Intimate Exchanges: Work, Affect, and Exploitation in Edith Wharton’s <i>The House of Mirth</i>

  • James Dorson Freie Universität, Berlin


The opposition between the world of work and the exchanges that constitute it, on the one hand, and that of intimacy and affect, on the other, has been a rich source of criticism on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ever since its publication in 1905. Through a close rereading of the novel in terms of emotional labor, this essay argues that the novel is less concerned with questioning the confluence of work and intimacy in the late nineteenth century than with the problems arising from attempts to separate them. By thematizing the problem of compensation for work that is meant to resemble leisure, The House of Mirth is read here as a story of the exploitation that results from refusing to recognize emotional labor as work. While calculation and intimacy are inextricably joined by economic necessity in the figure of Lily Bart, it is ultimately not the commodification of intimacy that destroys her, but the compulsive search for “the real Lily Bart” that her circle of friends engage in.