A feminist dictionary

Technically, feminism is defined as a political discourse aimed at equal rights and legal protection for women[1]. Feminist criticism is a type of literary criticism, and can be defined as the study of literature by women, or the interpretation of any text written with an attention to gender dynamics or a focus on female characters[2]. The study may involve reevaluating women writers.[3] . Feminism is usually associated with female figures that stand up for women's equality and rights. Anti feminism is the opposition to feminism in some or all of its form and some male chauvinists are reckoned to be anti-feminists.

Edith Wharton was claimed to be a feminist[4] especially after her novel, House of Mirth was published. This is due to her preference of emphasizing, either directly or figuratively, on the repression of women in her novels recurrently. Although her writings may have not gained popularity as feminism works like Virginia Woolfe's, yet it is inevitable that Wharton is inclined towards producing fictions centered at the case of gender inequality. This is mainly because most of her writings somehow depict that women are downgraded in many aspects like family strata, social status, custom lifestyle and power as well as control. However, the later responses to her writings are more to only individual's perception with not much reference to her writings but the critics tend to associate the basis of her novels with her background. Edith Wharton once said this about the critical response to her writing:

"After all, one knows one's weak points so well that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others."

The measure for feminism in literature depends on the literary approach of feminism by a writer. For this research, I will be using the feminist literature criticism to analyze the repression on women in Wharton's fictions, and also to reevaluate Wharton as a feminist writer.

I will be counterclaiming the consented belief that Wharton is a feminist literature and providing proofs that she might also be an anti-feminist. I have referred to four of Wharton's novels; The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, Summer and Ethan Frome; as the written texts and basis for my justification. My research will be based on three aspects or literary approach of feminism that can determine whether the writers are feminists or neutral;

  1. gender equality or opposed to gender stereotype,
  2. image of female characters as main characters or hero in the feats of women,
  3. culture or art created by women,
  4. use of neutral language in describing the characters,

with close reference to the four written texts.

Aspect 1 : Gender equality and opposed to gender role stereotypes and discrimination against women.

In the society where Edith Wharton lived women did not fit into any creative or participant role. They were regarded as a supremely satisfying object of masculine possession. The male automatically became interested in parading the well-decked woman as his proud possession. As Judith H. Montgomery remarks:

"women began to be regarded. . as decorative playthings as dolls and idols"

("The American Galatea" College English, 32, 8 (May 1971), 89 1).

As dolls they were sought to be gilded, decorated and displayed, as idols they were treated as art objects and 'worshipped'. Thus, this partly dictates the reason for Wharton's texts inclination towards the issue of repressed women in the society since the women were stereotyped as only possession with no crucial significance in the society. The American society, to which Edith Wharton herself belonged, did not give equality to women in legal, economic and sexual matters. Every aspect of American culture conspired to foster such an unequal treatment.

In The Age of Innocence, Countess Ellen Fonseka is seen as a lady who does not fully abide with the supposed role of a woman. This is due to her unusual habits of a lady and unconventionality in that society. Citing from the text,

"Mrs. Mingott said she had gone out ;which, on a day of such glaring light ... seemed in itself an indelicate thing for a compromised woman to do." (page 24)

Women during that particular era, cannot not go out unaccompanied, during daytime due to perception that women should be at home, taking care of the households, and should not wander around alone so they can raise up suspicions and apprehension over their where and what about.

However, the text could also be translated as an advice or a concern by Edith Wharton over the safety of a woman if she is to be outside alone. As a compromised woman, Ellen Fonseka should not wander alone especially because she has separated from her husband, and her safety is now to Mrs Minggot's concern. In fact, Wharton has never stated that woman should only be at home and forbidden to go out, or in any words, the freedom for women to walk about is not prohibited nor discriminated.

In the House of Mirth, Lily Bart, the protagonist, is an object of beauty than a woman who should be loved. She is the product of a society with no socially acceptable means other than matrimony. Lily's mother considers her beauty as a 'weapon' (chapter House, page 37) and Lawrence Seldon has been quoted asking Lily;

" Isn't marriage your vocation?" (chapter House, page 11)

Thus, it can be said that women are bound to the lifestyle provided to them by the society with no obvious choices. For this reason, few literature guides have agreed that Edith Wharton is obliquely suggesting vindication of women's status quo.[5]

Nonetheless, the evidences in The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth do not provide sufficient justification for the claim. There are evidences that indicate that Wharton actually criticized the society's code of conduct, superficial values and double standard regarding marriage as a whole and not regarding the discrimination by the society against women. Marriage was indeed an obligation compulsory for every woman in the society especially after the adolescence year, hence the generations' belief may not suggest that women ought to be stereotypically seen only as wives, but the act of marriage itself was a part of the society's lifestyle. In fact, until today, the act of marriage is still being practiced around the world, with no apparent discrimination against women. Besides that, it is generally accepted that marriage is a commitment pledged based on mutual respect and agreement from both genders; man and woman. For that reason marriage shall not be a vocation for only woman, but also man.

The society setting for the Age of Innocence is the late nineteenth century, and women indeed are marked by disapproval and ironic denunciation and often some are perceived as only the object of supreme beauty, and this can be seen through the characters of May Welland and Ellen Fonseka. However, in Wharton's The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome, most of the central female characters are more than a symbol a possession for men, and instead these characters are greatly loved and cared by the respective companion male characters. Thus, the question of feminism raised due to the common negative stereotype of a woman role, has been well compensated by Edith Wharton herself in the novels. I would like to cite an instance from The Age of Innocence, and in this novel, Archer Newland is clearly seen to be deeply in love with Countess Ellen Fonseka, a widow, despite he is then matrimonially attached to May Welland.

"The longing was within him day and night, an incessant, undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tested and long since forgotten." (Chapter 23, page 189)

From this excerpt, Wharton indirectly states that Ellen Fonseka is not a sole object of possession, instead Newland Archer does feel something deep for her, it could be infatuation or even love. Later in this novel, it is proven that Newland loves her but he feels he is bounded to be with May and the 'old decencies'[6] he and his people had always believed in.

"But to love Ellen Fonseka was not to become a man like Lefferts...(she) is not like no other woman, he was like no other man; their situation, therefore, resembled no one else's..." (Chapter 30, page 258)

The whole text clearly depicts that women are appreciated and loved by men, and the act of wedlock fidelity by husbands is indecent, and for Archer Newland's case, decency triumphs over love, yet love for a woman can persist to a lifetime. Later in this novel, Wharton figuratively described the feeling that Newland cast for Ellen is not infatuation, thus, this indicates that Ellen is not an object of possession, and Wharton defies the stereotype amazingly by proving that rather than being a typical woman accustomed to discrimination, a woman can take reign over a man's heart without losing his respect, and women are not meant to be deprived.

In the Age of Innocence, the upper class society perceives the act of divorce as something disgraceful and against the society's customs, especially if the wife is the one who asks for divorce. Countess Ellen Fonseka who opts for divorce after she has learnt his husband's infidelity, receives negative discernment from the public. Citing form the text,

"Everybody knew that the Countess Olenska was no longer in the good graces of her family. Even her devoted champion, old Mrs Manson Mingott, had been unable to defend her refusal to return to her husband." (Chapter 26 : 220)

Based on this excerpt, although Mrs Manson Minggot comes from the family of a high social stratum, yet she herself is unable to do anything over Olenska's decision to annul her marriage. Another instance from the text,

"After all, a young woman's place was under her husband's roof, especially when she had left it in her husband's roof, especially when she had left it in circumstances that ... well ... if one had cared to look into them..." (Chapter 26 : 220)

Nonetheless, the society's attitude towards the annulment of marriage as described by Edith Wharton cannot be used as the ground to support the claim that Wharton is a feminist writer. Wharton's view through Newland Archer's dialogue,

"Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce - our social customs don't." (Chapter 12 ; page 93)

From the dialogue, Edith Wharton had made the point that only the custom forbids the act of divorce while it is actually legally appropriate to be done. Hence, the evidence that females are discriminated by the society since they should not be asking and opting for divorce cannot be justified. Again, Wharton may had intended to criticize on the society's code of conduct, and in fact there is no other evidences in Wharton's text (House of Mirth and Ethan Frome) that has clearly stated the prejudice towards women in the act of divorce.

Aspect 2 : Dedication of image of the female as a hero or central character in fiction, and in the physiques and feats of female.

Female as a hero or central character in fiction

Heroic character is defined as character in literature, art or culture who is bounded with positive behaviors and characteristics, and even considered as the protagonist character. A common characteristic of feminist literature is the detailed portrayal of women with great positive values in the novels, as well as women written as the main, protagonist characters in the fictions. In most of Wharton's novels, female characters are often seen to be equipped with decent attitudes, great perseverance, and the ability to adapt themselves to the demanding and often poor environment in best possible manners[7]. This is achieved with the successful help of women's intelligent decision making and analytical mind.

In the Age of Innocence, the character of Ellen Fonseka is depicted as a woman of unconventionality due to her lack of concern for social rules and etiquette. This makes her a target of malicious tongues, but a heroine of dispossessed. In the novel The Age of Innocence, the character of Ellen Fonseka lives in the heart and mind of Newland Archer's character throughout the novel. Even 26 years after Ellen Fonseka's departure to Europe, Newland keeps the memories of him with Fonseka. Hence, it can be seen that the central or main character in The Age of Innocence is Countess Ellen Fonseka.

The heroine in the House of Mirth, Lily Barth is an intelligent woman and adept at playing society's games. The overall conflict of social expectation and personal desire in the novel House of Mirth basically revolve around the characterization of Lily Barth. It is made clear from the beginning of the book that Lily Barth was raised in the midst of luxury, and expects herself to be married to man of upper social class. Edith Wharton described the appearances and behaviours of Barth in detail, and overall, the novel itself was even described [8] as 'a novel about New York socialite, Lily Barth, attempting to secure a husband and place in rich society.' Therefore, the readers and literature professionals agree that Lily Barth is the central character of the House of Mirth.

Nonetheless, Wharton's preference on female gender as the central characters in her writings cannot justify the claim that Edith Wharton is a literature feminist. This is because the measure of the heroic or central characters is subjective to the readers. In the Age of Innocence, the character of Newland Archer also portrays the heroic or central character in this novel. Although Ellen Fonseka's character remains etched in Newland's thoughts and memories, yet the appearances of Newland Archer are more continuous in the novel and the role of Newland's character is more significant than that of Ellen Fonseka's. Moreover, Newland Archer's character appears at each chapter and consistently remained active and spoken about by Wharton. Besides that, Newland is the character who has to bear with the most conflicts, whether the internal or the external ones.

In the Age of Innocence, Newland Archer's character is emotionally attached to Ellen Fonseka while at the same time he is matrimonially committed to May Welland. Newland Archer casts the feeling of love towards Ellen Fonseka, but he still decides to marry May Welland.

Ellen Fonseka responds to Archer's confession of love,

"I can't go back now to that other way of thinking. I can't love you unless I give you up."

The incident was made more difficult by the arrival of the telegram from Welland to Ellen Fonseka, in which May Welland tells about her parents' approval to move forward her wedding date to Archer. Following this incident,

Aspect 4 : Usage of gender-bias or sexist language

For instance, in The Age of Innocence,

"Archer entirely approved of family solidarity, and of the qualities he most admired in the Mingotts was their resolute championship of the few black sheep that their blameless stock had produced... (but) he did not think the Mingotts would have tried 'it' on!" (chapter 2, page 10)

'It' in the above excerpt refers to Mingotts' decision to bring along Countess Olenska to the opera when Archer's engagement to May Welland is about to be announced within a few weeks.

From this excerpt anyway, Wharton uses the term 'black sheep' to indicate the family members that could bring humiliation to the Mingott. Since the word 'few' is used, it can be supposed that there could be more characters rather than Ellen Fonseka only, who exude unconventionality to the public. Hence, it is unfair to say that widows or women are discriminated in the Mingott family, when the term black sheep is neutral to any black sheep of different gender, and the emphasize on Ellen to bring about humiliation is only because of that particular moment where Archer Newland is getting married to May Welland and it looks improper for a 'black sheep' to be seen with a family of upper class.

  1. Merriam Webster Online Dictionary
  2. Steven Lynn's Texts and Contexts
  3. Esther Lombardi, Classic Literature Guide
  4. Dianne L. Chambers, Feminist Reading of Edith Wharton, Palgrave Macmillan
  5. Ranjit Kaur Kapoor, Edith Wharton's Feminism : Roving In Blind Alley
  6. Chapter 30, The Age of Innocence, page 258.
  7. Edith Wharton's Feminism: Roving in a Blind Alley , Ranjit Kapoor
  8. New York Society Held Up to Scorn in Three New Books," New York Times, October 15, 1905

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