Edith Wharton: Two Novels

This Newberry Seminar is now concluded. It was held in the spring of 2017.

This seminar explores two of Edith Wharton’s most important novels—The House of Mirth (1905) and her Pulitzer-Prize winning The Age of Innocence (1920). We will spend several sessions on each novel, allowing for an in-depth and appreciative look into Wharton’s literary technique, as well as her treatment of art, architecture, culture, personal change, and historical transformation. We will also sample film adaptations of the novels. Seven sessions.

For the first session, please read chapters 1 and 2 of The House of Mirth. Please do not read the introduction to either novel.

Materials List
Wharton, The Age of Innocence. New York: Oxford, 2006 (1920). ISBN: 978-0199540013
Wharton, The House of Mirth. New York: Oxford, 2009 (1905). ISBN: 978-0199538102
Shorter texts, film clips, and works of visual art will also be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.

Seminar Description

This seminar provides an introduction to Edith Wharton’s work by exploring two of the author’s most important novels along with a sampling of Wharton’s literary criticism, contextual images and discussion, and film excerpts.

The first four weeks focus on The House of Mirth, Wharton’s breakout novel of a woman’s struggle with a life beyond the confines of her presumed tradition. We will read the novel in stages, noting relevant issues as we go. Among these issues are Wharton’s development of narrative techniques for revealing character, as well as the author’s artistic affiliations with George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. I will draw on Wharton’s 1925 publication, The Writing of Fiction, for these discussions, and provide participants with excerpts. Each week will also feature slides of the art, architecture, fashion, and geography of the installment at hand, as well as clips from film versions of Mirth.

After a break (March 21), the seminar devotes three weeks to Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, following the same pattern as the Mirth segment.

No weekly reading will be more than 100 pages in length, and the first installment of each novel will be kept to a minimum in order to consider theme and form in more detail—to set up, in other words, how each novel teaches us to read it.

The goal of the seminar is to provide participants with an in-depth appreciation of Wharton’s achievements and an accomplished sense of how Wharton’s sophisticated control of realism enables both novels’ exploration of the individual’s relationship with American and European society, the effect of tradition on gender and identity, the fragility of economic comfort, and the modern subject’s difficult passage between aspiration and circumstance.


1 (Feb. 21)
The House of Mirth 1 (pgs. 5-25, chs. 1.1-1.2)

2 (Feb. 28)
The House of Mirth 2 (pgs. 26-118, chs. 1.3-1.10)

3 (Mar. 7)
The House of Mirth 3 (pgs. 118-215, chs. 1.11-2.3)

4 (Mar. 14)
The House of Mirth 4 (pgs. 215-320, chs. 2.4-2.14)

Break: No Session (Mar. 21)

5 (Mar. 28)
The Age of Innocence, pt 1 (pgs. 3-56, chs. 1-9)

6 (Apr. 4)
The Age of Innocence, pt. 2 (pgs. 57-153, chs. 10-21)

7 (Apr. 11)
The Age of Innocence, pt. 3 (pgs. 153-254, chs. 22-34)

Image: Empire Theatre program for The Age of Innocence (detail). Illustration by George Barbier, 1922. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.