Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
Author: Erin Holliday-Karre
The Progressive Era is primarily imagined as a period of social and labor reform. As such, the social world was inextricably linked to the lexicon of production (Even Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, characterized conspicuously by non-production, is still linked to this lexicon). Quite literally one’s social value and sense of self-worth were defined in relation to one’s work, and specifically to what one produced. Progressive reformers sought to rationalize the labor system by investigating, measuring, and classifying the conditions of lower-class working environments in an attempt to assuage an increasingly disparate and volatile class conflict. Elite women reformers such as Jane Addams, Cornelia Stratton Parker, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman played a large part in examining and recording the labor experiences of lower-class women. Specifically, women reformers entered the female workplace, assessed the pay scale and managerial treatment of women, and connected their findings to women’s social habits. Many women called for labor reform on the assumption that better working conditions would morally safeguard women. A study of sales girls at Macy’s, for example, concluded that women who were well paid were less likely to engage in extramarital affairs with men in order to compensate for their lack of income (see Johnson, 2007). Thus, in the progressive era, reformers dichotomized women’s options for gaining social wealth (either through production or though sex, the latter being highly discouraged) while systematically denying any alternative outside of these quantifiable and qualitative social structures.
Because of the great body of academic literature by women on women during the Progressive Era, some critics mistakenly see the movement as a feminist one. For example, Dana Seitler argues that “one of the more surprising aspects of feminist reform campaigns was the frequency with which self-proclaimed feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Margaret Sanger, and Victoria Woodhull advocated for sexual and economic freedom, reproductive necessity, and eugenic discipline simultaneously” (67). Although Sietler notices a disjuncture between the ideologies of eugenics and feminism, issues of sexual and economic freedom remain unquestioned because these aims of feminism are seemingly unproblematic and self-evident. In an article on women reformers and Progressive Era reform Kathryn Kish Sklar writes, “power defined as the ability to control the distribution of social resources, was more evident in women’s activities in the Progressive Era than at any time previous or, some would say, since” (176). For Sklar, then, power is production and production is power. It is this very notion of power, I argue, that explains the palpable contradictions in literature representing the role of women in the Progressive Era. Defining women’s power in relation to production does not further women’s status in society; it only reinforces the hegemonic notion that production is the only means to social power. In hindsight, a more radical feminist strategy would attempt to break down the idea of production as power because concentrated systems expel and exclude those who do not conform to the hierarchy of value. [Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, states that radical feminism “sees feminist issues not only as women’s first priority, but as central to any larger revolutionary analysis (such as the labor problem and labor reform)… it sees the current leftist analysis as outdated and superficial, because this analysis does not relate the structure of the economic class system (and I would further argue the system of production) to its origins in the sexual class system, the model for all other exploitative systems” (37). Although Firestone defines this feminism as “radical” in the 70’s, I use it as a general working definition of feminism today]. Moreover, production is a model for social domination. Therefore, women who do not define themselves as a productive labor force cannot find wealth and power in a social system that excludes them—or at the very least, where they rank lower on the productive scale than men. As I will show in this essay, there is no language with which to define women as powerful in Progressive discourse insofar as it establishes production as the only means to material gain and worth in a society ruled by the production model. Through analysis of the literature of women reformers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Cornelia Stratton Parker I argue that the Progressive Era was a period of strategic female disempowerment irrespective of class and social hierarchy. I also offer an alternative discourse for thinking about women’s relationship to power though Baudrillard’s theory of seduction. Against a long history of productive readings, which argue that Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth advocates the same productive feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other Progressive Era reformers, I read in Wharton’s novel a more revolutionary feminist perspective inhering in the characterization of Lily Bart. Lily’s seduction poses a radical challenge to the oppressive values advocated by Progressive Era reform.
In The Mirror of Production (1973), Baudrillard argues that Marx, in failing to conceive of a possibility for social wealth and value outside of labor and production, did not offer a radical alternative to capitalism. Essential to understanding his later work on seduction, Baudrillard argued in this earlier work that society is dominated by the ideology and power of production (our multifarious systems for making meaning – semiotics, economics, psychoanalysis). Marx assumed “production” as a natural given, a quality of man that separates him from objects and animals. The system of political economy “is what produces the very conception of labor power as the fundamental human potential” (31). According to Baudrillard, Marx was not describing the natural condition of man; he was creating it. Shattering Marx’s “mirror of production” requires a two-fold process: recognizing that labor is not natural, and rejecting the concept of identity based on the subject/object divide as he does in Seduction (1979). If I turn to Seduction in my reading of progressive era feminism, it is because this is where Baudrillard refines his critique of production.
Because feminists and social reformers of the progressive era were, like Marx, so heavily immersed in the ideology of production and the social value of labor, they unwittingly end up perpetuating discrimination against those women who do not conform to the social value of labor. Cornelia Stratton Parker, for example, was a labor reformer who recorded women’s experience in the workplace with the goal of establishing better relations between workers and management. In the introduction to Working With the Working Woman (1922) Parker writes, “There could be no more dynamic subject than labor, since labor is human beings, and what is more dynamic than human beings?” (vii). This quotation articulates the motivation behind Parker’s decision to pass as a lower-class woman and enter factories in an effort to investigate the social habits of working women. But the assumption that one is what one does, implicit in her equation of labor and human beings, is highly problematic. Baudrillard defines labor as “what disinvests the body and social exchange of all ambivalent and symbolic qualities, reducing them to rational, positive and unilateral investment” (46). That is to say, we cannot learn anything about social beings through their productive labor, we can only learn about labor. In privileging the notion of production in writing about women, Parker sets up a hierarchy of discourse in which women will systematically fail to be seen as empowered. What begins as an investigation of the experience of working women ultimately becomes a treatise on labor.
In privileging the notion of productivity over all forms of social worth, Parker naturalizes the desire to work: “First, it is part of every normal human being to want to work. Therefore women want to work” (p. xvi). For Parker, production is what allows a woman to fulfill the desire that makes her human, contributing to society on a par with men. When the chocolate factory worker Lena claims the appeal of another form of existence, Parker quickly corrects her mistake. “Lena claimed, if she could have her way in the world, she would sleep till 12 every day and go to a show every afternoon. But that life would pall even on Lena, and she giggled wisely when I slangly suggested as much” (38). The fact that Parker has to remind Lena that a life of luxury would “pall” exposes the purpose of labor reform: it was not to just to improve working conditions but also an effort to make factory workers satisfied with their lot in life. In seeking to define women by their desire to work, Parker articulates the strength and universality of the power of production and risks identifying all other desires as unnatural. [Alternatively, Baudrillard and Thorstein Veblen both argue that production and labor are not natural desires in human beings. While Baudrillard privileges the human desire for “discharge, waste, sacrifice, prodigality, [and] play” (The Mirror of Production 42), Veblen provides proof of such human nature through his definition of waste in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Veblen argues that what workers desire most is to emulate the leisure class:“people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption” (168). That is, workers desire the means to become non-productive ].
In arguing that “labor” is natural, Parker establishes social wealth and self-worth as an end and not a means. That is, labor becomes its own finality and there is no longer any desire to imagine social mobility. To accomplish this goal, Parker examines the “unproductive” nature of academia. When, after working in the chocolate factory, Parker returns to campus to attend a college lecture on “The Role of the State in Modern Civilization,” she expresses impatience with the academic inability to speak on any topic with absolute authority. Parker writes, “Thus it is with much which one studies nowadays. We have evolved beyond the era of intellectual surety. What an almighty relief to the soul, then, when one can pack six rows of four chocolates each in a bottom layer… one job done – now and forever. I say it is a blessed thing to pack chocolates when one has been studying labor problems for some years” (29). Under the laws of production, education becomes less socially significant than physical labor. Because academia cannot find a “solution” through the use of its theories, or finality in its endless quest for knowledge, education becomes a burden on a society reliant on productive discourse, where everything has a meaning, a classification, and an end to the workday. Imagine the danger in imposing this ideology upon a woman who has not always had the right to education—to tell her that her productive labor is more important to society than her education. To understand Parker’s full implication is to establish a society in which there is no mobility, no desire for higher achievement, but only work as its own end. But surely this ideology rests at the level of propaganda: Parker doesn’t really believe her own argument, or else she would have given up her education in order to package chocolates.
Parker also asserts that a person’s social value and her exercise of virtue should be measured by the relationship established between the laborer and her employer. Consequently, other social relations in Parker’s narrative become devoid of reciprocity in favor of the worker/employer relationship. Parker illustrates this argument through the relationship she establishes with her fellow factory worker Tessie. Although Parker asserts, “I do love Tessie, and I know that Tessie loves me,” we begin to see that her love of Tessie, a love that supposes an attempt to empower Tessie (and those like her) by proving her social worth, ultimately functions to disempower Tessie in favor of a productive morality (22). Parker writes: “Tessie is nearest to me in the whole factory, and Tessie is slow. The faster I pack, the more it shows up Tessie’s slowness. If Ida scolded Tessie it would break my heart. The thought of the man who owns the factory and his orders and his profits and his obligations, never enter my or the other packer’s head. I will not pack so many boxes that Tessie gets left behind. Then a strange thing happens. All of a sudden I get more interested in packing chocolates than anything else on earth. A little knack or twist comes to me—my fingers fly (for me). I forget Tessie. I forget the time. I forget my feet. How many boxes can I pack today? That is all I can think of” (23-24). Parker’s assertion that she loves Tessie is undermined by her momentary thought of an enigmatic and absent employer. Parker, an educated woman, reasserts morality as defined by loyalty to one’s employer rather than by loyalty to a coworker. Parker’s “all of a sudden” or “unintentional” response undermines her conclusion, which argues the need for similar responsibility and loyalty from women workers. This quotation also reveals an attempt to assert a form of dominance over Tessie. Parker establishes herself as a better worker/producer than Tessie—and a more labor conscious one at that. Parker herself becomes the embodiment of the “perfect worker” in order to highlight the lack of perfection she sees in others. Thus the question of women and their experience becomes marginalized in favor of a productive morality. But perhaps Parker’s definition of loyalty and her commitment to production are due to the fact that Parker is only a temporary worker, and, by her own account, “no aggressive feminist” (16).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, on the other hand, a self-proclaimed feminist, similarly seeks to define women’s power and morality as a productive force. In Woman and Economics (1898), Gilman argues that women’s economic dependence on men is an aberration. Women’s labor, Gilman argues, has become the property of her husband and what a woman receives is not directly proportional to what she gives (or produces) in the home. Woman and Economics, however, like Working with the Working Woman, privileges the language of production above all other forms of social value. In so doing Gilman’s text highlights the contradiction that arises in conflating the “women’s movement” with that of “labor reform.” An example of this contradiction is Gilman’s inability to escape the language of productivity in defining what morality means to the Progressive Era and the women’s movement. Gilman explains that virtue is a relative term that changes in meaning throughout history. In the Progressive Era, virtue is defined as loyalty: ” The unerring response of the soul to social needs has given us a new kind of loyalty, — loyalty to our work… professional honor, duty to one’s employers, duty to work itself at any cost, —this is loyalty, faithfulness, the power to stay put in relation to the social good, though it may be directly against personal interest” (137). There appears here a strong contradiction posed between her main premise, her dedication to women’s interests, and her definition of loyalty. The problem begins with requesting that women should “stay put,” which assumes that women have no social demands other than the right to work. Gilman seeks to liberate women from their roles as wives and mothers only to subjugate them again before the laws of production – “work itself at any cost!” But, as I have been arguing, these values are neither specific to nor in the best interests of women. [In The Mirror of Production Baudrillard explains that, “the revolt of women aims at the code that makes the feminine an unmarked term. The youth revolt aims at the extremity of a process of racist discrimination in which it has no right to speak. The same holds for all those social groups that fall under the structural bar of repression, of regulation to a place where they lose their meaning. This position of revolt is no longer that of the economically exploited; it aims less at the extortion of surplus value than at the imposition of the code, which inscribes the present strategy of social domination” (134-135). Baudrillard argues that women and children have no voice and no responsibility under a strict productive society. They do not count. Therefore, Baudrillard argues, those who are defined as “unmarked” oppose not inequality within the system but rather the system itself].
Although Gilman provides adequate reasons for women’s need to gain social and economic independence, she does not question the role of production in the creation of women as “dependent” creatures. Gilman states, “So inordinate is the sex distinction of the human race that the whole field of human progress has been considered a masculine prerogative” (27). Yet what Gilman acknowledges as the superior system has in fact been defined and created by men. That is, only before the laws of production are women “the sex” or even “the weaker sex.” To uphold the laws of production will always support the claim that production is the only form of liberation and power. Nothing has, in essence, changed about the male-driven and -defined system. Gilman merely seeks to squeeze women into the production model of social value. Be it housework or factory work, women are still defined by their labor, yet that very model establishes women as the “second sex” in the first place.
Feminist Gilman gives credence to the sexist belief that production is what determines human status when she posits: “In the growth of industry, commerce, science, manufacture, government, art and religion, the male of our species has become human, far more than male. Strong as his passion is in him, inordinate as his indulgence, he is a far more normal animal than the female of his species – far less over-sexed” (22). Rather than challenge or deconstruct the notion that men are “more normal,” “human,” and “less oversexed” than women based on the assumption of man’s productive power, Gilman concedes that the cause of women’s dependence is that they are less human according to the laws of productive morality. But even Gilman’s contention that women could become equal to men in the productive realm does not translate to equality between the sexes. That is, men will continue to have access to the higher paying jobs and receive the greater rewards as long as women have no power outside of the labor movement since men have set the terms of what constitutes success within the system. Consequently, an alternative form of gaining access to social worth and empowerment would need to be established. Yet under the discourse of production, there is no room to consider such alternatives. Rather than seek to break down the law of production, Gilman exalts the system: “Economic production is the natural expression of human energy—not sex energy at all, but race energy—the unconscious functioning of the social organism…. The creative impulse, the desire to make, to express inner through outer form, “just for the work’s sake, no use at all, I the work!”—This is the distinguishing factor of humanity” (58). In identifying work as the distinguishing factor of humanity, Gilman concedes that without work, “no social service is possible.” Thus, Gilman is guilty of subjugating women before the laws of production. For the work force will inevitably view women who, for whatever reason, do not produce as lacking social value.
Gilman sees but two options for women to gain social wealth, that of the labor-system or that of the sex-system, concluding that the latter system impedes social progress. Gilman writes, “The economic status of the human female is relative to the sex-relation” (3). That is, women have, in the past, only gained status from marriage or in direct relation to men who produce; women, by contrast, consume. Gilman asserts that women have remained entirely dependent and excluded from the public sphere to the extent that their humanity is questionable: “So utterly has the status of women been accepted as a sexual one that it has remained for the women’s movement of the nineteenth century to devote much contention to the claim that women are persons! That women are persons as well as females – an unheard of proposition!” (25). A system that claims women are not persons based on their absence from the work force seems an absurd proposition. Why would a feminist movement seek to establish power within a system that relies on productive forces to beget a truly “human” being – a system of production established on the premise of domination over others – rather than tear down such oppressive power structures?
Even more troubling than Gilman’s argument for women’s human status in terms of the very discourse that excludes them, is the way she defines the “sexuo-economic” relation between women and men as similar to the economic relationship that a man establishes with a prostitute: “The virtuous woman stands in close rank with her sisters, refusing to part with herself—her only economic goods—until she is assured of legal marriage, with its lifelong guarantee of support… But here enters the vicious woman, and offers the same goods—though of inferior quality, to be sure—for a far less price. Every one of such illegitimate competitors lowers the chances of the unmarried woman and the income of the married. No wonder those who hold themselves highly should be moved to bitterness at being undersold in this way” (55). The only thing that stands between a woman who marries and a prostitute is a question of “virtue,” implied here as chastity. Gilman’s point was a strong one: that in remaining dependent on men for economic status, married women become no better than prostitutes. But the emphasis on prostitutes becomes interesting in relation to Gilman’s progressive definition of virtue as “loyalty to one’s employer” and “duty to work at any cost.” By the nature of this new definition, prostitutes, too, become virtuous women … albeit unintentionally.
Social reformers such as Gilman and Parker were not without their critics in their day [Gilman is also criticized today, though more often for her eugenicist beliefs than for the heart of her economic argument (see Winbaum, 2001)]. In an essay entitled “Intellectual Proletarians” (1914), anarchist Emma Goldman sought to close the gap between the women workers and the intellectuals who claimed to represent them. Goldman asserted that the “emancipated woman” is not as free as she claims herself to be. One can almost imagine Goldman speaking to Parker and Gilman as she writes: “The emancipated woman runs away from a stifling home atmosphere, only to rush from employment bureau to the literary broker and back again. She points with moral disgust to the girl of the redlight district, and is not aware that she too must sing, dance, write, or play and otherwise sell herself a thousand times in return for her living. Indeed the only difference between the working girl and the intellectual female or male proletarian is a matter of four hours” (180). To sell oneself a thousand times implies that woman intellectuals are bound by political policies and public opinions to write not about what they think and see but rather in support of those ideologies that will actually sell. We see examples of the economic dependence on social opinion clearly outlined in Gilman, who argues very strongly that women have been “over-sexed,” that “our distinctions of sex are carried to such a degree as to be disadvantageous to our progress as individuals and as a race” (17). Though later Gilman, in an effort to placate possible critics, announces “So the ‘new woman’ will be no less female than the ‘old woman,’ though she has more functions… she will be with it all, more feminine, in that she will develop far more efficient process for caring for the young of the human race” (79). Gilman also seeks to reinforce the status quo in her quotation, “there is no fear to be wasted on the danger of women’s choosing wrong professions. When they are free to choose, many women would continue to prefer the very kinds of work that they are doing now” (121). In establishing the fact that women’s desire to leave the home will result in doing housework for others, Gilman does little more than change women’s place of employment. So while Gilman associates married women with prostitution, Goldman would argue that women like Gilman are even less removed from the redlight than married women. In Goldman’s view, women intellectuals have little to offer to a society by upholding the status quo. Women writers would do better to break with the ideology of production; rather than instructing working women, they need to be instructed by them.
Goldman’s critique of women labor reformers is similar to the critique that Baudrillard makes of Marx in The Mirror of Production (1975). For Goldman, the desperate need to insist on labor and production as the determinative value only implicates the intellectual, who believes herself to be acting as representative of labor, in that same structure. Thus the social reformer who seeks to represent the “proletariat” or “working woman” is likewise a “proletariat” bound to the sale of her labor efforts. For Baudrillard, Marx, in privileging the notion of production, imposed the concept of labor as a worker’s primary means of self-comprehension—establishing the concept of production as the only way in which to view social worth. Marx, Gilman, and Parker offered no critique of the productive society that they were investigating. Thus, their advocating for social change and reform offered no real alternative; they merely upheld a productive system that was already in place.
At issue becomes how to challenge the power and social value of the labor system without instantiating another system of power to take its place. In Seduction, Baudrillard offers a new paradigm, shifting away from Marxist thought, and establishes seduction as the ability to overturn the masculine power of production. Seduction is a theory that exposes the weakness of masculine, productive, realist thought through the challenge and the game. In order to function as reality, masculinity needs constant affirmation of its “truth,” a “truth,” progressive era feminists are all too willing to grant. Baudrillard defines seduction as illusion, artifice, gambling, one-upmanship, secrecy, surface, ritual, and weakness. And nowhere does seduction assert truth. Everything from cosmetics to animals, from cards to actresses, falls under the theory of seduction. What these concepts all have in common is their ability to disrupt the articulation of both meaning and value. They do not carry meaning – and they indicate no reality. Meaning is imposed upon them by productive discourse, and the meaning that is imposed exposes the inherent weakness of meaning-making systems.
Baudrillard attributes seduction to femininity because the very notion of the feminine carries no meaning. That is, femininity is an illusion in which production will always be thwarted; production and masculinity continually seek to interpret and give meaning to femininity [Feminists have long argued that femininity is an illusion. In “Womanliness as A Masquerade” (1929) Joan Rivière states, “The reader may ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the masquerade. My suggestion is not however that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing” (306). Rivière’s assertion was reinforced in 1991 when Louise J. Kaplan affirmed, “There is never a clear distinction between so called womanliness and a perverse masquerade of womanliness” (280). Simone de Beauvoir also accounts for this illusion when she argues, “If man fails to discover the secret essence of femininity, it is simply because it does not exist. Kept on the fringe of the world, woman cannot be objectively defined through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness” (259)]. Of the seductress, Baudrillard argues, “she turns herself into a pure appearance, an artificial construct with which to capture the desires of others” (86). Feminism and gender studies have, for years, claimed that femininity is a social construct, but Baudrillard recognizes artifice as that which overturns all powers of production, desire, and sexuality (with which seduction should never be confused) [This argument was made as early as 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “one is not born but rather becomes, a woman” and continues in the work of postmodern feminists and gender theorists such as Bartkey (2003), Frye (1983), and Butler (1990, 2004)].
While Charlotte Perkins Gilman acknowledges such a power in Woman and Economics, she quickly dismisses it and banishes it before the laws of production. Gilman states,“Parasitic creatures, whose living is obtained through the exertions of others develop powers of absorption and tenacity—the powers by which they profit most…Needless to say these faculties were those of sex-attraction, the one power that has made [the man] cheerfully maintain, in what luxury he could, the being in whom he delighted” (32). What Gilman describes as sex attraction has little to do with actual sex. It is the ability of women to become the veiled mirror of man’s desire, and thereby escape the world of production. Although Gilman calls this power “parasitic,” she actually concedes that women possess the ability to overturn the productive power that Gilman so heartily advocates. Thus the pejorative meaning of the word “parasitic” comes from privileging production. [In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton envisions the social parasite, not as one who overturns productive forces, but one who feeds on the pleasure of society without creating any such pleasure of their own. Of the character Gerty Farish, the narrator writes, “it must be remembered that Gerty had always been a parasite of the moral order, living on the crumbs of other tables and content to look through the window at the banquet spread before her friends” (161). The fact that the narrator desires the reader to remember always that Gerty is the social parasite suggests that no other characters would fit the definition. Thus, the character Lily should never be read as parasitic – though she would be defined as such according to Gilman’s definition of the term].
No doubt because of the time period in which it was written, many scholars are eager to read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ( 2009) as advocating the productive power of labor, upheld by women reformers such as Parker and Gilman, and reinforce Lily’s role as one of those parasitic creatures that Gilman disdains (see Ammons, 1982). For example, Jennie Kassanoff argues, “Wharton indicates that Lily’s status as a twenty-nine-year-old unmarried socialite renders her vulnerable to the whims of what Charlotte Perkins Gilman called ‘the sexuo-economic relation’” (61). As such, most readings represent Lily Bart story as one of negation, failure, and tragedy. [In one recent example, Amy L. Blair argues that The House of Mirth “instructs young social climbers what situations they should avoid … at all costs” by making Lily Bart “the sacrificial lamb” (150)]. Wai-Chee Dimock argues, “The power of the marketplace… resides not in its presence, which is only marginal in The House of Mirth, but in its ability to assimilate everything else into its domain. As a controlling logic, a mode of human conduct and human association, the marketplace is everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous and invisible” (783). Dimock argues that, even in its virtual invisibility, the power of the marketplace controls the behavior of, and is the impetus behind, character relations in The House of Mirth. [More recent scholarship continues to espouse variations on Dimock’s earlier argument. For example, in “Edith Wharton and the Fiction of Marital Unity” Laura K Johnson argues, “The House of Mirth chronicles Lily’s unsuccessful efforts to locate a spiritual union that transcends the concerns of the marketplace” (952)]. But the fact that labor and the social value of the marketplace are not central to the story, that they play a marginal role, is precisely the point. In a society that privileges production as supreme, does not its marginalization in popular fiction become conspicuous? While Dimock’s reading defines Lily as a rebel, though “not much of a rebel… For Lily’s rebellion in its very feebleness and limitation, attests to the frightening power of the marketplace” (783), I read Wharton’s novel and Lily as an acknowledgement of seductive power’s ability to illuminate the frailty and limitations of the marketplace (783). Outside the mode of production, and acting as seductress, Lily is able to frustrate productive power with a mere turn of the head.
An example of the way in which Lily overturns the “power” of the marketplace through seduction occurs in the scene in which Gus Trenor offers to invest money for her in the stock market. While Lily and Gus are riding home from the train station, Lily tells Gus that she fears she has angered his wife Judy by failing to attain the marriage proposal of the millionaire Percy Gryce. Lily appeals to Gus on a level that never directly mentions her desire for his monetary assistance. She only appeals to his sympathy to make things right between her and Judy. The narrator states, “If his wife had consulted him on the subject of Miss Bart’s future, he would have said that a girl with extravagant taste and no money had better marry the first rich man she could get; but with the subject of discussion at his side, turning to him for sympathy, making him feel that he understood her better than her dearest friends … he was ready to swear that such a marriage was a desecration” (87-88). A mere plea of sympathy and an appreciation for his unique ability to understand her in a moment of personal crisis turns Gus into a pawn of Lily’s seductive game. He offers to invest money on her behalf so that she will not need to marry Percy. Gus, who would swear to his wife that Lily should be married off, is easily made to see that this marriage is not in Lily’s best interest and thus he instates himself as her protector. The return on this investment is lucrative. Lily makes nine thousand dollars and risks not a penny of her own money. She is thus able to profit from marketplace values without work.
The bleak world of production is overshadowed by the presence of two great mechanisms of seduction in the novel, gambling and the theatre. Of games and gambling Baudrillard writes, “here lies the ‘immorality’ of games, often attributed to the fact that they encourage one to want to win too much too quickly. But this is to give them too much credit. Games are more immoral than that. They are immoral because they substitute an order of seduction for an order of production” (144). That is, games and gambling are stakes and challenges that do not rely on exchange value or use value. Gambling exists as a way to transgress the reciprocal laws of hard work and payment. Gambling is but a parody of such exchange. In the beginning of The House of Mirth we become aware of the fact that Lily is an avid gambler. Indeed her life is one of gambling against odds, thwarting the production paradigm at every turn. Lily says to her friend Gerty: “You think that we live on the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense- but it’s a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars – yes, but there’s a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries… the girl pays it by tips and cards too – oh, yes, I’ve had to take up bridge again – and by going to the best dress makers, and having just the right dress for every occasion” (279-280).
One wonders if Gerty is really supposed to be sorry for Lily at this moment. Her “payment” is so little in comparison to her material rewards. And if the knowledge that Lily’s aunt gladly pays for all of her dresses, then supposes the act of gambling is Lily’s only debt. Even this “tax” becomes suspect. The reader knows that Lily is addicted: “the increasing exhilaration of the game drove her to risk higher stakes at each fresh venture” (28).
Indeed Lily’s life is dedicated to the game of stakes, a game that becomes dependent on artifice and appearance. What we mistake for Lily’s desire – namely marriage – is never actually made explicit. [In “The House of Mirth: Readers Respond” Deborah Lambert asserts that, in its reception to The House of Mirth, the Literary Digest “was critical of Lily’s compromises and her failure to marry,” which suggests that most readers, then as now, understand marriage as Lily’s ultimate desire (71)]. Lily’s “desire” to marry Percy Gryce, for example, is never her goal, contrary to even her own belief. That is, the act of being “une jeune fille á marier” allows Lily the ability to negotiate society. One such example emerges when Lily desires to skip a night of gambling after a night of excessive loss at cards. Lily is able to use the public knowledge of her quest to marry Percy in order to avoid bridge. Appealing to Judy Trenor for help – “if you are really interested in my career, perhaps you’ll be kind enough not to ask me to play bridge again this evening” – Lily is easily able to escape the “taxes” that she claims to have to pay (47). She even procures a dress from Judy as a gift to aid her in her quest.
In failing to address Lily’s penchant for high stakes and high rewards, we misread and misunderstand her tactics. Percy Gryce is not a high enough stake to be of much interest to Lily. Thus we can trace Lily’s waning interest in Gryce to her realization of a riskier venture. On the night of the party at the Dorsets’, Lily takes a quick survey of the dinner table: “And Lily was therefore able to observe Bertha Dorset also and by carrying her glance a few feet further to set up a rapid comparison between Lawrence Selden and Mr. Gryce. It was that comparison which was her undoing. Why else had she suddenly grown so interested in Selden?” (56) The knowledge that Selden and Bertha are having an extramarital affair makes Selden interesting to Lily. He poses a greater challenge. Thus her desire for marriage is exposed as a ruse. Or, as the narrator later ascertains, “competition really put her on her mettle” (63). Not marriage but game playing is Lily’s “vocation.” When Bertha retaliates against Lily by driving Percy away, she has essentially achieved nothing of consequence. Percy was never what Lily desired.
The novel’s emphasis on theatricality and its focus on the actress also function to thwart the power of production. [In “Lily Bart and The Drama of Femininity,” Cynthia Griffin Wolff explores the importance of theatricality in Wharton’s novel, and mentions that, “the early 1900s theater was one of the few arenas in which women exercised some real (if limited) power” (73). But Griffin fails to acknowledge the radical implications of her argument because she does not read Lily as an actress; she argues that Lily is representative of typical female characters within the early 20th century play]. At the Van Osberg wedding, while gazing upon the bride, Lily notices the presence of a cinema crew hired to film the event, and we learn her desire: “The agent of a cinematograph syndicate was setting up his apparatus at the church door. It was the kind of scene in which Lily had often pictured herself as taking the principal part” (91). Critics often mistake Lily’s dream to “play the principle part” as her desire for marriage. But the emphasis on the cinematograph syndicate indicates that Lily yearns for the life of an actress, the principle part in front of a camera. Baudrillard acknowledges the rise of the actress as the greatest seductive mechanism: “Undoubtedly the best example of… collective seduction produced by modern times [was] that of the film stars or cinema idols” (94). He also notes that the biggest stars were “endowed with the power of absolute absorption equal to and rivaling the real world’s power of production” (95). The power of the film star was her artificiality. What fascinates the productive world is the absence of meaning behind the smile and gaze of the actress.
Lily is able to make her desires for stardom manifest at the home of the Welly-Bry’s during the tableaux vivant. Her seductive powers take flight here and create the exact effect that Lily desires. Lily asserts after the tableaux that “the completeness of her triumph gave her an intoxicating sense of recovered power” (143). Indeed, she has seduced everyone in the room. After the tableaux those nearest to Lily fall prey to her trap. After her appearance on stage, Gerty says to Selden, “wasn’t she too beautiful Lawrence? Don’t you like her best in that simple dress? It makes her look like the real Lily – the Lily I know,” to which Selden replies, “the Lily we know” (142-143). The fact that Gerty and Selden recognize Lily’s most artificial form as “the real Lily” testifies to the powers of seduction. For in this moment, Lily is not “the real Lily” at all, she is playing the part of Mrs. Lloyd in a painting by Reynolds. Thus, Lily becomes the mirror of Gerty and Selden’s desires, effectively disrupting the productive corollary between appearing and being. Indeed, seduction is the result of playing at being, as Selden later unwittingly points out in his plea for Lily, “be good to her, Gerty, won’t you?” and “She has it in her to become whatever she is believed to be” (165). What seduces both Gerty and Selden is not who Lily is, but rather what they can imagine about her.
Only much later does Gerty realize her mistake and understand the fools that seduction makes of them all. When Gerty has been left alone in her apartment, after arriving at the realization that Selden will never love her, she recognizes the one he does desire (Lily) as artificial: “Gerty felt the poverty, the insignificance of her surroundings; she beheld her life as it must appear to Lily. And the cruelty of Lily’s judgments smote upon her memory. She saw that she had dressed her idol with attributes of her own making. When had Lily ever felt, or pitied, or understood? All she wanted was the taste of new experiences; she seemed like some cruel creature experimenting in a laboratory” (171). It is true that seduction can be cruel and even truer that Lily is the embodiment of cruelty. For who but Lily would, in arriving at her aunt’s funeral, posit her only reflection as, “wondering vaguely where Gwen Stepney had got such an awful hat” (232). [Although seduction is cruel it is never accomplished by force. Baudrillard argues, “to produce is to materialize by force what belongs to another order, that of the secret and of seduction. Seduction is at all times and all places opposed to production” (34). Lily’s cruelty is never instituted by force. It is only her appearance as illusion that is cruel because it refuses to play by the rules of productive forces. But the fact that seduction lacks force explains why Lily would never use Bertha’s letters to incriminate Bertha and Selden, even if it would help to assuage her situation. To use the letters would be an institution of force and domination. Lily exists as seduction. So what some critics have ascribed as Lily’s “morality” is only the refusal to resort to productive measures]. Yet exposing such cruelty does not diminish Lily’s power. For Gerty still desires to fly to her friend’s rescue whenever she is in trouble. Indeed Gerty offers up her own home to Lily and attempts to make Lily into what she believes Lily capable of becoming, a woman of morals and feeling for those less fortunate than herself. Gerty even goes so far as to help Lily attract the attention of Selden, the man Gerty desires for herself.
Soon after the tableaux vivants, Lily achieves her greatest success. In Nice, Carry Fisher tells Selden that Lily has finally found her niche: “Lily has been a tremendous success here… She looks ten years younger – I never saw her look so handsome. Lady Skiddaw took her everywhere in Cannes, and the Crown Princess of Macedonia had her stop for a week at Cimiez. People say that was the reason Bertha whisked the yacht off to Sicily: The Crown Princess didn’t take much notice of her, and she couldn’t bear to look on at Lily’s triumph” (194-195). The proximity of the tableaux vivant scene to Lily’s success with the crowned heads of Europe is significant. During the tableaux Lily realizes the extent of her powers to seduce. She makes use of these powers in Europe, where she attracts the attention of royalty without possessing a penny, while those who, like Bertha Dorset, can monetarily afford to entertain such royalty go completely unnoticed. Sailing on the Dorsets’ yacht, Lily has traveled the world in luxury on seduction’s expense account. All that was required of Lily to ascertain this dream vacation (which arrived just in time to save her from marrying the horrible Mr. Rosedale – as if this were ever a real threat) was to distract Bertha Dorset’s husband George. She merely had to act amusing.
Of course, Lily’s game of challenges and stakes does not come without losses. But it is crucial to remember that Lily never fully realizes she has lost in the way that the reader supposes; for even what we recognize as definitive losses are mitigated by Lily’s power of seduction. [Deborah Lambert writes, “critics in 1905, granting Wharton her place in the American pantheon, nevertheless wrote negative reviews attacking the novel’s implicit morality. Illustrative of their moral posture, they identified Lily Bart as a frivolous belle and understood her failure to marry as the natural result of her flawed character… Lily’s life, so their argument ran, must teach a lesson about living in the world of the rich; since Lily’s life could hardly be seen as exemplary, her misfortunes must act as a warning” (69-70)]. When expelled from the Dorsets’ yacht after Bertha accuses Lily of trying to seduce her husband George, the narrator informs us that “even at the actual moment of her break with the Dorsets [Lily] had not so keen a sense of its consequences, for the Duchess Beltshire, hearing of the catastrophe from Lord Hubert, had instantly offered her protection” (237). Even after the loss of her aunt’s inheritance, Lily’s material and social position does not much change; she finds other members of society to pay her way. When Lily has been tossed out of the society that we believe she holds dear (that of the Trenor and the Dorset group), Lily is able to take up a position at the Gormers’ and is afforded a free trip to Alaska, “for almost at once she had felt the insidious charm of slipping back into a life where every material difficulty was smoothed away” (245). By being and acting through sheer artifice, Lily adapts herself to every new situation, as long as it offers her a certain level of luxury and comfort.
Nevertheless, Lily’s changing social situations have continually been read as tragic. For example, Francis L. Restuccia reads Lily as powerless in a patriarchal society: “Wharton’s novel conveys the feminist social message that women bred to be frilly decorations run risks of various sorts of death” (226). Restuccia’s reading is symptomatic of the privileging of production in historical materialist readings of the time period as well as in Wharton scholarship. [In “Is Feminism a Historicism?” Jennifer L. Fleissner argues that within early 20th century American scholarship, “historicism’s investment in ‘locating’ texts in a historical past risks turning both the literary texts it reads and its own critical predecessors into fossils to be examined and labeled, rather than voices that might in anyway speak back – indeed, might speak back to the very procedures used to make sense of them” (48) More specifically, focusing on historicism often elides the radical nature of feminist reading practices]. Yet Wharton’s own emphasis on seductive power breaks down the illusion of production’s supremacy. Only when Lily is banished from high society does she feel no social worth and social value, and the very act of labor drives a nail in her coffin. Thus, production becomes what denies women a sense of social value, social wealth, self-worth, and power.
While some might argue that Lily’s downfall occurs the moment Gus Trenor approaches Lily about repaying her debt, such a reading reinforces the ideology of production, or the belief that there are only two means for women to progress socially and monetarily: through sex or through labor. When Gus poses the argument, “the man who pays for the dinner is generally allowed to have a seat at the table” (153), the reader understands his metaphor to mean that Gus expects sexual favors. But Lily, as seductress, never acknowledges the truth behind the metaphor, as made evident by her repetition of the words “I don’t know what you mean” (153). For Lily to win out over Gus in this moment she must repeatedly deny him access to the meaning of his words (that which makes Gus powerful). To acknowledge Gus’s reference to sex would be to enter into the realm of the productive. Ultimately it is her refusal to engage in meaning making that protects her. While at one point Gus touches Lily in a way that she finds threatening, she remains physically unscathed going so far as to point out that “the words were worse than the touch” (155). The words that ultimately free Lily from Gus’s grasp are, “I am here alone with you,” and “What more do you have to say to me” (155). Lily relocates Gus’s expectations, at once making his words, rather than his possible actions, threatening and diffusing the threat by failing to give credence to his words. This ultimately functions to crack Gus: “To her surprise, Trenor answered the look with a speechless stare. With his last gust of words the flame had died out, leaving him chill and humble” (155). Gus’s silence, indeed his powerlessness, is a direct result of Lily’s employment of seduction.
Baudrillard explains that “what destroys people, wears them down, is the meaning that they give to their acts. But the seductress does not attach any meaning to what she does nor suffers the weight of desire” (87). With this in mind, we can track Lily’s downfall to a very different moment in the novel. Before the scene in which Selden arrives at Mrs. Hatch’s Emporium Hotel suite, Lily expresses happiness: “For a moment she found a certain amusement in the show, and in her own share of it: the situation had an ease and unconventionality distinctly refreshing after her experience of the irony of conventions” (290). However, life with Mrs. Hatch seemed “too soft” for Lily, and the appearance of Lawrence Selden drives Lily finally, and for the first time in the novel, to break down appearances and allow doubt to enter her mind (306): “Her momentary flashes of amusement were followed by increasing periods of doubt. The sense of these doubts were uppermost when late one afternoon, she was surprised by a visit from Lawrence Selden” (291). The change in Lily’s position is marked by an increasing sense of doubt, driven by the arrival of Selden and his insistence on her position with Mrs. Hatch as “false.” Lily interprets Selden’s use of the word “false” as being “outside of what we call society” (295). In this tragic moment, Lily discovers that she is no longer in a position of power: “She had been on alert for the note of personal sympathy, for any sign of recovered power over him; and his attitude of sober impartiality, the absence of all response to her appeal, turned her hurt pride to blind resentment of his interference” (295). Lily’s power, her ability to seduce, has been extinguished by a momentary feeling of doubt, a marked shift from her earlier statement that “she was always scrupulous about keeping up appearances to herself” (85). This moment forces Lily into the “real” world, after which production and death soon follow. [Lily admits that it is ultimately her moment of addressing the reality of her situation that drives her desire to pay Trenor back. Although she had spoken of her debt before, she never fully intended to re-pay him until the moment she allowed herself to give meaning to her actions. While working in the hat shop Lily admits that, “what really frightened her [was] the thought that she might gradually accommodate herself to remaining indefinitely in Trenor’s debt as she had accommodated herself to the part allotted to her on the Sabrina, and as she had so nearly drifted into acquiescing with Stancy’s scheme for Mrs. Hatch” (316). Lily’s former ability to accommodate herself allowed for the necessary illusion to act without reflecting on meaning. It is “meaning” that destroys her].
On the very next page a jarring and sudden switch occurs in the tone of the novel. We find Lily working in a hat shop and the scene is bleak and more solemn than any scene preceding it. What Wharton describes in this scene is a weary mass of nameless, faceless, working women: “There were twenty of them in the work-room, their fagged profiles, under exaggerated hair, bowed in the harsh north light above the utensils of their art; for it was something more than an industry, surely, this creation of ever-varied settings for the face of fortunate womanhood. Their own faces were sallow with the unwholesomeness of hot air and sedentary toil, rather than with any actual signs of want … the youngest among them was as dull and colorless as the middle-aged” (297). The working women are described as weary and exhausted – their bowed heads, which not only hide their faces, also suggest a life that is powerless before the laws of production. The words “fortunate womanhood,” a nod no doubt to the likes of Parker and Gilman, take on a bitter and ironic tone, as does Lily when she refers to the women as “liberated” (301). If these women enjoy life at all, it is only vicariously, through gossiping about the lives of the women who wear and enjoy the hats that they produce. [This kind of vicarious enjoyment is portrayed in the novel as something that society desperately needs in order to survive in a productive world. When the working woman Nettie Struther is in conversation with Lily toward the end of the novel, she tells Lily, “Sometimes, when I felt real mean and got to wondering why things were so queerly fixed in the world, I used to remember that you were having a lovely time anyhow and that seemed to show that there was a kind of justice somewhere” (336)]. For Lily, the life of the working woman is no life at all.
But Lily’s story is not a tragedy. Through Lily’s death Wharton reinstates seduction as sovereign, emerging in two moments of the final scene. The first example appears in the scene where, on her deathbed, Lily lethargically switches from a dream-like state into awakened consciousness and imagines she is holding Nettie Struther’s child. Nettie has, prior to this scene, just informed Lily of the name of her child: “Marry Anto’nette- that’s what we call her: after the French queen in that play at the Garden – I told George the actress reminded me of you, and that made me fancy the name” (332). A child born under the sign of the actress and seduction is thus the final vision that Lily has before dying, and the presence of that child fills her with “a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure” (340). The warmth and pleasure that Lily gains suggests that she takes comfort in the fact that seduction will still reign after her passing. For not only is Marry Anto’nette named after an actress in a play, but she is also given her name in tribute to Lily Bart. This end presupposes that the next generation will continue to battle the powers of production through seduction.
Secondly, and most importantly, is the effect of Lily and Selden’s mention of the “word” that they must speak to each other, the word that will make everything understood. When Lily takes the final dose of the drug that will cause her death, the narrator asserts, “as she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them” (341). Selden makes similar mention of a word that he must speak on his way to Lily’s room: “He had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said” (342). This word, for which no meaning or definition is provided, reinforces the pervasiveness of seduction, even when it appears that production has prevailed. The word seduces the reader. We, in turn, attempt to lend meaning to a word that essentially means nothing. Seductive power reigns in its very non-sense.
In 1926 Edith Wharton left her own clue to the reading I have provided here when she commented that the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) by Anita Loos was “the great American novel (at last!)” (xi). What Wharton calls the great American novel is a short comedic story of a young actress, Lorelei Lee, who, with her best friend Dorothy, travels the world and procures great wealth without ever earning her a penny, lending sexual favors, or having to suffer retribution for her power in the way of Lily Bart. It seems strange that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a novel whose style and tone could not be more different from Wharton’s own writing, gained so much attention from her. But I would argue that Wharton praised Loos as a “genius” precisely because Lorelei never had to negotiate either the labor or the marriage market. Lorelei negotiates a third option for achieving power. For Lorelei, every productive challenge met is a seductive challenge won, while the reader is too busy laughing to be threatened. The fact that Wharton so openly praised Loos in her use of seductive or symbolic power suggests that we have been misreading Lily Bart’s social situation and social power, and have consequently missed the insight this character offers into Wharton’s feminist political position. Moreover, the fact that, according to Wharton, “the great American novel” did not arrive until 1925, suggests that, by the modernist era, production ceased being the only means to women’s social empowerment.
About the Author
Erin Holliday-Karre is an assistant professor of Literary Theory and Criticism in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Qatar University. She is the author of “A Simulation of Truth: Reconciling Gender in the Media and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa” (2008) published in the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. She is currently working on a book project entitled The Seduction of Feminist Theory, which articulates an unacknowledged current of seduction running throughout modern feminism, from Joan Rivière and Virginia Woolf in the modernist era to Hélène Cixous and Donna Haraway in the postmodern era.
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