Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

I.IX Mirth

All distinction of decorative expression is achromatized by the harsh glare of electricity, leaving Lily’s future to be housed in a home of “neutral-tinted dulness" that renders a home that is artificially lit dull and inauthentic.

On the third of September 1882, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company provided its first commercial service by installing a lighting system in New York City’s The Times Building. The following day, the Lower East Side became a testing ground for Thomas Edison’s first electrical grid system. The New York Times enthusiastically announced Edison’s success, expressing wonderment at his artificial bulbs’ simulation of natural light: “It was a light that a man could sit under and write for hours without the consciousness of having any artificial light around him . . . The light was soft, mellow, and grateful to the eye, and it seemed almost like writing by daylight to have a light without a particle of flicker.” The appearance of the lightbulb, then, altered one’s relation to natural daylight and expanded American industrialism deep into the artificially-lit night.

By the time Edith Wharton began serializing the The House of Mirth in 1905, she had experienced New York life in the two decades that followed Edison’s proliferation of electricity. Despite urban America’s mass reception of electric lighting in both public and private spaces, Wharton’s novel attests to artificial light’s glaring protrusion into the privacy of home and bedroom and, in a more troubling way, into the mind and body. In witnessing the profound impact electric light had upon conceptions of sleep and its role in the modern world, sleeplessness permeates the novel as scorchingly as Wharton’s searing portrayal of electric lighting.

While a zealous New York Times reporter clearly engaged in writing amidst electric incandescence, it may be safe to assume that Wharton relied on the traditional glow of candlelight as she labored in her home. In her 1898 interior design manual The Decoration of Houses,* Wharton disparages the use of artificial luminescence in domestic spaces: “Nothing has done more to vulgarize interior decoration than the general use of . . . electricity in the living-rooms of modern houses. Electric light . . . with its harsh white glare, which no expedients have as yet overcome, has taken from our drawing-rooms all air of privacy and distinction." Wharton expresses a prevalent anxiety amongst those of distinction at the turn of the century—an unease over the blurring boundaries between public and private within a burgeoning metropolis.


This page has tags:

This page is referenced by:

This page references: