Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel Sister Carrie is in style and tone in many ways radically different from Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, published just five years later. And yet there is in both works a similar core, what might be called a parallel moral, for both novels explore the ways in which gender is performative in the two societies that we learn about within the world of each novel. While, of course, in many ways gender is what we are born with, it is also just as clearly for these two writers (as it would be for any anthropologist) part of the performance of self, the way in which each person in these books presents herself or himself both to the world at large as well as internally. Both novels allows the authors to tell a compelling story while simultaneously exploring the gender roles expected of both men and women in the last years of 19th-century American society. This paper examines how Dreiser and Wharton both examines and manipulates ideas about both femininity and masculinity and the ways in which their characters perform their gender in these two tales.
Wharton's novel presents us with the downward social - and psychological - spiral of Lily Bart, our well-born but absolutely penniless hero, who begins the novel as the guest in various lush homes but ends - died of a sleeping draft overdose - in a poor boarding house. Lily, raised to be the ornament on a man's arm, never finds the man that society would have her be defined by, and her lack of ability to conceive of herself as an agent - combined with her gambling debts, which we might from our 21st-century vantage point - well take as a sort of crying out to be rescued by a man ensure her self-destruction. She is not, in the end, capable of performing the role of a women alone - a part that her society saw as quite unnecessary as a part of its ongoing story.
The character of Carrie is a different one from Lily in many ways. This innocent country girl that Dreiser presents us with come to Chicago and finds poverty and loneliness - but also a man who is willing to rescue her. She is later "rescued" again by a wealthy, married man, George Hurstwood, who effectively embezzles money to take her to New York, where Carrie becomes a successful actress - even as Hurstwood himself falls into despair and suicide. Lily combines the trajectories of Hurstwood and Carrie, which makes her story the sadder of the two women. But Carrie too is unhappy, and Dreiser, like Wharton, suggest that is it impossible for women to be happy in a society in which the presentation of self as a women is always (to use Erving Goffman's model) far less sincere than the self-presentation of men.
Self as Performance
We should here elaborate Goffman's concept of the self as performance. Goffman contributed to 20th-century (and now, of course, 21st-century) sociology an insistence on the usefulness of dramaturgical analysis to the human condition, and yet he was also careful to note that such an analysis should be more literal than metaphorical. We are not so much players involved in great artistic works as jobbing actors forced to do the best we can while working within conditions set by those who came before us and those who have more power than we do.
Goffman was interested in examining society from the perspective of the individual rather than that of the collective - a very micro approach, arguing that we should seek to understand human motivation and action as "the organization of experience - something that an individual actor can take into his mind - and not about the organization of society" (Stones 351).
Goffman's value as a theoretician is the careful way in which he examines how it is that we are shaped by social structures even as we try to change them to meet our own needs - and when they cannot be changed how we change our understanding of them so that they are significant and meaningful to us. Dreiser and Wharton are themselves offering us - in the form of their characters and the ways in which they act - an analysis of the societies about which they write by presenting them as performances to be analyzed.
Especially in The House of Mirth, Wharton places the idiosyncratic qualities of each of the main characters within a framework determined quite by the culturally and socially designated gender roles of her era (Elbert 258-60). Part of the reason that she did so, we cannot help but think, is that she wished to demonstrate exactly how depressing - in most part because of how constrained - life was for women of all classes and temperaments.
One of the compelling aspects of this novel and indeed this is true of Wharton's in general (viz. Segalla 22-24) is that Wharton has a deep understanding of the ways in which men are also constrained in her society. It is a common argument of 21st-century feminism that sexism hurts both men and women, although this is perhaps difficult to see sometimes in our own society. However, it is quite easily seen in Wharton's description of American society before the Great War changed everything: The men are constrained by the ways in which men are expected to present themselves. They cannot act as they wish, cannot be true to themselves, because to do so would violate social expectations, and the conflicting demands of their own consciences and social expectations can break men. This ability of public expectations of propriety to break the human spirit is a constant theme in Wharton's works and gives to them their overall sense of grimness and realism (Caserio 193). Both Lily and Hurstwood are in many ways sacrificed to the social ideals of a gender role that they are unfit to play.
The dominant themes of this work run throughout Wharton's opus as well as in Sister Carrie, although they are expressed with particular brilliance and clarity in this work.
Major themes in Wharton's work include the effects of class on both behavior and consciousness (divorce, for example, often horrifies the established upper class as much for its offense against taste as for its violation of moral standards); the American belief in progress as actual and good (many "advances" Wharton welcomed; others she was contemptuous of); the contrast between European and American customs, morality, and sensibility; the confinement of marriage, especially for women; women's desire for and right to freedom in general, and particularly sexual and economic freedom, and the reality that, usually, the desire and right are thwarted; the preference of powerful, white, usually upper-class men for childish dependent women; the complexity and pain of relationships between women within patriarchal culture, including (and especially) rivalry and animosity among women (http://www.georgetown.edu/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/wharton.html).
The world that Wharton and Dreiser presents us with in these two novels is one in which the geography of the big city - whether is it Chicago or New York - is divided very clearly into gendered spaces. In this world, men are responsible for everything that lies beyond the front door while women are confined to - and responsible for - domestic, interior spaces. Women in this world are supposed to be intellectually weak and socially, economically, and politically powerless, and so Lily fits the model of the way a woman is supposed to behave.
But women are also supposed to marry - for the purpose of bearing children and thus expose themselves to the physical dangers of childbirth, a contradiction that is generally unremarked upon in Victorian American society, as Ammons (1980) argues. It was only in those rare cases in which a woman's own desires happened to mesh with social roles that she could escape the trap that both Lily and to a lesser extent Carrie (viz. Herman 6).
The society in which Lily, Carrie and Hurstwood live is one in which men are privileged as agents; women are designated as witnesses, as watchers. Much of the force of these plots (although more so in Wharton's novel) derives from the fact that Lily and Carrie are the most forceful personalities in their stories, but rather than having their strength of personality rewarded they are - simply because of their gender - punished for it (Gill 20-2).
We see the embeddedness of gender for each character's sense of self for example, on the first page of Sister Carrie, for Dreiser introduces her as a living embodiment of a certain kind of female. Not a certain kind of person, but a certain kind of female:
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.…
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