Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

I.IV.1 Mirth

As scholars have long pointed out, Lily’s primary social value lies in her beauty and charm, for she has been groomed to serve as housewife to a man of wealth and stature. However, the Victorian model of old New York society, where a woman’s place was sheltered by domestic privacy, does not exist in Lily’s world of social mobility and commodified ostentation. She belongs to a culture where the nouveau riche and old money alike engage in “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase was coined by Thorstein Veblen in his popular 1899 socio-economic study The Theory of the Leisure Class.* According to Veblen, “conspicuous consumption,” developed out of increased urbanization and defined the wealthy’s practice of publicly distinguishing themselves--specifically through performances of leisure--from their middle- and working-class counterparts.

Aspects of Veblen’s study depict evolutionary standpoints—one in particular being his reasoning for why urban prosperity became contingent upon material pomposity. Framing “conspicuous consumption” as a survival-of-the-fittest tactic, Veblen specifies it as a modern and metropolitan characteristic of class struggle: “In the struggle to outdo one another the city population push their normal standard of conspicuous consumption to a higher point, with the result that a relatively greater expenditure in this direction is required to indicate a given degree of pecuniary decency in the city” (41-2). As expanding populaces place various class groups within closer proximity to one another, “decency” through “expenditure”—as displayed conspicuous consumption—becomes the marker of upper-class life. These close quarters provide ample means for close comparison and judgement among elite groups and allows for the social alienation of those deemed unfit to uphold the necessary marker of wealth: “By prescription and by selective elimination, the leisure-class scheme favors the all-pervading and all-dominating primacy of the canons of waste and invidious comparison at every conjuncture of life” (154). Wharton’s novel, from this perspective, is a case study of how “conspicuous consumption” is practiced, as well as a typology of the peoples who thrive or die by it. Specifically, it is in Lily’s very struggle to stay afloat amidst her wealthy cohorts that reader understands the necessary activity underlying conspicuous wealth.

Furthermore, the novel plays upon a particular irony identified by Veblen, as illuminated by Lily’s exhaustive attempts to exude the life of leisure. Gender roles within societies of conspicuous leisure most pointedly convey this irony. Veblen states that “valuable goods [are] a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure” (36) and the show of these goods are “carried on by the wife” (40), as well as other female members of the family and social clan. Veblen explains that the practice of socio-economically powerful men to habituate “ownership of women . . . [and to value] their usefulness as trophies” (12) transcended the many cultural stages of human existence, playing a crucial role in the practice of conspicuous consumption. Hence, women do not attain socio-economic status through their displays of wealth. Instead, they secure their survival by giving themselves over to the ownership of certain men—those who can lavish them with material splendor, as well as provide the means for arranging social events to maximize their display. Given women’s involvement in the production of conspicuous consumption, leisure takes on a nuanced definition: “The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of course, not a simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It almost invariably occurs disguised under some form of work or household duties or social amenities, which . . . serve little or no ulterior end beyond showing that she does not occupy herself with anything that is gainful or that is of substantial use” (39). As the feminine exhibitor of masculine wealth, a woman must actively labor in her bodily adornment and social displays. Her energetic efforts contrast from labor because, for one, they lack any productive outcome other than a display of wealth, and, two, she is expected to remain under the guise of leisurely repose: “Abstention from labour [as a requisite of decency] is the convenient evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of social standing; and this insistence on the meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure” (21). Lily’s actions throughout the novel--particularly in this scene where she endeavors to embody "repose" as a contrast to the scandalous "volubility" of Carry Fisher--reflect Veblen’s ironic emphasis on  a “strenuous insistence on leisure.” Her marginal status as aging maiden hinges her very survival upon the ability to mask an arduous pursuit of high social stability behind an artifice of conspicuous repose. 

When Lily is not under the protection of a marriage prospect to an ideal suitor, her marginality is preyed upon by the more secure women of her society, which results in her performing tasks of leisure for others in addition to herself. According to Veblen, all feminine activity should be “ostensibly all spent in a performance of conspicuous leisure, in the way of calls, drives, . . . and other like social functions. Those persons whose time and energy are employed in these matters privately avow that all these observances, as well as the incidental attention to dress and other conspicuous consumption, are very irksome but altogether unavoidable” (31). While Veblen does not delve into the varying social strata within the leisure class, Wharton does to the very depths. So that the women around her needn’t lift a dainty finger, Lily, lacking both husband and riches, is constantly fulfilling social tasks at the command of others.


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