“The Mask of a Very Definite Purpose”

“The Mask of a Very Definite Purpose”

Sculpture and Masquerade in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

College Art Association Annual Conference
February 16, 2023


Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) is filled with references to art and material culture, from Percy Gryce’s collection of “Americana” to Mrs. Wellington Bry’s spectacular tableaux vivants. Beyond these obvious examples, however, references to the sculptural arts are threaded throughout the novel from its earliest pages, when Lawrence Seldon observes that Lily Bart, the protagonist, “must have cost a great deal to make” and speculates about “a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness . . . applied to vulgar clay.” This paper will explore how the language of sculpture pervades Wharton’s debut novel, particularly in the context of masks the characters willingly or unwillingly wear to conceal their secrets and passions from others and from themselves. References to works from antiquity and the Renaissance offer clues to the nature of these characters’ dissembling and underscore major themes of the novel, from the ossifying environment of turn-of-the-century New York society to the obligation of women within it to present themselves as a kind of collectible commodity: “pretty and well-dressed until we drop,” in Lily’s words. Born and bred in that society and well versed in its complex relationship with the arts and décor—she published the nonfiction The Decoration of Houses in 1898—Wharton chose her words and allusions with care. From the Dying Gladiator and the ruins of Pompeii to Lily’s “vivid plastic sense” and Sim Rosedale’s “glossy countenance,” Wharton consistently uses sculptural metaphors to describe the carefully curated images that her characters present to their world.


I’m continuing to develop this topic into an article. Stay tuned.

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