An Analysis of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Henry James’s The Golden Bowl: The Approaches to Manners and The Consequences for the Women Characters Who Manipulate Social Dynamics

Lannetti, Kamala
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
The novel of manners is often considered trivial, quaint and dated. It tells of a society in which taste and social arts become analogous to a sense of morality and personal conduct, a society in which nuances of status and position sever the vulgar from the more refined. Refinement, then, becomes increasingly important to the preservation of the most elite group. Refinement is directed by the instinct of taste. Taste is a certain artistic sense of appreciation for beauty and elegance that is reflected in all aspects of behavior. Manners comprise the notion of codes of behavior and protocol in personal relationships. This is the distinguishing characteristic of the novel of manners -- its concentration upon the manners and social arts which regulate a certain segment of society. Within every society there is competition for the limited resources and titles proffered on its members. This is especially true of the time period of which Edith Wharton and Henry James write, the post Civil War pre-World War I era, when upstarts and robber barons who have accumulated a great deal of wealth in a relatively short period of time are permeating the once rigid social structure. Old notions of separation of classes by blood are becoming obsolete as the nouveau-riche are marry ing into or buy ing out the established aristocracy. Manners take on a new importance during this time for they are the only distinguishing factors the elite can viably use to proclaim themselves.
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