Sandy Buelow

Document Type

Thesis - University Access Only

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department / School



Contrary to the prevailing critical opinions that Wharton's female protagonists suffer their fates through the restrictions, expectations, and demands of a closed social system, the young women who perceive themselves as "special," that is, unique among their peers due to their moral, physical, or intellectual/spiritual character victimize themselves. These women's destinies are hardly the product of naturalistic social determinism but are the results of self-imposed isolation and the consequent wrong choices that lead to personal unhappiness. To demonstrate this principle, I will examine Lily Bart, Nan St. George, Justine Brent, Susy Lansing, and Undine Spragg, the female protagonists of The House of Mirth, The Buccaneers, The Fruit of the Tree, The Glimpses of the Moon, and The Custom of the Country. After examining these protagonists' "special" qualities, I will demonstrate how their self-perceptions lead to their unhappiness. Lily Bart, while older than the other four, is yet unmarried and is, therefore, on her own in a patriarchal society to make her own decisions. She knows that her special beauty is her ticket to the wealth she dreams of, but her faith in its power and the contradictions that come with it, and with her spirit, lead her into a spiral of choices, resulting in her death. Nan St. George, too, feels her "difference" and attributes it to her intellectual qualities. She searches for a husband with only that sense of specialness as her guide. Although the novel ends with the right match for her, she must overcome the results of her first disastrous marriage. Justine Brent draws upon her own sense of special moral insight to make choices in a society that does not quite understand her reasoning. She also falls in love with a man who she thinks shares her morals, but her deceit because of that love and his blindness because of self-righteousness results in a tainted and unhappy marriage. Susy Lansing also believes that her intellect is exceptional. She thinks she can have it all because she was able to create an infallible plan that fails. The ambiguous ending leaves the readers wondering if her marriage will truly be happy. Undine's faith in her beauty and its power, like Lily's, drives her towards her goal of accumulating riches. Unlike Lily, though, she fails to see the moral consequences, and although she has her match at the end, readers are left wondering if that will be enough. This greed for power and money leads to the destruction of many lives, and Undine is never satisfied nor happy with what she has won. These five female protagonists share similar qualities with each other as well as with other female protagonists in Wharton's novels. However, their differences are key in understanding why they victimize themselves or allow themselves to be victimized by others. The results of their actions may be different as well, but their thought processes in determining their choices when faced with dilemmas are the key. I will use a close reading of the texts and intensive character analysis to support my premises. While my approach will not be exclusively psychoanalytic, I will explore the ways in which self-perception affects individual choice and becomes a principal factor in determining individual destiny.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Wharton, Edith, 1862-1937 -- Characters -- Women Women in literature Choice (Psychology) in literature Self-perception in literature



Number of Pages



South Dakota State University