Term Paper: Gender as Performance Theodore Dreiser

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Gender is something that is inescapable for these characters: They are constantly in the process of performing either "maleness" or "femaleness." Gender for these characters is both essentialist and performative. The essentialist argument about the nature of gender identity has historically had a great deal of appeal. Sigmund Freud's famous dictum that "Sex is destiny" is one example of essentialist thinking close in time to the writing of these novels.

This same inescapability of gender - the impossibility of presenting the self (and most especially the female self) without constant self-reference to gender - is also established in the very first pages of The House of Mirth. Wharton is more discerning than Dreiser in this initial presentation of the ways in which gender is performed: There is female gender of the sort that does not really count (i.e. that can be set aside at times) and then there is the kind of femaleness that is omnipresent, that is the defining feature of some women:

Even women," he said, "have been know to enjoy the privileges of a flat."

Oh, governesses - or widows. But not girls - not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!" even know a girl who lives in a flat."

She sat up in surprise. "You do?" do," he assured her emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake.

Oh, I know - you mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said marriageable - and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat."

There are significant limitations to essentialism and even dangers inherent in its use as a model for how humans "really are." Essentialist arguments about any group assume that the fundamental qualities of that group are given and universal and based in biology. The particular qualities of a given essentialized group vary over time and with culture, so that contemporary American women are seen as essentially (i.e. fundamentally and unchangeably) more emotional than men, they are nonetheless seen as far more capable of performing both femininity and agency at the same time than are the characters in these novels.

But these dangers of essentialism that are so clear to us as modern readers are invisible in many ways to these characters - or even if they were to be visible would be celebrated rather than suppressed. We see this in this seen in which Selden can disengaged himself from Lily in a way in which Lily (even with her rather half-hearted practice of the performance of femininity) can never do:

His real detachment from her had taken place, not at the lurid moment of disenchantment, but now, in the sober after-light of discrimination, where he saw her definitely divided from him by the crudeness of a choice which seemed to deny the very differences he felt in her. It was before him against in its completeness - the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dullness of the talk, in the freedom of speech which ever arrived at wit and freedom of act which never made for romance (p. 216).

We see this dynamic repeated in other works of Wharton's, as in Ethan Frome, in which Mattie is punished for taking an active role in her own life. Even though she is a much more likable character than is Zeena, she is still in violation of gendered norms of behavior for this society (for taking too active a part as a lover, as well as for being party to an adulterous affair), and so she is punished in the end by being crippled - and by being reduced to the complaining, weak invalid that Zeena has pretended that she was all along.

We see echoes of the same forces at work also in Age of Innocence of Wharton's other novels, but we also see echoes of her own life. Wharton's heroines - and Wharton herself - are is willing to violate certain expectations about the ways in which women are supposed to behave and willing to manipulate gender roles to the extent that they can, but only to an extent. There is never the possibility, for example, of divorce to separate those who are unhappily married. Ellen may leave the count under mysterious circumstances, but divorce is such a dramatic step beyond those that she takes that we believe that it may be psychologically impossible for her to contemplate.

One of the key differences in the books - and in the fate that is handed to the two heroines - may well arise from the differences of the gender of the authors. The bitterness of the position of the divorced woman is something, of course, that Wharton herself experienced, and it is difficult not to believe that the way she herself as a woman was treated is not reflected in her works. While Dreiser was a keen observer of how women were treated in his society, he did not himself have to bear the same punitive attacks that Wharton did.

Personally, Wharton treated many of the issues of her own life in her fiction: her estrangement from and anger at her mother; her frustration with the limitations placed on women, and especially women of the upper class; her miserable marriage and the stigma against divorce, again particularly in her class but also generally; her fear of the ways in which cautiousness and selfishness can corrupt one's soul; her knowledge that female sexuality, despite society's repression of it, was a potent source of creativity (http://www.georgetown.edu/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/wharton.html).

The House of Mirth and Sister Carrie never rise to the level of tragedy. This is not through any fault of Wharton's: This work is not a failed tragedy in any sense. Rather, she presents us with a story in which terrible things happen to people mostly through their own faults. We sympathize with these three characters to some extent because we understand that they are constrained by ideas about the proper behavior men and women of each class must abide by.

Indeed, these characters are tragic in direct proportion to the extent that they do not control their own fates. The main characters in the two novels rebels against or violates social and cultural expectations about how men and women should act. However, Wharton ad Dreiser do give them a tragic end because they rebel against their assigned gender roles, but rather because they rebel too little. They are intelligent enough and discontent enough to paw the ground in their traces, but not brave enough to gallop away to freedom.

Works Cited

Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton's Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Caserio, Robert L. "Edith Wharton and the Fiction of Public Commentary." Western Humanities Review 3 (40), Autumn 1986: 189-208.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Signet, 2000.

Elbert, Monika M. "Bourgeois Sexuality and the Gothic Plot in Wharton and Hawthorne" In Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition, John L. Idol & Melinda M. Ponder (eds.). Amherst: University of Massacusetts Press, 1999: 258-270.

Gill, Joanna. "The absorbed observation of her own symptoms': Ethan Frome and Anne Sexton's 'The Break.'" Edith Wharton Review 17 (2), Fall 2001: 14-22.

Herman, David. "Economies of Essence in The House of Mirth." Edith Wharton Review 15 (1), 1999: 6-10. http://www.georgetown.edu/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/wharton.html

Segalla, Spencer D. "Re-Inventing Colonialism: Race and Gender in Edith Wharton's In Morocco." Edith Wharton Review 17 (2),Fall 2001: 22-30.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Modern Library, 1999.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Signet, 2000.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Wharton, Edith, "The Other Two. http://arthurwendover.com/arthurs/wharton/other210.html.

Stones, R. Key Sociological Thinkers. New York: New York UP, 1998. [END OF PREVIEW]

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