how Lily steps off the dilemma in the form of self-sacrifice; Liang Chao, Zhang Junping, and Huang Chengqi, all of them, believe that the patriarchal society combined with the culture of consumerism makes women a passive and disadvantageous position in the society which is the main cause for Lily’s tragic death; Meng Weina, through the comparison between Lily Bart and May Welland the character of The Age of Innocence, examines the tragic fate of women in the 19th century New York society.
In the novel, the New York society is permeated with the culture of consumerism, like a huge marketplace, where people will buy and sell everything. There is, however, an essential difference between men and women. In Gilman’s famous book Women and Economics, she has given us a clear picture of the essential difference between men and women in the patriarchal society that although to both men and women they confront “life there is the same world beyond, there are the same human energies and human desires and ambition within, all that she may wish to have and she may wish to do, must come through a single channel and a single choice – through a small gold ring (71).” This is exactly the “small gold ring” Lily Bart tries to scratch but always miss in the last moment. This paper argues that, in the upper class society depicted in the book, the multi-commodification of women, especially “marriageable girls” (Wharton 29), which makes them the commodities who are destined to be consumed to realize their value while losing herself, leads to the tragic death of Lily Bart at the end of the story. The so-called multi-commodification refers to the multiple commodification of women from different levels, including the body, social relations, and selfhood of women.
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