Passing and the figure of the Europeanized *American in Edith Wharton's fiction

Jasmina Starcevic, Purdue University


This dissertation traces the evolution of the Europeanized American as a passing figure in five works by Edith Wharton---The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), The Old Maid (1924), and The Mother's Recompense (1925). By reading Wharton's major fiction through the lens of the passing narrative, I show that the Europeanized American emerges as a vehicle of mediation and the expression of the relationship between the cultures of Europe and America, crucial for exploring the issues of gender, class, race and nationality. I argue that Wharton invests the Europeanized American with the characteristics of the passing subject, thus deploying an ostensibly white figure as the trope of racial difference. Stripped of their fitness for self-government, Europeanized Americans figure as undesirable, unfit, or traitorous subjects vying for the social privileges of the white establishment in the face of psychological persecutions, marginalization, and even death. In order to secure acceptance in the white hegemony, the Europeanized American must engage in a form of passing. Unlike Americans of European descent (or European Americans), Europeanized Americans embody "Europeaness" as an indiscernible trait, not simply visible on the surface of the subject's body. This important distinction allows Wharton to portray Europeanized Americans as culturally and racially more complex than their European or American "cousins." The body of historical and theoretical work on passing produced by prominent social, political, literary and cultural theorists provides the theoretical framework for my analysis of passing in Wharton's fiction. In Wharton's major works, passing denotes both psychological and performative aspects of the struggle to acquire social visibility and secure place within the national cultural matrix, and it is directly related to the production of whiteness and American identity. This study establishes the Europeanized American as a passing figure and explores the significance of the figure in Wharton's major works.




Duvall, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American literature

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