In a democratic society that rejects the ideals and structure of aristocracy and inherited power, ideally everyone can move up in society. However, the reality of the American situation is that the pressure to move up in social class and the power held by the upper class are just as—if not more—restricting and oppressive than the mores and ideals of the European society America set out to reject. The result of these pressures and the conflict of American ideals and reality is examined by American novels. Most classics at least touch on issues of social class: Hawthorne, Twain, Wharton, and James all examine social class through various lenses. A unifying theme in American literature is this conflict between class status, wealth, and the ability, or lack thereof, to climb the ladder. Often, the American novel deals with class, examining how a society without aristocracy is organized. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, we see the American concepts of identity, social class, and status in conflict; Lily struggles to find and maintain an identity in a setting that pressures her to maintain a high social status without any wealth to her name. Wharton’s novel can be closely linked to another American novel, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which is much more contemporary but still holds true to the themes of American literature. Tartt’s The Secret History examines the extent humans are willing to go to achieve higher social status and class distinction; the centrality of social class in Tartt’s novel as well as the focus on individual identity knits The Secret History into the weave of American classics. By comparing Wharton’s The House of Mirth to Tartt’s The Secret History, it becomes evident that social class conflict is a central theme in the American novel, and thus, The Secret History belongs in the canon of American novels.
The American novel typically centers on themes of “pursuit and flight,” as Paul Levine points out in his article “The American Novel Begins.” With this in mind, the topic of social class, social mobility, and wealth can be easily tied to the American novel. Because America was founded on principles that reject aristocracy and exalted as a place free from class strains. J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur’s letters examining America reveal this ideal: “It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe” (De Crèvecoeur 310). This ideal may have been true at the time De Crèvecoeur wrote, which is doubtful due to the presence of Southern aristocratic families and slavery, but reality is not as pretty of a picture. America may represent a “flight” from Europe and the “pursuit” of wealth in the case of many American novels. As Levine notes, “The moral complexity of the American novel lay in its ‘duplicity’” (Levine 134). Despite a lack of the traditional aristocracy, a very real class system divides Americans and pressures the individual to conform, move up, or be content in poverty. American novels seek to expose this conflict between the ideals America was founded on and the reality that a class system just as twisted and oppressive damages everyone in America. In The House of Mirth, that damage is not only done to people of lower status, but also to Lily, who is trapped between her wealth and status.
The House of Mirth, widely regarded as one of the great American novels as it is read mostly by scholars, not laymen, is largely a story about Lily Bart’s struggle to maintain her social status, regain wealth, and keep up with high class society. These pressures to keep up ultimately destroy her identity and her life. In “Between Wall Street and Fifth Avenue: Class and Status in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth,” Michael Tavel Clarke makes an important distinction between class wealth and social status in regards to The House of Mirth. Status is how one is perceived in society by others, their relative ranking and power in the hierarchy of American society; wealth, on the other hand, is the amount of money one has, and wealth does not assure high class status, as in the case of Rosedale (Tavel Clarke 344). Tavel Clarke states that Lily has no wealth, but does have status at the outset of the novel, the opposite of Rosedale (Tavel Clarke 343). This distinction is vital to how Lily is perceived and treated throughout The House of Mirth. It controls how she constructs her identity, how she is perceived by others, and how she must negotiate her position in society.
Through the novel, Lily’s identity rests upon her status and how others perceive her, namely Selden. Wharton showcases this issue early on, writing, “He [Selden] had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her” (Wharton 7). In a sense, someone is sacrificed to make Lily—she herself is. Lily becomes an object, losing her identity as a person, in order to fit the ideals of her status. This is the beginning of Lily’s problems. Lily’s identity is also complicated by Selden’s view of her. He constantly tries to figure her out, and when she becomes a tableaux vivant he believes he sees her true self. Wharton writes, “The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part” (106). In this passage, Lily is further objectified, bringing up another tension in Lily’s identity as Cynthia Griffin Wolff highlights in her article “Lily Bart and the Beautiful Death.” As is vital to any American novel, there is a tension between the “real and the ideal” (Griffin Wolff 322).
In trying to desperately keep up with the higher social class, Lily loses control. Her gambling, which she partakes in to be included in the higher social circle as well as to perhaps double her money, leads her further away from the high economic class she wishes to be included in. “Only twenty dollars were left; the discovery was so startling that for a moment she fancied she must have been robbed” (Wharton 24). Lily recounts her money, does some calculations, and realizes that her money has been spent on dresses, jewelry, and gambling, all carefully spent to spin her into the image of a high-class woman. Ideally, Lily should be able to maintain wealth, not worrying about money, just as, ideally, there is no aristocratic class in America. The reality is, however, that there is an aristocratic system, and the pressure to keep up with it drains more money than one can afford. However, as Wharton makes clear, poverty is not an option: “To be poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace; and she detected a note of condescension in the friendliest advances” (Wharton 29). It is this pressure to avoid poverty, which should not be as difficult as it is in the ideal De Crèvecoeur presents, that destroys Lily; she digs herself in deeper holes of lack of wealth by trying to keep up with others, gambling and buying dresses and jewelry she cannot afford. She squanders her wealth to maintain class status.
Lily goes to great lengths to maintain her status, but it only ends up ruining her plans. By agreeing to Gus Trenor’s plans of investment, she sparks rumors about her. Eventually, Trenor expects sexual favors from Lily, and on page 116, Lily is shut out of his circle by fleeing (Wharton 116). Clearly, trying to keep up with the higher social class has led Lily to dangerous territory. This scene exhibits the strain and consequences of trying to maintain social status and wealth. Social class is presented as a trap in Wharton’s novel, examining the tension between the real and the ideal of American life. Wharton writes of Lily, “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (Wharton 8). Inevitably, the pressure of society to conform to this higher social class ties her to her death. We see that the class hierarchy in the US, which attempts to reconfigure society without aristocracy, creates just as much pressure and inequality if not more. Because one can move up in class, ideally, one must. The lie is that doing so will not destroy the individual. Like Lily’s fate is decided in the first pages of the novel, so is Bunny’s and so is Richard’s. This distinctly American theme of identity destruction as a result of class pressures is woven through Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a novel, published in 1992, that belongs in the canon of great American literature.
The Secret History, unlike Wharton’s The House of Mirth, is about a young man facing the pressures of maintaining and achieving social status in America’s ideally and supposedly “classless” society. Richard is from Plano, California, a small, poor town, and he feels alone at Hampden, which is an East-Coast Old-Money college. Richard is enamored by the high status of the group and wants to join them at any cost. His descriptions of the others highlights their apparent wealth and reveals Richards desires. He describes Henry, “He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella…”, and Francis, “I thought (erroneously) that he dressed like Alfred Douglas, or the Comte de Montesquiou: beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper”, in such vivid detail, revealing his envy and admiration of them (Tartt 18). Both Henry and Francis have a high social status and wealth; they belong to a high class, which Tartt clarifies, writing, “Francis was from Boston and, from most accounts, quite wealthy. Henry, too, was said to be wealthy; what’s more, he was a linguistic genius” (Tartt 19).
When he meets Julian Morrow’s students, Richard wants to belong to them, and he undergoes an identity transformation in order to be accepted by them. He changes the way he dresses, taking an advance on his work study check to buy new clothes: “It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it” (Tartt 26). Richard constructs his identity around what he perceives as wealthy in order to gain social status without wealth as Tavel Clarke says Lily does in The House of Mirth (Tavel Clarke 352). Richard must make the appearance of wealth pronounced in order to gain status. Tavel Clarke writes, “Status…is inherently public and exhibitionist, particularly in a world without inherited status terms such as titles of nobility. Prestige and honor depend fundamentally on social recognition” (Tavel Clarke 352). Richard’s performance of wealth and status make him feel a sense of power. He is wrapped up in the drive to climb in status, as one is ideally able to in America, but his status is false, as Tartt points out, “Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor—voluptuous, rich, intoxicating” (Tartt 26). Richard’s status costume is second hand and all performance, but he is caught up in the ideal of wealth and power. Like Lily, Richard uses clothes and habits to showcase his status. Richard’s new identity and status open new doors for him, proving the power in the American class system.
Richard manages to convince Julian to take him on a student, although Julian initially rejected him for lacking substantial wealth and lacking social status. Julian is first reluctant to take Richard on as a student because Richard does not fit into the social class that Julian teaches. Tartt shows this by having Julian say, “‘I can’t think of anything I’d like better, but I’m afraid there isn’t any room. My class is already filled’” (Tartt 16). Richard’s reinvention of his identity is a success; Julian accepts him as a student. However, Richard’s advisor and French professor makes it clear that Julian probably was not aware that Richard’s upper-class identity was falsified:
“‘Frankly, this is the first time I have ever heard of his accepting a pupil who is on such considerable financial aid. Being a democratic institution, Hampden College is not founded on such principles.’
‘Well, he can’t be all that elitist if he accepted me,’ I said. He didn’t catch my sarcasm.
‘I am willing to speculate that he isn’t aware you are on assistance,’ he said seriously.
‘Well, if he doesn’t know,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to tell him.’” (Tartt 32).
The above passage, a conversation between Richard and his advisor, reveals the hypocrisy of the class system. One can fake status without wealth. However, the pressure of maintaining this façade begins to take a toll on Richard. To gain access to the class he admires, the must live a lie, and living that lie makes the lie grow to dangerous proportions—the group murders two people, and Richard is involved in the killing of one of those individuals. However, his desire to remain in the higher social status is so strong that he goes along with the crimes.
The status Richard eventually achieves makes it easier for him to get away with his part in Bunny’s murder. Tartt opens the novel with the information that Richard did in fact get away with the crime, writing, “It is difficult to believe that such an uproar took place over an act for which I was partially responsible, even more difficult to believe I could have walked through it—the cameras, the uniforms, the black crowds sprinkled over Mount Cataract like ants in a sugar bowl—without incurring a blink of suspicion” (Tartt 3). The reason Richard and the others do not incur any suspicion is their status. No suspicion falls on them. Instead, a far-right Born-Again Christian mechanic, clearly not of the same social status as the others, blames “Arabs” for taking Bunny, exposing the luxury and safety that high status in America affords (Tartt 347). Mr. Hundy, the mechanic, tells a newsanchor, “‘they wasn’t from around here. They was…dark’” (Tartt 346). Evidently, a high social status is not viewed as capable of such a crime. Rather, it is easier to blame made-up non-white foreigners. The group is able to get away with Bunny’s murder due to their status. Richard’s insecurity of his falsified status is what pushes him to take part in Bunny’s murder when he has the power to stop it.
Richard’s status, being nothing more than a false performance, is less stable than that of the others, and his desire to maintain it is what causes his role in Bunny’s death. Richard is annoyed, like the others, at Bunny’s ability to pick out the truth of a person’s insecurities. Bunny is the one who guesses that Charles and Camilla are in an incestuous relationship, and he constantly picks on Francis for being gay, although Francis does not necessarily hide this fact. Likewise, Bunny is able to weed out Richard’s lie—he knows that Richard is not one of the new-riche Californians. Tartt gives Richard’s frustration at Bunny’s attacks away, writing, “It was the most gratuitous sort of cruelty. My lies about my family were adequate, I suppose, but they could not stand up under these glaring attacks. Neither of my parents had finished high school; my mother did wear pants suits, which she purchased at a factory outlet… A few days earlier, Bunny had been grilling me about where I’d gone to prep school. I don’t know why I couldn’t just have admitted the truth, that I’d gone to the public school in Plano” (Tartt 220). Bunny pokes holes in Richard’s story, risking exposing Richard to the other, and risking him to lose his carefully cultivated status. Because in America’s classed society, status is not as set in stone with titles as it is in Europe, Richard feels vulnerable and therefore takes part in Bunny’s killing. The pressure to maintain status is so great that Richard, like Lily allowing Gus Trenor to handle her finances and eventually trying to marry Rosedale, whom she used to hate, goes to great lengths to maintain his position.
The repercussions of not meeting status expectations in both novels is the same: death. For Lily, she cannot keep up with the maintenance of her class position. Eventually, she falls to ruin. Wharton presents Lily’s death as a final escape from the pressure of the class system, writing, “She had been unhappy, and now she was happy—she had felt herself alone, and now the sense of loneliness had vanished” (Wharton 251). Lily’s unhappiness comes from the pressures of maintaining status, which she has failed to do. Just as Griffin Wolff points out that society destroys Lily, leading to her death and status as an object (Griffin Wolff 334), the social stratification of American society does too destroy the lives of Julian’s students.
Most easily identifiably in The Secret History is Bunny, whose life is taken by the others because he cannot fit in any longer. Tartt makes it clear that Bunny has no money, and his status is also a pretense: “‘Bunny seems to live pretty well.’ ‘Bunny’s never had a cent of pocket money the entire time I’ve known him,’ Said Henry tartly” (Tartt 128). Bunny does not fit in with the others because he’s shabby. He leeches the others’ funds, and they grow resentful because of it. Richard realizes that Bunny does not fit in with the others; ultimately, it can be argued that Richard takes part in bunny’s murder because he wants Bunny’s spot in the group. Henry and Francis tell Richard all about their murder of the Vermont farmer, how Bunny found out, and why they consider killing Bunny. However, Richard, so desperately wanting to belong to the high-status group of students, does not turn on them for their immoral action and plan. Instead, he covers for them (Tartt 246). In a moment of vulnerability and panic, Bunny tells Richard all about the crime the others committed during their Bacchanal, and comes to the realization that he’s the only person who knows, making him a target (244-45). Richard does not tell Bunny he already knows—instead, he calls Charles (247). This action accelerates the murder plot as Henry, Charles, Francis, and Camilla realize Bunny can tell anyone after testing leaking secrets to Richard.
The events of the murder ruin each character’s life in Tartt’s novel, revealing, as Wharton does in The House of Mirth, that the tension between the ideal and the real in American social stratification causes the destruction of the individual. Henry kills himself (Tartt 536). Francis attempts to kill himself and is forced to marry a woman (Tartt 458-549). Charles becomes an alcoholic and lives in what Camilla calls “a dump”, falling is class and status (Tartt 552). Camilla, who no longer speaks to Charles, is the only one who seems better off at the end of the novel (Tartt 552). Richard himself, of course, must live with the guilt of murder. He is unhappy for the rest of his life, as we find out at the very end when a dream-version of Henry appears to him and says, “‘But you’re not very happy where you are, either’” (Tartt 559). So, like Lily at the close of The House of Mirth, Richard is destroyed by society, by his desire to move in in social class and maintain class status.
The House of Mirth and The Secret History are two uniquely-American novels that expose the failure of the American class system to live up to its egalitarian, classless ideals. Like Lily Bart, Richard constructs an identity for himself to fit into the higher social class, and it ultimately leads to catastrophic results. In a review of The Secret History, Michiko Kakutani writes, “Ashamed of his family’s blue-collar roots, Richard decides to invent a new identity for himself at Hampden College. He erases the gas station where his father worked and the tract house he grew up in, and replaces them with a fictional Californian youth: swimming pools, orange groves and dissolute show-biz parties. He spends his meager savings on designer clothes; lies, shamelessly, carelessly, about his past, and allows his passivity and need to ingratiate to pull him into a dangerous game of duplicity and sin,” reinforcing Richard’s desire to be accepted into a higher class. Lily’s destruction is not quite as dramatic as the one Tartt sets up in The Secret History, however, the two fall in line. Though De Crèvecoeur may have believed that America lacked a gap between rich and poor and that it was the perfect aristocratic-free place, by the time Wharton, and definitely Tartt, wrote their novels, the opposite was true. The pressure to move up and present as a member of a higher status pushes people to destroy their identities and their lives.
De Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John. “Letter III. What is and American.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature, 8th ed., pp. 309-323. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. New York.
Griffin Wolff, Cynthia. “Lily Bart and the Beautiful Death.” The House of Mirth: A Norton Critical Edition, pp. 320-339. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990. New York.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of the Times; Students Indulging in Course of Destruction.” Rev. of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The New York Times, 04 Sept. 1992. www.nytimes.com/1992/09/04/books/books-of-the-times-students-indulging-in-course- of-destruction.html 04 May. 2017.
Levine, Paul. “The American Novel Begins.” The American Scholar, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter 1965-66, pp. 134-148. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/412093 04 May. 2017.
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, 1992. New York.
Tavel Clarke, Michael. “Between Wall Street and Fifth Avenue: Class and Status in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.” College Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring 2016, pp. 342-374. Project Muse. https://doi.org/10.1353/lit.2016.0019 04 May. 2017.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth: A Norton Critical Edition, pp. 5-256. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990. New York.