"Hieroglyph world": cultural anthropology in the works of Edith Wharton

This essay examines Edith Wharton's integration of the then-developing science of anthropology in her novels. Wharton's innovation here is to apply an anthropological lens not to a foreign culture but to America itself. Through this technique, Wharton equates the domineering social codes of the "Old New York" of her childhood with the cruel and arbitrary practices associated with caste-based societies. It is the introduction of a twentieth-century viewpoint into a nineteenth century narrative that elevates Wharton's novels from straightforward historical melodramas to works of cultural anthropology, charting the reign, collapse, and legacy of a particular social code.