Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

I.XIII.1 Mirth

The House of Mirth is often read as a work of literary naturalism, and through such a lens, Gus’s sudden self-control that allows Lily to leave unscathed reveals the biological emphasis Wharton places on sleep in the novel. It is typical of naturalist novels to place the determining factor of a character’s deterioration on the inner brute that is masked only temporarily by cultural civilities. Wharton goes a step further in her depiction of Gus’s savagery by correlating it with exhaustion: “The hand of inherited order, plucked back the bewildered mind which passion had jolted from its ruts. Trenor’s eyes had the haggard look of the sleep-walker waked on a deathly ledge." Gus’s brutish behavior prior to his jolting back to awareness is framed as a sleep-state from which he awakens with a haggard look. Wharton grounds biological determinism in the body’s physiological dependence on sleep that is mysteriously connected to one's innate atavism. Thus, modern society may attempt to suppress sleep’s necessity with electrically-lit night-time activity, but the biological need for rhythmic sleep cannot be escaped--and the attempt to do so has the horrifying potential to turn man into monster.


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