The Rewards of Representation: Edith Wharton, Lily Bart and the Writer/Reader Interchange

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Edith Wharton came of age as a novelist with the publication of The House of Mirth (1905), a book that sold 30,000 copies within the first three weeks of publication and made Wharton into something of a celebrity.1 As a writer of fiction at the turn of the century, Wharton sought the typical rewards of the literary marketplace-economic benefits, professional standing and acclaim. Yet Wharton also saw her relationship with a large, invisible audience as a unique source of private satisfactions. To Wharton, the connection between writer and reader seemed a personal, even intimate bond located in some indeterminate space on the margins of the dominant culture. At the same time, however, she conceived of herself within that relationship not only as a paid professional doing a job, but also as a public performer-visible, exposed, and for sale. The House of Mirth reflects this tension. Within the novel the art of represen- tation is seen both as irrepressible inner need and as calculated, often risky, public performance. The text displays a sustained concern with the pleasures and pitfalls of reaching an audience. Moreover, many of Wharton's early stories and reviews, like The House of Mirth itself, raise questions about the art of representation in general and the nature of the reader/writer relationship in particular. An author's visibility (even exposure) before the general public becomes a recurrent motif. Wharton's fear of a relationship that could become at once too personal and too public is particularly apparent in her early stories. Many of these focus upon old (or dead) writers who are subject to posthumous rejection or notoriety. When The House of Mirth is read against the background of such stories, Wharton's sense of the rewards and dangers implicit in the writer/reader relationship emerges with particular force. A short "dialogue" called "Copy" exemplifies recurrent issues. A writer's life is seen to be drained of vitality by the process of writing for an audience.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-161
Number of pages15
JournalNovel: A Forum on Fiction
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • 1900-1999
  • 20th century
  • American fiction
  • American literature
  • Anonymous writers. Authors
  • Audiences
  • Authors
  • Authors and readers
  • Autobiographical fiction
  • Bart
  • Lily (character)
  • Criticism and interpretation
  • Denial
  • English Literature
  • English speaking literatures
  • French speaking and English speaking literatures
  • History and sciences of litterature
  • History of literature
  • Literature
  • novel
  • Novelists
  • Novels
  • Portrayals
  • reader
  • Storytelling
  • Tableaux
  • Textual criticism
  • The House of Mirth
  • Twentieth Century
  • United States
  • Wharton
  • Edith
  • Women
  • Women novelists
  • Writers
  • Writing


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