Willa Cather, My Àntonia

Cather, Willa. My Àntonia. Norton. 1918, 2015.

Sharon O’Brien, Introduction

“Was Jim Burden necessary as a male narrator because Cather, as a lesbian writer,w as prevented by her culture from having a female narrator express an enduring preoccupation with another woman? Was Jim a mask for a lesbian consciousness? Or did he signify a patriarchal gaze, imposing a reductive vision on Àntonia by ultimately viewing her as a fertile Earth Mother?” (xix).


Cather sets up in the Introduction that she, the writer, is retelling to us the story found in a manuscript by a childhood friend, Jim Burden, who is the narrator of the manuscript that we read. We find out that Jim’s wife “is handsome, energetic, executive, but to me seems impressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm. Her husband’s quiet tastes irritate her, I think, and she finds it worth while to play the patroness to a group of young poets and painters of advanced ideas and mediocre ability. She has her own fortune and lives her own life. For some reason, she wishes to remain Mrs. James Burden” (7). (AD: This woman is, in other words, fundamentally unfeminine. Why are we given this information about Mrs. Burden? Perhaps to drive us to see Jim as unfulfilled by womanhood in ways that drive him to idealize and think about Antonia as an earth mother.)

Book I

“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land–slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake… Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be” (12). (AD: the country is tautology, it is tradition, it is what is, it is conservative in that it is an ideal that stays stagnant. Antonia, and her maternity, is part of this and constitutes it.)

[Fuchs the farmhand… sounds like “Fuck”] “He got out his ‘chaps’ and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design– roses, and true-lover’s knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, were angels” (14). (AD: reproductive woman is religion (but not God: not that powerful.) nature/beauty/flower, love, and nude women.)

“Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slaw squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep” (17). (AD: conservative roles, being part of a great, symbolic family, are happiness, but also lead one to torpor/sleep/death)

Antonia’s father pleads “te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia!”(21). The Father is the first to call her “my,” claiming her in order to give her away.

He begins to call her Tony, which strips her of her european identity and rebrands her as his by renaming her. (25).

“Much as I liked Àntonia, I hated a superior tone that she sometimes took with me. She was four years older than I, to be sure, and had seen more of the world; but I was a boy and she was a girl, and I resented her protecting manner. Before the autumn was over she began to treat me more like an equal and defer to me in other things than reading lessons. This change came about from an adventure we had together” (29). (he kills a big snake)

“He had twelve rattles, but they were broken off before they began to taper, so I insisted that he must once have had twenty-four. I explained to Àntonia how this meant that he was twenty-four years old, that he must have been there when white men first came, left on from buffalo and Indian times. As I turned him over I began to feel proud of him, to have a kind of respect for his age and size. He seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil” (31). (AD: 24 is reproductive age; the ancient, eldest Evil is in fact the snake and this scene re-peats and re-imagines the Garden scene. Rather, it portrays the popular imagination’s image of Christ’s descendants stomping the head of the Devil that woman invoked, and asserting both his godlikeness and his power and her submissive passivity to that power. However:)

“So in reality it was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably as for many a dragon-slayer. I had been adequately armed by Russian Peter; the snake was old and lazy; and I had Àntonia beside me, to appreciate and admire… I had killed a big snake–I was now a big fellow” (32). (AD: It is entirely by chance, in fact, that it is Jim and not Tony who kills the snake – we know she is strong and equally capable. The fact of this scene, however, asserts the gender dynamic that both must accept for the rest of their lives. It is by chance, but it is written in stone.)

“For Antonia and me, the story of the wedding party was never at an end. We did not tell Pavel’s secret to any one, but guarded it jealously–as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago, and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and particular pleasure” (37). (AD: The two Russian men are chased from Russia because, when chased by a pack of wolves at a friend’s wedding, they throw the bride to the wolves to lessen the weight of the sled because the dogs are tired. This haunts them wherever they go. Unconsummated feminine fertility is sacrificed, and this is both socially unacceptable and deeply satisfying to the man who gets to control it. Also, the story is never at an end because woman is constantly being sacrificed to man. This is the dynamic created by man’s random killing of the snake.)

“Our lives centered around warmth and food and the return of the men and night-fall” (39).

Fuchs tells a story about how a pregnant woman on a ship with him delivered not one but three babies. “This event made Fuchs the object of undeserved notoreity, since he was traveling with her. The steerage stewardess was indignant with him, the doctor regarded him with suspicion… The husband, in Chicago, was working in a furniture factory for modest wages, and when he met his family at the station he was rather crushed by the size of it. He, too, seemed to consider Fuchs in some fashion to blame” (40-1). (Fertility out of control. Someone has to be to blame. Oddly, it’s the men and not the woman. Woman seen as so out of control of her own body and fertility that a man must have been the agent here.)

The tree in their yard “became the talking tree of the fairy tale; legends and stories nestled like birds in its branches. Grandmother said it reminded her of the Tree of Knowledge” (48). (This not only links the fable of his childhood with Antonia to the Biblical tale and the instantiation of gender roles, but the biblical tale to a “fairy tale.”)

Book II

“Before I knew Lena, I thought of her as something wild, that always lived on the prairie, because I had never seen her under a roof… [she] kept a miraculous whiteness which somehow made her seem more undressed than other girls who went scantily clad” (86).


“Maybe you lose a steer and learn not to make somethings with your eyes at married men,” Mrs. Shimerda told her hectoringly.

Lena only smiled her sleepy smile. ‘I never made anything to him with my eyes. I can’t help it if he hangs around, and I can’t order him off. It ain’t my prairie” (89). (AD: and space is not hers to claim or to push men off.)

Winter comes. “All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth. It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer” (91). (AD: Also mirrors both life stages and the progression of woman into Antonia’s type of haggard maternity)

The “Negro Music scene” p 98+ he “couples” with the instruments

“Physical exercise was thought rather inelegant for the daughters of well-to-do families…When one danced with them their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing–not to be disturbed… The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth” (102-3).

The three Marys were “considered as dangerous as high explosives” (104).

Jim chastises Tony: “I thought you liked children. Tony, what’s come over you?”

“I don’t know, something has… A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can…” (106).

Mrs. Cutter is a shrewd, argumentative, unfeminine woman: “I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the world; sometimes founding new religions, sometimes being forcibly fed–easily recognizable, even when superficially tamed” (109).

“she was, oh, she was still my Antonia!…I knew where the real women were, though I was only a boy; and I would not be afraid of them, either!” (114).

“One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, ‘Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like.’ I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Antonia, but I never did” (114).

“As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: Optima dies… prima fugit.” (133).

“Lena was at least a woman, and I was a man” (135). (AD: “at least” – “at base”)

Lena rejects traditional womanhood and refuses to marry anyone, even Jim. She doesn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb or bear children. (142-3). This makes Jim uncomfortable, but her reasons make sense to the reader. “Lena gave her heart away when she felt like it, but she kept her head for her business and had got on in the world” (145).

Tiny also makes a lot of money creating a boarding house for itinerant workers and does not marry nor have children. She and Lena live together and complement each other with business acumen and wealth.

Meanwhile, Antonia runs off to be married to a man who promises to care for her and who subsequently dumps her. She returns home disgraced and pregnant, but still proud. Says her brother Ambrosch to Jim, “Antonia is a natural-born mother. I wish she could marry and raise a family, but I don’t know as there’s much chance now” (155).

Antonia “asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. ‘I’d always be miserable in a city. I’d die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here. Father Kelly says everybody’s put into this world for something, and I know what I’ve got to do. I’m going to see that my little girl has a better chance than ever I had… I told her I knew she would. ‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of any one else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister – anything that I woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me” (156). (AD: insofar as she represents generic womanhood, Eve domesticated.)

When Jim decides to visit Tony, he is told that she has ten or eleven nice children and “somehow it’s just right for Tony” (160).

When Jim tells her he has no children “she seemed embarrassed” (163). She had not “lost of fire of life” (163).

These are “Cuzak’s boys,” as the section title flippantly indicates, not Antonia’s. There are also, you know, female children, but Jim bonds with the boys.

Antonia says, “Ever since I’ve had children, I don’t like to kill anything. It makes me kind of faint to wring an old goose’s neck. Ain’t that strange, Jim?’

“I don’t know. The young Queen of Italy said the same thing once…”

“Then I’m sure she’s a good mother,” Antonia said warmly.” (166).

Antonia’s husband says “my woman is got such a warm heart. She always make it as good for me as she could. Now it ain’t so bad; I can begin to have some fun with my boys, already!” (176). Such as dancing at the fairs while Antonia stays at home with her children. Good thing she insisted on going to the fairs as a girl.

Final passage: “The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past” (179). (AD: But it was the Adam and Eve scene, and theirs, that set them on this path. Their gender roles. Is this accidents or predetermined? He seems more blasé about this because he is able to do so from his masculine position of power.)

Gelfant, Blanche H. “The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Antonia.” American Literature 43.1 (1971): 60-82.

“[Jim] was afraid of growing up, afraid of women, afraid of the nexus of love and death. He could love only that which time had made safe and irrefragable – his memories. They revolve not, as he says, about the image of Antonia, but about himself as a child. When he finds love, it seems to him the safest kind–the narcissistic love of the man for himself as a boy” (370).

Desire and fear “contend with one another.” The image of Lena in the field is “a surreal image of Aurora and the Grim Reaper as one” (371).

Jim sets the image of Lena against pages of poetry that deal with cattle breeding, quoting the Georgics: “So, while the herd rejoices in its youth / Release the males and breed the cattle early,/ Supply one generation from another. / For mortal kind, the best day passes first” (373).

“At best, marriage has dubious value in Cather’s fiction. IT succeeds when it seems least like marriage, when it remains sexless, or when sex is only instrumental to procreation. Jim accepts Antonia’s marriage for its ‘special mission’ to bring forth children. Why doesn’t he take on this mission? He celebrates the myth of creation but fails to participate” (376).

“Antonia’s illegitimate pregnancy brutalizes her even more than heavy farmwork. Her punishment for sexual involvement–and for the breezy pleasures of courtship–is thoroughgoing masculinization. Wearing ‘a man’s long overcoat and boots, and a man’s felt hat,’ she does ‘the work of a man on the farm,’ plows, herds cattle. Years later, as Cuzak’s wife, her ‘inner glow’ must compensate for the loss of her youthful beauty, the loss, even, of her teeth. Jim describes her finally as ‘a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled’–his every word denuding her of sensual appeal” (378).

Antonia “belongs” to the farm and the earth. “Though she marries, Cuzak is only the instrument of Antonia’s special mission. Through him she finds a self-fulfillment that excludes him. Through her, Jim hopes to be stored to himself” (383).

Rosowski, Susan J. “Pro/Creativity and a Kinship Aesthetic.” From Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1999) 80-92. As in Norton Critical My Antonia.

Rosowski claims that “Willa Cather sent Adam packing and claimed paradise for women, restoring to them a psychosexual identification with nature and appropriating for them the promise of nature’s wildness. Rather than writing about a virgin land waiting to be despoiled, Cather conceived of the West as a female nature slumbering, awakening, and roaring its independence” (438). (AD: eh. I’m not sure about this.)

“By structuring her novel around images of birth, Cather evoked traditional mythologies of cosmogony and parturition, then revised those traditions as she created her birth of a nation” (438).

“Earth caves may suggest to Jim a frightening descent into a secret, sealed, womblike space closely associated with death, but Antonia presents another view: ‘I like for sleep there,’ she insists, ‘this is warm like the badger hole’. Her description echoes not only emergence myths generally…” (439).

“Tensions is inevitable when a fertility goddess from emergence myth is transplanted into Protestant Black Hawk, and Black Hawk responds by tightening its constrictions upon Antonia until, following her lover to Denver, she disappears from the text” (440).

“By Cather’s account, however, the Earth Mother tradition is no imprisonment to earth, no secret and sealed space. Instead the nurturing womb is liberated and celebrated, fertility goddess and Earth Mother restored into a birth myth for the New World” (441). (AD: except that Antonia cannot go to the dances or do what she wants to do; she is tied to her children and to the farm.)

Jim “distinguishes himself from that tradition” of Judeo-Christian classical logical rhetoric, recognizing that “he ‘should never lose himself in impersonal things,’ and he acknowledges an alternative idea of memory for which he uses language of conception, gestation, and quickening” (444).

“Rather than speaking only through a man, Lena speaks for herself, and rather than submitting to a relationship of dominance and possession, she invites equality in friendship. Jim’s expectations are the familiar ones of the male poet to ‘his’ Muse: he feels himself possessed, perceives the encounter as sexual, and assumes her dependency upon him. What Lena offers to him, however, is an alternative to such conventional notions of creativity. Her self-possession contrasts comically to Jim’s assumptions that because she lives alone, she is lovely; that by visiting her in her room, he will compromise her; and that because she is unattached to a man, she wishes to marry” (445-6).

“Jim goes to see a midwife for the re-visioning necessary to break the silence surrounding birth. Rhetoric and ritual signal that this is no ordinary visit… This scene is a ritual supplication of youth to age, quester to oracle” (446-7).

“In telling a woman’s version of procreativity, Cather’s midwife releases birth from teh secrecy that had enshrouded it, thereby setting in motion the powerful symbolic processes by which a birth story will become a national epic. By the Widow Steavens’s account, rather than suffering the punishment inherited from a fallen Eve, Antonia gave birth without confinement and apparently without pain (‘without calling to anybody, without a groan, she lay down on the bed and bore her child’) rather than affirming a male line, she gave birth to a daughter; and rather than suffering shame over her child, ‘she loved it from the first as dearly as if she’d had a ring on her finger” (447). (AD: but: this isn’t real birth. Instead it affirms a less messy type of procreation in which men aren’t bothered by the real screams of real women in pain that they have caused.)







Willa Cather, On Writing

Cather, Willa. On Writing. Knopf: 1920, 1962.

“The Room Beyond” by Stephen Tennant, intro to volume.

“Willa Cather’s greatness is never more in evidence than when she damns! It interests her only for the sake of truth. And her warm and compelling accents almost belie the censure of her words. She flashes such a strong and benignant glance over the gold-veined rocks of this sere mining country–where only gold is mined, at the price of all else–that it is difficult to realize fully how destructive her words are” (xvii).

Letter to the Editor of The Commonweal on Death Comes for the Archbishop:

“What I got from Father Machebeuf’s letters was the mood, the spirit in which they accepted the accidents and hardships of a desert country, the joyful energy that kept them going. To attempt to convey the hardihood of spirit one must use language a little stiff, a little formal, one must not be afraid of the old trite phraseology of the frontier. Some of those time-worn phrases I used as the note from the piano by which the violinist tunes his instrument. Not that there was much difficulty in keeping the pitch” (10).

“Knowledge that one hasn’t got first-hand is a dangerous thing for a writer, it comes too easily!” (11).

“I am amused that so many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement: ‘This book is hard to classify.’ Then why bother? Many more assert vehemently that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative. In this case I think that term is more appropriate. But a novel, it seems to me, is merely a work of imagination in which a writer tries to present the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own. That is what he really does, whether his method is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective.” (12-13).

Letter to Governor William Cross on Shadows on the Rock 

“Surely you’ll agree with me that our writers experiment too little, and produce their own special brand too readily” (17).

“Escapism” : A letter to The Commonweal 

“You were asking me what I thought about a new term in criticism: the Art of ‘Escape.’ Isn’t the phrase tautological? What has art ever been but escape? To be sure, this definition is for the moment used in a derogatory sense, implying an evasion of duty, something like the behaviour of a poltroon. When the world is in a bad way, we are told, it is the business of the composer and the poet to devote himself to propaganda and fan the flames of indignation.

But the world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time, and art has never contributed anything to help matters–except escape. Hundreds of years ago, before European civilization had touched this continent, the Indian women in the old rock-perched pueblos of the Southwest were painting geometrical patterns on the jars in which they carried water up from the streams. Why did they take the trouble?…the potters experimented with form and colour to gratify something that had no concern with food and shelter. The major arts (poetry, painting, architecture, sculpture, music) have a pedigree all their own. They did not come into being as a means of increasing the game supply or promoting tribal security. They sprang from an unaccountable predilection of the one unaccountable thing in man” (18-19).

[what artists are told is that] “the one really important thing for every individual is his citizenship, his loyalty to a cause–which, of course, always means his loyalty to a party. the composer should be Citizen Beethoven, the painter Citizen Rembrandt, the poet Citizen Shelley, and they should step into line and speed their pen or brush in helping to solve the economic problems which confront society” (21).

“Nearly all the Escapists in the long past have managed their own budget and their social relations so unsuccessfully that I wouldn’t want them for my landlords, or my bankers, or my neighbors. They were valuable, like powerful stimulants, only when they were left out of the social and industrial routine which goes on every day all over the world. Industrial life has to work out its own problems.

Give the people a new word, and they think they have a new fact. The pretentious-sounding noun Escapist isn’t even new” (21).

“But doesn’t the new social restlessness spring from a desire to do away with the exceptional? And isn’t this desire partly the result of thwarted ambitions? Eighteen or twenty years ago there were graduated from our universities a company of unusually promising men, who were also extravagantly ambitious. The world was changing, and they meant to play a conspicuous part in this change…They were to bring about a renaissance within a decade or so. Failing in this, they made a career of destroying the past. The only new thing they offered us was contempt for the old” (24-5). (AD: She’s talking about the Modernists.)

“Is this a natural, unprejudiced way to study history? What does it lead to? Nothing very worthy. And what it comes from is less worthy still.

Some of these iconoclasts and tomb-breakers were undoubtedly sincere. They attacked the old popular heroes in a spirit of dreary hopelessness rather than with a disgust bred of the chagrin from disappointed ambitions. The false past must be destroyed, they said, before the new and the true can be born.

Not at all: spare yourselves that disagreeable duty. Give us a new work of genius of any kind, and if it is alive, and fired with some more vital feeling than contempt, you will see how automatically the old and false makes itself air before the new and true” (26). (AD: what would she say about someone like Eliot who, unlike Pound, attempts to preserve, or at least formulate a useful relationship to, the past in his work?)

“Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and art are strangers” (27).

“The literary radicals tell us there must be a new kind of poetry. There will be, whenever there is a new poet–a genuine one. The thesis that no one can ever write a noble sonnet on a noble theme without repeating Wordsworth, or a mysteriously lovely lyric without repeating Shelley, is an evasion. As well argue that because so many thumb-prints have already been taken, there must be a new method of identification” (28).

“So far, the effort to make a new kind of poetry, ‘pure poetry,’ which eschews (or renounces) the old themes as shop-worn, and confines itself to regarding the grey of a wet oyster shell against the sand of a wet beach through a drizzle of rain, has not produced anything very memorable: not even when the workmanship was good and when a beat in the measure was unexpectedly dropped here and there with what one of the poet’s admirers calls a ‘heart-breaking effect.’ Certainly the last thing such poetry should attempt is to do any heart-breaking” (28).

“As Mary Colum remarked in the Yale Review: ‘The people who talk about the art of escape simply know nothing about art at all.’ At all, I echo!” (29).

“The Novel Démeublé”

“The novel, for a long while, has been over-furnished. The property-man has been so busy on its pages, the importance of material objects and their vivid presentation has been so stressed, that we take it for granted whoever can observe, and can write the English language, can write a novel. Often the latter qualification is considered unnecessary.

In any discussion of the novel, one must make it clear whether one is talking about the novel as a form of amusement, or as a form of art; since they serve very different purposes and in very different ways. One does not wish the egg one eats for breakfast, or the morning paper, to be made of the stuff of immortality. The novel manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people must be considered exactly like a cheap soap or a cheap perfume, or cheap furniture. Fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles made for great numbers of people who do not want quality but quantity, who do not want a thing that ‘wears,’ but who want change,–a succession of new things that are quickly threadbare and can be lightly thrown away…. Amusement is one thing; enjoyment of art is another” (35-6).

“…the most trivial of writers often have a very good observation. Mérimée said in his remarkable essay on Gogol: ‘L’art de choisir parmi les innombrables traits que nous offre la nature est, après tout, bien plus difficile que celui de les observer avec attention et de les rendre avec exactitude” (37).

in Tolstoi and Balzac, the descriptive quality is both appropriate and excellent because “the clothes, the dishes, the haunting interiors of those old Moscow houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized…” (39-40).

“If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism” (40).

“The novelist must learn to write, and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and truer effect. In this directly only, it seems to me, can the novel develop into anything more varied and perfect than all the many novels that have gone before” (41). (AD: Modernism tries to overstep the learning section? Again, what do we do with Eliot’s ‘Tradition & Individual Talent’?)

“Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there–that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself” (42).

“A novel crowded with physical sensations is no less a catalogue than one crowded with furniture” (42).

“How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little–for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude” (43)

“The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett” (Preface)

“The artist spends a lifetime in loving the things that haunt him, in having his mind ‘teased’ by them, in trying to get these conceptions down on paper exactly as they are to him and not in conventional poses supposed to reveal their character; trying this method and that, as a painter tries different lightings and different attitudes with his subject to catch the one that presents it more suggestively than any other. And at the end of a lifetime he emerges with much that is more or less happy experimenting, and comparatively little that is the very flower of himself and his genius” (51).

“My First Novels [There Were Two]”, written for The Colophon, 1931

(as a young writer) “at that time I found the new more exciting than the familiar” (91). (AD: like the Moderns, who she outstripped.)

“The ‘novel of the soil’ had not then come into fashion in this country. The drawing-room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people” (93).

“As everyone knows, Nebraska is distinctly déclassé as a literary background; its very name throws the delicately atuned critic into a clammy shiver of embarrassment. Kansas is almost as unpromising…a New York critic voiced a very general opinion when he said: ‘I simply don’t care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it” (94).

“Too much detail is apt, like any other form of extravagance, to become slightly vulgar; and it quite destroys in a book a very satisfying element analogous to what painters call ‘composition'” (97).

“On the Art of Fiction,” The Borzoi 1920

“Art, it seems to me, should simplify” (102).

“Any first-rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise” (103).

“Katherine Mansfield,” in Not Under Forty 1936.

“It is this overtone, which is too fine for the printing press and comes through without it, that makes one know that this writer had something of the gift which is one of the rarest things in writing, and quite the most precious” (110-111).

” But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.

A fine attitude, youthful and fiery: out of all the difficulties of life and art we will snatch something” (113).

“Light on Adobe Walls,” an unpublished fragments

“Every artist knows that there is no such thing as ‘freedom’ in art. The first thing an artist does when he begins a new work is to lay down the barriers and limitations; he decides upon a certain composition, a certain key, a certain relation of creatures or objects to each other. He is never free, and the more splendid his imagination, the more intense his feeling, the father he goes from general truth and general emotion. Nobody can paint the sun, or sunlight. He can only paint the tricks that shadows play with it, or what it does to forms. He cannot even paint those relations of light and shade– he can only paint some emotion they give him, some man-made arrangement of them that happens to give him personal delight… At bottom all he can give you is the thrill of his own poor little nerve… Each man painted what he got out of light – what it did to him” (123-4). (Ad: this sounds like impressionism, if not full-blown modernism. Shift later in life? How does this relate to her disparagement of “too much description”? Does a focus on objects obscure the impossibility of representing those objects, in the same way that a Renaissance painting does vs. Monet?)


George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. NYC: Norton. 1913, 1970, 2002.

Preface to Pygmalion (by G.B. Shaw)

“As will be seen later on, Pygmalion needs not a preface, but a sequel,which I have supplied in its due place.

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despite him… The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the her of a popular play” (286).

“I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.

Finally, and for the encouragement of people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment, I may add that the change wrought by Professor Higgins in the flower-girl is neither impossible nor uncommon. …many thousands of women have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue. But the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first. An honest and natural slum dialect is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically untaught person to imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club…” (288-9).

1.1 The Flower Girl [with feeble defiance]: “I’ve a right to be here if I like, same as you.

The Note Taker: “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere–no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine git of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible, and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon” (296).

1.2 Higgins [tempted, looking at her] It’s almost irresistible. She’s so deliciously low–so horribly dirty–”

Liza [protesting extremely] Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo-oo!! I ain’t dirty: I washed my face and hands afore I come, I did.


Higgins [becoming excited as the idea grows on him]: What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come everyday. I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe.

Liza [strongly deprecating this view of her]: ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo!

Higgins: [carried away] Yes: in six months – in three if she has a good ear and a quick tongue–Ill take her anywhere and pass her off as anything. We’ll start today: now! this moment! Take her away and clean her, Mrs. Pearce. Monkey Brand, if it won’t come off any other way. Is there a good fire in the kitchen? ……. Take all her clothes off and burn them” (303). (AD: emphasizing the animalistic nature of the poor and of this poor woman in particular by ah-ah-ow sounds and the “Monkey Brand” soap – as if she is a monkey they need to scrub into a woman before making her a duchess. Also, serious rape vibes in the cleaning scene, and burning of clothes.)


Mrs. Pearce: Well, the matter is, sir, that you can’t take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the each.

Higgins: Why not?

Mrs. Pearce: Why not! But you don’t know anything about her. What about her parents? She may be married.

Liza: Garn!

Higgins: There! As the girl very properly says, Garn! Married indeed! Don’t you know that a woman of that class looks a worn out drudge of fifty a year after she’s married?

Liza: Whood marry me?

Higgins: [suddenly resorting to the most thrillingly beautiful low tones in his best elocutionary style] By George, Eliza, the streets will be strewn with the bodies of men shooting themselves for your sake before I’ve done with you (304). (AD: They will turn her from a drudge into a marriageable candidate. This is the highest honor they can do to a woman.)


Higgins: Very well, then, what on earth is all this fuss about? The girl doesn’t belong to anybody–is no use to anybody but me. [He goes to Mrs. Pearce and begins coaxing] You can adopt her, Mrs. Pearce: I’m sure a daughter would be a great amusement to you. Now don’t make any more fuss. Take her downstairs; and–

Mrs. Pearce: But what’s to become of her? Is she to be paid anything? Do be sensible, sir.

Higgins: Oh pay her whatever is necessary: put it down in the housekeeping book…

Pickering: Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?

Higgins: [looking critically at her] Oh no, I don’t think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about. [Cheerily] Have you, Eliza?

Liza: I got my feelings same as anyone else.

Higgins: [to Pickering, reflectively] You see the difficulty!

Pickering: Eh? What difficulty?

Higgins: To get her to talk grammar. The mere pronunciation is easy enough. (305)

(AD: What is Eliza’s use-value? To her father, later, it’s the $5 he gets out of Higgins to let him keep her. To Higgins, it’s as a linguistic experiment. To Mrs. Pearce, it’s as a daughter (?), or a companion and “amusement.”)


Higgins needs domesticating, too: Mrs. Pearse asks that, in order to civilize Eliza, he set a good example: “I ask you not to come down to breakfast in your dressing-gown, or at any rate not to use it as a napkin to the extent you do, sir. And if you would be so good as not to eat everything off the same plate, and to remember not to put the porridge saucepan out of your hand on the clean table-cloth, it would be a better example to the girl… (309).

Higgins (to his mother): Oh, I can’t be bothered with young women. My idea of a lovable woman is something as like you as possible. I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women: some habits lie too deep to be changed… Besides, they’re all idiots. (319). (AD: he wants a woman like his mother, but also like himself (as like you as possible.)

(the respectable Clara picks up Eliza’s “new talk”)

Clara: It’s all a matter of habit. There’s no right or wrong in it. Nobody means anything by it. And it’s so quaint, and gives such a smart emphasis to things that are not in themselves very witty. I find the new small talk delightful and quite innocent. (325).


Mrs. Higgins: You silly boy, of course she’s not presentable. She’s a triumph of your art and of her dressmaker’s; but if you suppose for a moment that she doesn’t give herself away in every sentence she utters, you must be perfectly cracked about her.

Pickering: But don’t you think something might be done? I mean something to eliminate the sanguinary element from her conversation.

Mrs. Higgins: Not as long as she is in Henry’s hands.(326).


Higgins: As if I ever stop thinking about the girl and her confounded vowels and consonants. I’m worn out, thinking about her, and watching her lips and her teeth and her tongue, not to mention her soul, which is the quaintest of the lot.

Mrs. Higgins: You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.

Higgins: Playing! The hardest job I ever tackled: make no mistake about that, mother. But you have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her . It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul. (327). (AD: the power of language is God’s power, which is the power to take one thing and turn it into the type of human he wants it to be. The power to shape language, to write (or over-write) language, is god-like. He creates a speech act much like God’s “let there be light” by forming Eliza as he does. The woman is in fact the speech act he creates.)

All the women around, from Mrs. Pearce to Mrs. Higgins, understand that Higgins and Pickering are playing with Eliza like a toy and not a human. Mrs. Higgins’s “Oh, men, men!!” (329) lets us know that the women recognize that this is a trait of men, and that the two are acting in their capacity as men in their creation of the speech-act of Eliza.)

After they’ve finished with her, they speak about but not to her even more than before – she’s actually turned from a real human woman into a statue in their eyes, and cannot hear or comprehend them. Of course, however, in reality she has been turned from the piece of stone of the lower classes into the beautiful woman of the upper classes they intended, and she rebels at their insensitiveness.

Pickering: There’s always something professional about doing a thing superlatively well. (331). (AD: Their work on her is “professional,” a thing to be “Done,” she is the “thing,” they rather than her did the “work.”)


She throws slippers at him when he can’t find them.

Liza: Nothing wrong – with you. I’ve won your bet for you, haven’t I? That’s enough for you. don’t matter, I suppose.

Higgins: You own my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! won it. What did you throw those slippers at me for?

Liza: Because i wanted to smash your face. I’d like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn’t you leave me where you picked me out of – in the gutter? You thank God it’s all over, and now you can throw me back again there, do you? (331).


Higgins: Well, don’t you thank God it’s all over? Now you are free and can do what you like.

Liza: [pulling herself together in desperation] What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?

Higgins: [Enlightened, but not at all impressed.’ Oh, that’s what’s worrying you, is it? [He thrusts his hands into his pockets and walks about in his usual manner…. as if condescending to a trivial subject out of pure kindness.] I shouldn’t bother about it if I were you. I should imagine you won’t have much difficulty in settling yourself somewhere or other, though I hadn’t quite realized that you were going away… You might marry, you know… You go to bed and have a good nice rest; and then get up and look at yourself in the glass; and you won’t feel so cheap.

[Eliza again looks at him, speechless, and does not stir. The look is quite lost on him: he eats his apple with a dreamy expression of happiness, as it is quite a good one.]

Higgins: [a genial afterthought, occurring to him] I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well.

Liza: We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.

Higgins: [waking up] What do you mean?

Liza: I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me. 

Higgins: Tosh, Eliza. Don’t you insult human relations by dragging all this cant about buying and selling into it You needed marry the fellow if you don’t like him?

Liza: What else am I do to?

Higgins: Oh, lots of things…… (333). (AD: Liza realizes that the upper class of women have nothing to sell but themselves, and this realization brings horror. She asks the important question Edith Wharton’s Lily also asks: What am I fit for if not ornamentation now that I’ve been fashioned and trained in this way? Higgins seems very unconcerned. Also doesn’t seem to occur to him that his choice not to marry should also be available to Eliza.)

Doolittle comes to collect Eliza, though she is absent, and Higgins protests “She doesn’t belong to him. I paid him five pounds for her.” (339).


Liza thanks Pickering and slights Higgins: You see it was so very difficult for me with the example of Professor Higgins always before me. I was brought up to be just like him, unable to control myself, and using bad language on the slightest provocation. And I should never have known that ladies and gentlemen didn’t behave like that if you hadn’t been here…

Pickering: Oh, that’s only his way, you know. He doesn’t mean it.

Liza: Oh, I didn’t mean it either, when I was a flower girl. It was only my way. But you see I did it; and that’s what makes the difference after all. (343). (AD: meaning vs. doing in the context of the speech act: they are more related here than poststructuralism might have us believe. Higgins wants to separate meaning and doing when convenient for him, but Eliza holds him to the moral standard that makes meaning and doing equivalent. If you can make a person a speech act, that means that doing is meaning, and that meaning becomes a deed, or an object.)

Higgins: …I’m not going to have my masterpiece thrown away on Freddy. (349). (AD: in contrast to the Pygmalion myth, the creator does not end with sexual and romantic possession of the created object. Although Higgins protests “throwing away” his statue on an unworthy man, he is more than willing to bestow her on someone else. She is perhaps even more an object than Pygmalion’s statue, for she has exchange as well as use value. She comes out on top here, though, choosing her own inadequate mate.)

“…people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it. This is unbearable, not only because her little drama, if acted on such a thoughtless assumption, must be spoiled, but because the true sequel is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular” (351).

“As our own instincts are not appealed to by her conclusion, let us see whether we cannot discover some reason in it. When Higgins excused his indifference to young women on the ground that they had an irresistible rival to his mother, he gave the clue to his inveterate old-bachelordom…” (352).

“Nevertheless, when we look round and see that hardly anyone is too ugly or disagreeable to find a wife or a husband if he or she wants one, whilst many old maids and bachelors are above the average in quality and culture, we cannot help suspecting that the disentanglement of sex from the associations with which it is so commonly confused, a disentanglement which persons of genius achieve by sheer intellectual analysis, is sometimes produced or aided by parental fascination” (352). (calling/prefiguring Freud)

“he had gone too far with his impetuous bullying, and you will see that Eliza’s instinct had good grounds for warning her not to marry her Pygmalion” (352). (AD: interesting that Shaw puts the agency in Eliza’s hands here rather than Higgins’s. He never asked, which did not make this dynamic explicit.)

“The weak may not be admired and hero-worshipped; but they are by no means disliked or shunned; and they never seem to have the least difficulty in marrying people who are too good for them. They may fail in emergencies; but life is not one long emergency: it is mostly a string of situations for which no exceptional strength is needed, and with which even rather weak people can cope if they have a stronger partner to help them out” (353).

“The very scrupulousness with which he told her that day that he had become used to having her there, and dependent on her for all sorts of little services, and that he should miss her if she went away (it would never have occurred to Freddy or the Colonel to say anything of the sort) deepens her inner certainty that she is ‘no more to him that slippers’; yet she has a sense, too, that his indifference is deeper than the infatuation of commoner souls. She is immensely interested in him. She has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get him alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man. We all have private imaginations of that sort. But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable” (360).

Who is Shaw in this? I suspect he is Higgins rather than Eliza. Text is Eliza, perhaps. Where does the public fit in, since this is a play? He’s the teacher, clearly, since the work is “didactic” explicitly. Are we Eliza?

Peters, Sally. “Shaw’s Life: A Feminist in Spite of Himself,” in The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw, ed. Christopher Innes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

As a child Shaw was “subjected to taunts because of a highly visible effeminacy” (403).

Shaw became very interested in Fabian socialism. “As the socialist group struggled to define itself and to reconcile its visionary and practical elements, Shaw contributed A Manifesto, Fabian Tract no. 2, which wittily declared that “Men no longer need special political privileges to protect them against Women, and that the sexes should henceforth enjoy equal political rights.’ Thanks to Shaw, the equal rights of women were firmly established as a Fabian principle from the outset. Meanwhile the pamphleteer was in his glory as he turned out tract after tract on socialism”  (406).

While Shaw evidenced “deep antipathies toward sex,” he “harbored no qualms in asserting a strong feminism. In order to emancipate herself, Shaw thought the Womanly Woman must repudiate ‘her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself'” (411).

“Shaw’s feminist comment that ‘a woman is really only a man in petticoats’ has often been noted. The ignored second half of his aphorism is just as striking. Writing that ‘a man is a woman without petticoats,’ he makes the petticoats the essential mark of gender (Platform and Pulpit). That is, he confers on woman the signifying power of gender…Similarly–and cryptically–in the preface to Saint Joan, Shaw writes that ‘it is not necessary to wear trousers and smoke big cigars to live a man’s life any more than it is necessary to wear petticoats to live a woman’s” (416).

“Always his vision of the stage was as the apex of human endeavor, a place of beauty and spirituality. Believing that the fates of artists, homosexuals, and women are intertwined, insisting that all great art is didactic, he valiantly worked for a society unblemished by the inequalities of class or gender” (420).


Reynolds, Jean. From Pygmalion’s Wordplay: The Postmodern Shaw (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999).

“In a 1908 letter to G. K. Chesterton, Shaw warned, ‘Don’t forget that the race is only struggling out of its dumbness, and that it is only in moments of inspiration that we get out a sentence. All the rest is padding” (420).

“The problem of language is evident throughout the play. As Eliza’s command of a ‘new speech’ grows, she is both empowered and alienated, admired and rejected” (421).

“Shaw’s flamboyant style displeased Victorians who believed that words are useful enough in their own place–as instruments in the pursuit of truth–but, like proper Victorian ladies, should never call attention to themselves. As a master craftsman, Shaw did not attempt to subordinate his skill to his message” (426).

“Imposter to Imposter,” Shaw told Henderson, “I prefer to mystic to the scientist–the man who at least has the decency to call his nonsense a mystery, to him who pretends that it is ascertained, weight, measured, analysed fact” (427).

“new speech” both empowers and displaces Eliza

Shaw was strongly influenced by Marx, especially Marx’s “attack on Western metaphysics, what Shaw called ‘idealism'” (437)

“Despite the scorn repeatedly heaped on Eliza and others of her class, they perform another vital function that goes beyond their menial services to the rich: They help classify British social structure. Eliza’s ‘Lisson Grove Lingo’ so clearly defines her social position that when she masters upper-class speech, guests at the embassy reception have no clue to her origin. And it is here, with Eliza’s ‘new speech,’ that British class ideology breaks down… Genteel speech, supposedly a natural acquisition of the well bred, isn’t ‘natural’ at all–nor is it a reliable social indicator” (440).

“Eliza’s low status seems ‘primary’–the unchangeable result of heredity–even though it is actually derivative, resulting from economics, education, demographics, and other social phenomena. Higgins’s phonetics game of guessing people’s origins in Act I drives the point home: Speech patterns are the product not of genes or inborn character, but geography” (441).

Gainor, J. Ellen. “The Daughter in her Place.” in Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).

“Higgins, of course, is actually one of three fathers for Eliza, the other two being Colonel Pickering…and Alfred Doolittle. These three men represent the social spectrum of patriarchy, each with his own mode of keeping Eliza ‘in her place'” (519).

“Higgins has reared Eliza in his own image, a male image. Significantly, language, the instrument of male paternity, is the medium through which Eliza assumes her resemblance to Higgins” (520).

“In Act 4, after Eliza’s triumph, when she expresses anger and frustration over the men’s insensitivity to her dominant role in the success, Higgins remarks, ‘You’re not bad-looking: it’s quite a pleasure to look at you sometimes – not now, of course, because you’re crying and looking as ugly as the very devil; but when you’re all right and quite yourself.” The subtext of his comment, “when you behave in a feminine fashion–that is, crying or being temperamental–you are ‘not yourself,’ not the creature I made,” comes through clearly. When in act 5 Eliza asserts her independece Higgins exclaims triumphantly–in the same manner in which Shaw’s avuncular persona instructed ‘his’ Dorothea–’By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this. Her attainment of Higgins’s sense of ‘womanhood’ allows her access to male identity: ‘Now you’re a tower of strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors instead of only two men and a silly girl” (521).



Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Broadview Editions, 1905, 2005.

(intro by Janet Beer)

“There were two prior titles of The House of Mirth, both recorded in Wharton’s notebooks: one was ‘The Year of the Rose’ and the other ‘A Moment’s Ornament.’ The final title derives from Ecclesiastes 7:4: ‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth,’ a text that Wharton’s publishers reproduced in the first edition, but which Wharton deleted as too morally crass to include” (17).

The book was originally serialized in Scribner’s Magazine between January and November 1905, and was published in book form in October 1905.

Opening sentence: “Selden paused with surprise” (37). (to see Lily.) Mirrors end when he pauses with surprise at her death.

“There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions” (37).

“Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her” (39).

“How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman.’ She leaned back in a luxury of discontent.

Selden was rummaging in a cupboard for the cake.

‘Even women,’ he said, ‘have been known to enjoy the privileges of a flat.’

‘Oh, governesses–or widows. But not girls–not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!” (41).

“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (41).

“We’re so different, you know, Gerty and I. She likes being good, and I like being happy” (42).

[on marrying] “Ah, there’s the difference – a girl must, a man may if he chooses.’ She surveyed him critically. ‘Your coat’s a little shabby–but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop–and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership” (46). (AD: Clothing is a Derridean parargon to Woman’s being. Woman dressing herself is a business venture – humorously, men sign onto a “partnership” to dress a woman well in exchange for a wife.)

“Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? …it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse!” (49).

“Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. But the luxury of others was not what she wanted…. Now she was beginning to chafe at the obligations it imposed, to feel herself a mere pensioner on the splendour which had once seemed to belong to her. There were even moments when she was conscious of having to pay her way” (60). (AD: Women are constantly having to scheme to access money, but consciousness of this scheme is distasteful and unwomanly.)

“A world in which such things could be seemed a miserable place to Lily Bart, but then she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations” (62).

After her father’s “ruin” of the family’s finances through illness, Lily’s mother “used to say to her with a kind of fierce vindictiveness: ‘But you’ll get it all back–you’ll get it all back, with your face…'” (63).

“Only one thought consoled her [Lily’s mother], and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved… pointing out to her daughter what might be achieved through such a gift, and dwelling on the awful warnings of those who, in spite of it, had failed to get what they wanted: to Mrs. Bart, only stupidity could explain the lamentable dénouement of some of her examples” (69).(AD: A girl’s beauty is a physical piece of property transferrable between others and useful as a survival tool.)

“Every one knows you’re a thousand times handsomer and cleverer than Bertha; but then you’re not nasty. And for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman.’

Miss Bart stared in affected reproval. ‘I thought you were so fond of Bertha.’

‘Oh, I am – it’s much safer to be fond of dangerous people” (79).

“Lily found herself the centre of that feminine solicitude which envelops a young woman in the mating season. A solitude was tacitly created for her in the crowded existence of Bellomont, and her friends could not have shown a greater readiness for self-effacement had her wooing been adorned with all the attributes of romance” (82).

“Lily considered with interest the expression of their faces: the girl’s turned toward her companion’s like an empty plate held up to be filled, while the man lounging at her side already betrayed the encroaching boredom which would presently crack the thin veneer of his smile.

‘How impatient men are!’ Lily reflected. ‘All Jack has to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet and let that girl marry him, whereas I have to calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if I were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw me hopelessly out of time” (83).

“Lily had known the species before: she was aware that such a guarded nature must find one huge outlet of egoism, and she determined to be to hi what his Americana had hitherto been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it” (85).

Selden “had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle , and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom” (90).

“The spot was charming, and Lily was not insensible to the charm, or to the fact that her presence enhanced it; but she was not accustomed to taste the joys of solitude except in company, and the combination of a handsome girl and a romantic scene struck her as too good to be wasted. No one, however, appeared to profit by the opportunity; and after a half hour of fruitless waiting she rose and wandered on” (96). …

“Lily had no real intimacy with nature, but she had a passion for the appropriate and could be keenly sensitive to a scene which was the fitting background of her own sensations” (99).

[conversing w/Selden]

“Success?” she hesitated. ‘Why, to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose. It’s a relative quality, after all. Isn’t that your idea of it?’

‘My idea of it? God forbid!’ He sat up with sudden energy, resting his elbows on his knees and staring out upon the mellow fields. ‘My idea of success,’ he said, ‘is personal freedom.’

‘Freedom? Freedom from worries?’

‘From everything–from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, fro all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit–that’s what I call success.” (103). (AD: at the end of the day, Lily’s death offers her exactly this freedom in the only way she would have been able to attain it. In some ways she beats Selden at his own game of freedom, becoming pure ‘spirit.’)

“The cleverest girl may miscalculate where her own interests are concerned, may yield too much at one moment and withdraw too far at the next: it takes a mother’s unerring vigilance and foresight to land her daughters safely in the arms of wealth and suitability”  (127). (AD: Unmothered, Lily has no guidance.)

“She could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume” (136). (AD: What is her relationship to nature? She has no intimacy with it, but is sensitive to it as an appropriate background. Is she, the flower, an appropriate background to a man she will marry? Is her attempt to be a flower an attempt to be wallpaper?)

“There had of course been ‘fast’ girls even in Mrs. Peniston’s early experience; but their fastness, at worst, was understood to be a mere excess of animal spirits, against which there could be no graver charge than that of being ‘unladylike.’ The modern fastness appeared synonymous with immorality, and the mere idea of immorality was as offensive to Mrs. Peniston as a sell of cooking in the drawing-room: it was one of the conceptions her mind refused to admit” (163).

p. 171 scene of looking at a racy painting of a woman that mirrors Villette 

Scene of Mr. Trenor’s cornering and threatening of Lily: “Her eyes travelled despairingly about the room – they lit on the bell, and she remembered that help was in call. Yes, but scandal with it– a hideous mustering of tongues. No, she must fight her way out alone. …Old habits, old restraints, the hand of inherited order, plucked back the bewildered mind which passion had jolted from its ruts. Trenor’s eye had the haggard look of the sleep-walker waked on a deathly ledge” (184).

[says Ned Van Alstyne] “When a girl’s as good-looking as that she’d better marry; then no questions are asked. In our imperfectly organized society there is no provision as yet for the young woman who claims the privileges of marriage without assuming its obligations” (195).

What’s going on with Gerty? She kind of wants Selden, but also kind of wants Lily. “What right had she to dream the dreams of loveliness? A dull face invited a dull fate….She wanted happiness–wanted it as fiercely and unscrupulously as Lily did, but without Lily’s power of obtaining it. And in her conscious impotence she lay shivering, and hated her friend––” (200).

[re: Gerty and Lily] “The mortal maid on the shore is helpless against the siren who loves her prey: such victims are floated back dead from their adventure” (204).

205 Gerty holding Lily

“She [Lily] was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it” (207).

“There would be a perilous moment, perhaps: but could she not trust to her beauty to bridge it over, to land her safe in the shelter of his [Selden’s] devotion?” (212). (AD: answer is no, her beauty fails her and she dies.)

[says Mrs. Fisher] “That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic… sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for” (227).

“You asked me just now for the truth–well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. – My good Gerty, you don’t happen to have a cigarette about you?” (265).

“If they are not true,’ she said, ‘doesn’t that alter the situation?’

“He met this with a steady gaze of his [Rosedale] small stock-taking eyes, which made her feel herself no more than some superfine human merchandise. ‘I believe it does in novels; but I’m certain it don’t in real life. You know that as well as I do…” (294).

Lily tries to market herself non-sexually after failing to market herself sexually:

“Having been accustomed to take herself at the popular valuation, as a person of energy and resource, naturally fitted to dominate any situation in which she found herself, she vaguely imagined that such gifts would be of value to seekers after social guidance; but there was unfortunately no specific head under which the art of saying and doing the right thing could be offered in the market… difficulty of discovering a workable vein in the vague wealth of Lily’s graces” (307). (AD: women are meant to be ornamental, not marketable; women are designed to be economically useless in and of themselves (to have no use value, only exchange value); women marketing themselves non-sexually is ridiculous.)

When Lily awakes at the hotel with Mrs. Norma Hatch, “her first feeling was one of purely physical satisfaction” at the sheets and pillow (311). Despite her relatively lack of sexual forwardness, she takes a great deal of account of “physical satisfaction” at luxury. This is almost sexual for her.

“Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency” (337).

“Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird’s breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?” (341).

[Lily meets with one of the girls she helped find work, who is now married with a baby.]

You in trouble? I’ve always thought of you as being so high up, where everything was just grand. Sometimes, when I felt real mean, and got to wondering why things were so queerly fixed in the world, I used to remember that you were having a lovely time, anyhow, and that seemed to show there was a kind of justice somewhere” (352). (AD: deferral of justice to others hides the fact that no one is really that happy and prevents systemic changes.)

“Lily felt the soft weight [of the child] sink trustfully against her breast. The child’s confidence in its safety thrilled her with a sense of warmth and returning life, and she bent over, wondering at the rosy blur of the little face, the empty clearness of the eyes, the vague tendrilly motions of the folding and unfolding fingers. At first the burden in her arms seemed as light as a pink cloud or a heap of down, but as she continued to hold it the weight increased, sinking deeper, and penetrating her with a strange sense of weakness, as though the child entered into her and became a part of herself” (355). (AD: you think here that maybe Lily will be redeemed through her childbearing, as the Bible suggests, but instead she dies, cradling herself to herself like a child. She becomes the child rather than bears one.)

“He [Selden] knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.

The End” (369). (AD: Is “The End” the word, or is it something else? Love? Success? Freedom? Meant to be ambiguous.)

Wharton’s Introduction to 1936 Edition of House of Mirth 

“When I wrote The House of Mirth I held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York society in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by any novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of traditions and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable. / Why had no one written a novel of New York society? The answer is fairly obvious – most people thought it offered nothing worth writing about…” (372). (AD: frilly complexity of women offers nothing worth writing about. She saw that they did.)

“The fact is that Nature, always wasteful, and apparently compelled to create dozens of stupid people in order to produce a single genius, seems to reverse the process in manufacturing the shallow and the idle. Such groups always rest on an underpinning of wasted human possibilities and it seemed to me that the fate of the persons embodying these possibilities ought to redeem my subject from insignificance. This is the key to The House of Mirth, and its meaning; and I believe the book has owed its success, from the first, as much to my picture of the slow disintegration of Lily Bart as to the details of the ‘conversation piece’ of which she forms the central figure” (373).

the “very group among whom I had lived y life and situated my story” met the book with “a loud cry of rejection and reprobation” (375).