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Edith Wharton’s Novel as Historiographic Metafiction: Revealing the Postmodern Construction of Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence

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Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), has long been regarded as a pre-feminist and realist ‘novel of manners’ by academics. The immutable temporal and historical localization of postmodernism and feminism has excluded Wharton from the canon of postmodern feminism. This study attempts to modernize prevalent literary conventions by reclaiming Wharton as a postmodern and feminist author. It examines the manner in which Wharton constructs and represents cultures of femininity (specifically, that of Ellen Olenska) within regimes of discourse in the text. To this end, it draws upon postmodern scholarship: Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and hyperreality, and Gilles Lipovetsky’s writings on aesthetics as a representational avenue for self-expression. In addition, the study references Katherine Joslin’s thesis on women’s dress in Wharton’s novels to present a textual interpretation of fashion materiality employed in the production of Ellen’s gendered and styled body and identity. In doing so, the analysis establishes Wharton’s text as a work of historiographic metafiction – a term coined by Linda Hutcheon to denote the postmodern genre of reflexive (i.e. self-regarding but not necessarily self-conscious) fiction concerned with the writing of history.

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