Class #42

Edith Wharton: Myth-Maker For The American Soul?

Betsy Lovell Arsenault

July 19 - July 25


instructor imageEdith Wharton lived a long and productive life, writing some 30 published works by the time of her death in 1937, with two more published posthumously. Although eventually abandoning life in America to live abroad, Wharton’s most frequent topic was society in America, specifically in New York City and, to a lesser extent, New England. Writing in 1971, Louis Auchincloss, acclaimed essayist, critic and historian, asserted that the society which Wharton described so well “was an integral part of the American dream—the American myth—the American illusion.” This class will examine this and other premises about Edith Wharton’s work by reading the novel that first brought her literary fame, The House of Mirth, a later novella, Summer, and several short stories from the last decade of her life, including “Roman Fever.”

Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth, is a person of integrity and such morality that she cannot accept the vulgarity of the world of the nouveau riche and therefore cannot “sell” herself into that world once she recognizes her old one has changed. Charity Royall, the heroine of Summer, has a similar sense of integrity, but her background is sharply different from Lily’s, and she is much more impetuous and careless about society’s rules. In discussing the different social milieux that challenge these heroines to make drastic but contrasting decisions, the class will address the question of what freedoms society could offer independent-minded women, what kinds of compromises were acceptable to Wharton, and how these issues may figure into the “American dream.”

Betsy Lovell Arsenault graduated from Swarthmore College with degree in English. Three years after she finished at Swarthmore, she decided she could no longer resist the powerful call of teaching and attended the University of Chicago for an M.A.T. in English, subsequently taking a job at a high school in a Southern suburb of Chicago. After an interesting but turbulent year in that school, she moved to New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois and surprised herself by staying there 32 years, with an additional ten added on for long-term subbing and tutoring. She continues to read for both fun and further education and has taken a variety of courses in her spare time.

Betsy will contact students prior to class with additional information about specific editions of the texts the class will use. For now, ISBN 978-0198709985, Summer; ISBN 978-0140187298, The House of Mirth.

Level: All Levels

Pricing (per person):
$1080 Dorm Room Package*
$1180 Two-Person Room Package*
$1770 Single-Person Room Package* (limited availability)
$635 Commuter Package** (limited availability)

*package includes tuition, lodging & 16 meals
**package includes tuition & 7 meals