The Decoration of Houses Essay

The Decoration of Houses Essay

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In Edith Wharton’s first major work, The Decoration of Houses, she states that “the impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house should always, to the novelist, be an event in the history of the soul” (qtd. in Falk 23). Later in her Pulitzer-winning novel The Age of Innocence, Wharton uses her knowledge and love of architecture to develop her characters, as she had previously deemed important. Thus, she takes style of houses, their design, and their European or American identification into consideration and depicts characteristics of the New York society and the major characters. Ranks in the social order are shown based on where in the New York district a character lives, personalities of aristocrats that are cold are shown through plain walls and furnishings, and some characters are separated from society because they follow different strains of architecture and interior design.
At the beginning of the novel, Beaufort’s house quickly stands out as a character who earned his place in society through the architecture of his home. It is the first described and “one of the few in New York that possess[es] a ballroom . . . this undoubted superiority [is] felt to compensate for whatever [is] regrettable in the Beaufort past” (13). This characterizes the upper class society of New York. Clearly, architecture must be important if a ballroom guarantees someone a high rank, and it can even cover up the fact that Beaufort was not born into the social order and has a mistress. Ada Van Gastel, a Wharton critic who wrote “The Location and Decoration of Houses in The Age of Innocence,” points out another way that Beaufort’s property represents him: “Having only recently entered society, he still resides on the ...


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...lot, yet at this point, he is identified with New York. He tries to break away later, but like the plot of the novel, he cannot leave America or the architecture attributed to it.
Wharton artfully uses her love of architecture in The Age of Innocence. She shows some characters as elite but plain New Yorkers, just like their house. Beaufort uses his to break into society, but he never quite fits. All the same, Archer cannot be characterized as directly. He wants to be European, like Ellen Olenska and Catherine Mingott, but it does not work. Architecture seems to confusedly describe him in this, which portrays his own confusion with it. It may also show Edith Wharton’s uncertainty on whether she liked his character or not. In the end, when she announces that he will never fit in with the European characters, maybe she is deciding her view of him.

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