Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Allen, Annette C.

Author's Keywords

American art; Consumer culture; American literature; Women


Women in literature--History--19th century; Consumption (Economics) in literature; Materialism in literature; American literature--19th century--Social aspects


This dissertation examines American consumer culture and its influences on images of women created in art and literature at the turn of the twentieth century. It is divided into four substantive parts and uses the methods and theoretical approaches from four separate disciplines: social history, social theory, literature and art. The study offers a cultural discourse of the period by analyzing the novels of Edith Wharton The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country, and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, and also looking into the paintings of American Impressionists and Realists. It interprets the fictional and visual portrayals of women in relation to the issues of display, spectatorship, material desires, and commodity exchange. Chapter I provides a socio-historical overview of the period that gave birth to a modern consumer culture. It focuses on the rise of advertisement industry and the development of department stores that emphasized the acquisition of material goods and personal satisfaction. Furthermore the chapter explores how the commodity culture affected the place and role of women and why they became so susceptible to the demands of consumer capitalism. Chapter II concentrates on Wharton's novels and studies how the fundamentals of the consumer culture shape the relationship between men and women in the society. It employs the paradigm of display and spectatorship to construe the social and psychological realities of the novels' heroines - Lily Bart and Undine Spragg. The chapter centers the argument on the issues of marriage, its price and function, because both women must marry not only to gain respectable social status but also to fulfill their desires for money, material goods, and enjoyments. Chapter III studies Dreiser's novel and explores how society constructs the individual's identity by means of material desires. It draws upon Dreiser's metaphor of the "walled city," an axis of money economy and desires, to demonstrate how the novel's heroine Carrie Meeber appropriates the city's sights and sounds to fuel her consuming desires and dream of attaining happiness. While Chapter II and III investigate literary representations of women, Chapter IV analyzes the range of women's images, from upper class to working class, in the paintings of American Impressionists and Realists. It discusses the iconography of women with regard to issues of fashion, consumption, leisure, and beauty. The chapter shows how the works of American artists, similar to writers of the period, reveal the effects of consumer culture and gender ideology of the period as women displayed, expressed, negotiated, and asserted themselves in a male-dominated culture.