All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

Margaret Jay Jessee

Advisory Committee Members

Jill Clements

Gale Temple

Document Type


Date of Award


Degree Name by School

Master of Arts (MA) College of Arts and Sciences


On the surface, Edith Wharton’s breakout novel, The House of Mirth (1905), and its main character, Lily Bart, appear to exhibit the inferior role women hold in the Old New York society of Wharton’s youth. However, a close reading reveals Lily consciously alters her appearance throughout the novel as she searches for social power. This article examines the divide between Lily’s external performance and her inner emotions as she attempts to gain the economic stability she is trained to desire. Drawing on Melanie Dawson’s Emotional Reinventions, this article discusses Lily’s fluctuating emotions and the way they influence how Lily chooses to perform in certain situations. An examination of Wharton’s language and the water imagery she incorporates throughout the novel point to Lily’s performances depending on her social standing, and as her social power declines, her ability to maintain distinct inner and outer selves does as well. Her two selves fading together leads to her ambiguous death, demonstrating her need to separate her emotions and affective acts in order to survive the leisure class. Without those separate entities, Lily is forced back into ideal femininity, calling attention to its strict limitations.