Date of Award

5-2020

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

College/School

College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Department/Program

English

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Melinda Knight

Committee Member

Laura Nicosia

Committee Member

Jonathan Greenberg

Subject(s)

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)--Criticism and interpretation, Edith Wharton (1862-1937)--House of mirth

Abstract

How does canonical American literature from the early twentieth century reflect the American Jew and anti-Semitic sentiments? How do these novels portray the American Jew as a threat to American identity? In this thesis, I answer these questions and argue how American literature is a product of its culture demonstrating and reproducing fears and accepted ideologies. These fears perpetuated and solidified anti-Semitic stereotypes and alienated Jews from society. In my research, I examine how literature acts as a cultural product specifically homing in on particular anti-Semitic stereotypes which represent a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant fear of "otherness." This analysis will draw from historical context that can be revealed through archival material, biographical research, scholarly critiques, and a close reading of the novel The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton. This novel reflects elitist societal beliefs, provides insights into social structures of the period, and invites a deep exploration of religion defined in terms of race.

I read this novel in its historical context as a symptom of prejudice. This essay focuses on the Jewish character Sim Rosedale as an outcast and threat to American identity and society, both exemplifying early twentieth-century attitudes and perpetuating anti-Semitic sentiments. Wharton’s Rosedale is the epitome of a Jewish stereotype, and Wharton portrays Rosedale as a pariah and threat to society and social order. She depicts him as greedy and shallow propagating the miser stereotype while denying his character social mobility and agency. Wharton’s novel accurately exposes how Jews were excluded from elitist restaurants, social events, and clubs. This exclusion resulted from the fears of the dominant hegemonic class, as revealed through the heroine, Lily Bart.

My analysis of The House of Mirth will demonstrate how the discourse and language in the novel reveals anti-Semitic stereotypes. The language the narrator uses makes biased statements regarding the "Jewish race" declaring them as fact. The language Wharton uses for Rosedale and the dynamic in which he speaks illuminate his otherness. He is classified as an outsider, polluting white Anglo-Saxon principles of marriage, socio-economic status, religion, and identity. Rosedale is an economic immigrant, raiding the social relations and institutions in early twentieth century New York. His classification by race and alienation posit him as inferior to the dominant class. Despite Wharton's own anti-Semitic sentiments, Wharton exposes the anti- Semitism rampant in her society. This essay will reveal how literature can act as an artifact by providing a historical view of society that replicates popular ideology and sentiments as seen in The House of Mirth.

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