New York City: "gilt cage" or "promised land" ? : representations of urban space in Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska


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PhD thesis: a PhD thesis.
New York City: "gilt cage" or "promised land" ? : representations of urban space in Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska
Billeter Sauter I.
Halter P.
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Université de Lausanne, Faculté des lettres
Faculté des lettres Université de Lausanne UNIL - Dorigny Anthropole - bureau 2049 CH-1015 Lausanne SUISSE
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This thesis explores the importance of literary New York City in the urban narratives of Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska. It specifically looks at the Empire City of the Progressive Period when the concept of the city was not only a new theme but also very much a typical American one which was as central to the American experience as had been the Western frontier. It could be argued, in fact, that the American city had become the new frontier where modern experiences like urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and also women's emancipation and suffrage, caused all kinds of sensations on the human scale from smoothly lived assimilation and acculturation to deeply felt alienation because of the constantly shifting urban landscape.
The developing urban space made possible the emergence of new female literary protagonists like the working girl, the reformer, the prostitute, and the upper class lady dedicating her life to 'conspicuous consumption'. Industrialization opened up city space to female exploration: on the one hand, upper and middle class ladies ventured out of the home because of the many novel urban possibilities, and on the other, lower class and immigrant girls also left their domestic sphere to look for paid jobs outside the home. New York City at the time was not only considered the epicenter of the world at large, it was also a city of great extremes. Everything was constantly in flux: small brownstones made way for ever taller skyscrapers and huge waves of immigrants from Europe pushed native New Yorkers further uptown on the island, adding to the crowdedness and intensity of the urban experience. The city became a polarized urban space with Fifth Avenue representing one end of the spectrum and the Lower East Side the other. Questions of space and the urban home greatly mattered.
It has been pointed out that the city setting functions as an ideal means for the display of human nature as well as social processes. Narrative representations of urban space, therefore, provide a similar canvas for a protagonist's journey and development. From widely diverging vantage points both Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska thus create a polarized city where domesticity is a primal concern. Looking at all of their New York narratives by close readings of exterior and interior city representations, this thesis shows how urban space greatly affects questions of identity, assimilation, and alienation in literary protagonists who cannot escape the influence of their respective urban settings. Edith Wharton's upper class "millionaire" heroines are framed and contained by the city interiors of "old" New York, making it impossible for them to truly participate in the urban landscape in order to develop outside of their 'Gilt Cages'. On the other side are Anzia Yezierska's struggling "immigrant" protagonists who, against all odds, never give up in their urban context of streets, rooftops, and stoops. Their New York City, while always challenging and perpetually changing, at least allows them perspectives of hope for a 'Promised Land' in the making. Central for both urban narrative approaches is the quest for a home as an architectural structure, a spiritual resting place, and a locus for identity forming. But just as the actual city embraces change, urban protagonists must embrace change also if they desire to find fulfillment and success. That this turns out to be much easier for Anzia Yezierska's driven immigrants rather than for Edith Wharton's well established native New Yorkers is a surprising conclusion to this urban theme.
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21/10/2010 11:55
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20/08/2019 13:23
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