115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Anorexia Nervosa in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

Molly Hatay-Ferens, University of Oregon

Many scholars have devoted attention to the ways bodies function as commodities Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905). However, there is little work on the roles food refusal and anorexia nervosa play in this novel. My paper examines the fraught nature of Lily Bart’s food refusal.


As Gerty Farish examines the work of Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese, she remarks, “it’s very beautiful, but his women are so dreadfully fat” (Wharton 132). As if to interrogate the figures, she asks, “Goddesses? Well, I can say that if they’d been mortals and had to wear corsets, it would be better for them” (Wharton 132). Gerty’s comments begin to reveal an important point of tension in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. The bodies of the female characters are the places where social and economic pressures most interestingly converge. While the interplay of economic and social forces has led many scholars to examine its effects on women’s bodies, I believe that it is important to also focus on the role that food-refusal, self-starvation, and anorexia nervosa play in the case of Lily Bart. This is a surprisingly unexplored issue in critical writings about The House of Mirth. While a few scholars have devoted attention to turn-of-the-century dieting or “reducing” culture in other works by Wharton, food refusal and anorexia nervosa in The House of Mirth remain largely unexplored. My paper will seek to understand Lily Bart’s body and her starvation from both an economic and a social perspective. I will attempt to illustrate that her refusal of food is connected to her perception of her body as a commodity that she has placed on a fickle marriage market. My paper attempts to explain the ways in which Lily’s anorectic behavior is both silent and highly communicative, adheres to the dominant notions of beauty and then violates these same beauty standards, and seems to connote self-possession and is ultimately doomed. As such, I will argue that Lily’s food refusal should be read as both her attempt to gain power over her own body and its fate while simultaneously participating in deadly notions of Victorian femininity. My argument is grounded in the work of Tim Armstrong’s Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study, Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, amoung others. This paper also attempts to understand the novel’s presentation of food refusal in the context of the historical moment in which anorexia nervosa was becoming an increasingly common disease among young middle-class women. As Brumberg notes, anorexia nervosa functioned as a “discreet, quiet, and ladylike” form of control over the Victorian family (137). Brumberg’s work on the historical factors that contributed to the proliferation of anorexia nervosa helps to illustrate the powerful rebellion and submission that Lily’s food refusal illustrates. I hope to suggest a new way of understanding Lily Bart’s response to her position in The House of Mirth and a different and nuanced way of understanding her death.