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New York City: «Gilt Cage» or «Promised Land»?

Representations of Urban Space in Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska

Series:

Irene Billeter Sauter

New York City plays a significant, albeit previously neglected, role in the urban narratives of Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska at a time when the city was as new and central to the American experience as had been the Western frontier. New York City was the epicenter of the late 19th and early 20th century world at large; its constantly shifting landscape caused by urbanization, industrialization, women’s emancipation, and immigration found its representation in the extremes of the urban spectrum on Fifth Avenue and the Lower East Side. Narrating the domestic sphere from widely diverging vantage points, native Edith Wharton and immigrant Anzia Yezierska present a polarized city where domesticity is always a primal and existential concern. By analyzing exterior and interior city representations in Wharton’s and Yezierska’s New York literature, the author shows how urban space greatly affects, influences and alters questions of identity, assimilation, acculturation, and alienation in protagonists who cannot escape their respective settings. Edith Wharton’s «millionaire» heroines are framed by «conspicuous consumption» in the gilt interiors of their New York City while Anzia Yezierska’s «immigrant» protagonists hunger for a «Promised Land» of knowledge and learning in the perpetually changing urban landscape.

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4. Conclusion: “Gilt Cage” or “Promised Land”:Resignation and Hope in the City - 235

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4. Conclusion: “Gilt Cage” or “Promised Land”: Resignation and Hope in the City I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes. 213 Throughout her urban narratives, Edith Wharton always returns to analogies of people and homes. The two are interlinked, almost fatally so at times. In the above quote, a woman’s soul, her “innermost room”, is never truly reached as no one ever finds access to it. In the short story “Autres Temps”, as we have previously seen, the protagonist once believed that I’d got out of it once; but what really happened was that the other people went out, and left me in the same little room […]. I’ve lost any illusions I may have had as to an angel’s opening the door.214 Wharton’s urban protagonists are passively stuck in their rooms. They are physically incarcerated because they are also mentally imprisoned by stringent social control. By submitting themselves to the rules and regulations that govern New...

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