Mirror, Mirror: Narcissism and Edith Wharton's Heroines

By Elaine Toia.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This study of women in Edith Wharton's major novels is cross-disciplinary in scope, as it uses myth and psychology to inform literary analysis. Ovid's myth, Freud's definition of narcissism, and Lacan's theory of the mirror stage shed light on the psychology of May Welland (The Age of Innocence), Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country), and Lily Bart (The House of Mirth), women in overlapping rather than distinct stages of development. For all three heroines, regressive states externalized in family dynamics define the scope of moral insight and knowledge. For Narcissus in Ovid's myth and for the subject according to Freud's theory of primary narcissism, the boundary between self and world is obliterated. This is also true for May Welland, who hardly recognizes a division between self and world. As a result, she is frozen in a state of eternal innocence. Like May, Undine Spragg is infantilized by her fusion with her world. At the same time, however, she seems to dwell in Lacan's mirror stage, which Feher-Gurewich defines as "a structural moment in psychic development, when the child encounters in the mother's gaze the image that will shape his or her self-perception." Wharton uses real mirrors to illustrate what Lacan calls "lack of being," as Undine is no more than a reflection of the tastes and values of m(others). Mirrors, real and symbolic, do more than reveal the fictional ego of Lily Bart; they also expose her psychological landscape, which both threatens the false self and suggests a path to self-knowledge. Lily responds to this conflict through repression and sublimation. Analysis of Edith Wharton's heroines in overlapping stages of psychological development demonstrates the degree to which the self's reflection is simply a mirror image or an expression of self-knowledge.

Keywords: Edith Wharton, Narcissism

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 11, pp.67-74. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 529.998KB).

Dr. Elaine Toia

Associate Professor of English, Department of English, SUNY Rockland Community College, Suffern, New York, USA


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