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"[T]he poetic value of the evolutionary conception" : Darwinian allegory in the major novels of Edith Wharton, 1905-1920 Ohler, Paul Joseph

Abstract

My study investigates Edith Wharton's engagement with Darwin's evolutionary theory in "The House of Mirth" (1905), "The Custom of the Country" (1913), and "The Age of Innocence" (1920). The value of juxtaposing Wharton's narratives with her scientific knowledge has been recognized by critics since the 1950's. Yet, the few existing discussions of Darwinian allegory that examine these novels do not adequately describe the political dimension of Wharton's fictional sociobiology. My investigation addresses this insufficiency in the criticism. Examining Wharton's fiction in relation to her autobiographical writings, letters, and literary criticism, I demonstrate that her major novels link those laws governing gradual change in the natural world—described by Darwin, and theorists such as Herbert Spencer—with the ideological shifts affecting privileged social groupings. The introductory chapter outlines the critical response to Wharton's sociobiology, and examines specific scientific texts that the author refers to in her extra-literary writing. In chapter two I examine "The House of Mirth's" portrayal of cultural practices that lead to the elimination of unfit individuals such as Lily Bart, and show how Wharton critiques the position that natural selection and other laws theorized in The Origin of Species should apply within human society. The following chapter, on "The Custom of the Country", demonstrates Wharton's interest in representing the effects on existing leisure-class cultural practices of the newly-moneyed socioeconomic elite, whose rise Wharton attributes to social evolution. The novel also describes, I show, an inadequate leisure-class ethics that fails to confront the new elite's biological justification for expansion and dominance. Chapter four investigates "The Age of Innocence", in which Wharton takes aim at leisure-class morality by depicting it as a "negation" ( AI 212) of culturally obscured biological instinct, and by representing the sacrifice of individuals to a "collective interest" ( AI 111) that is portrayed as frivolous. In the concluding chapter, I summarize the ways I have extended existing Wharton scholarship, and describe potential pathways for future research. One key conclusion of my dissertation is that Wharton associates ideological change with natural selection, and sexual selection, in order to articulate the challenges to achieving social equality posed by "primitive" (CC 470) and "instinctive" (CC 355) energies.

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