The Female Body As Form Of Currency In Wharton And Fitzgerald's Works

Both F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Diamond as big as The Ritz and Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth employ the female sexual body as a form of currency. To determine the reasoning behind this depiction of women as a form of exchangeable currency, it is important to focus on the different forms utilised by each author. Both Kismine Washington and Lily Bart are defined by the construction of their virginity which becomes, as Irigaray suggests, ‘the sign of relations among the men’ within the novels. Both protagonists are conscious of their exchange value between men and both attempt to exploit this position to their own advantage. It is essential to consider how both Kismine’s and Lily’s virginities are constructed by both Fitzgerald and Wharton, and the outcome of their exchange among the men within the novels.

In The Diamond as Big as The Ritz, Kismine Washington immediately becomes a prime example of the use of the female sexual body as a form of currency, most notably through her virginity. Kismine who is ‘dressed in a white little gown that came just below her knees’ signifies the innocence and purity of youth, she becomes a figure who is both sheltered and hoarded by her father. This innocence, however, is tainted by the ‘wreath of mignonettes clasped with blue slices of sapphire bound up in her hair.’ Kismine’s innocence can therefore be questioned, as she seemingly appears to embody a purity that separates her from the corruption of her father, however the ‘blue slices of sapphire,’ that are indicative of her family’s wealth, signify the role she maintains within it. This prefigures the role of Kismine as a trap and her femininity as form of deception, as it later becomes apparent that she is aware and complicit in her family’s venality.

As Irigaray suggests, ‘the exchange of women and the circulation of women among men is what establishes the operation of society, at least patriarchal society;’ women, therefore, become viable through their reproductive value. The exchange of women allows for a form of social reproduction that maintains the distribution of wealth among the elite class, and reproduces social inequalities that are present within class system through generations. This positions the female as something exchangeable, and that allows for men to establish relationships through investing women and gaining something in return. Fitzgerald, however, seems to be doing something different with social reproduction in this novel that can be viewed satirically. To her father, Braddock Washington, Kismine’s exchange value is precarious, precisely because she bears the burden of his secret and his wealth. Rather than presenting Kismine as a form of exchange to John, Braddock Washington perceives their communications as a threat and Kismine further confirms this by stating that he would ‘Have [John] poisoned if he thought they were in love.’ For her father, then, Kismine becomes another object that he must hoard to ensure the stability of his wealth. Not only does the hoarding of the female body inhibit social reproduction and the distribution of wealth, it prevents any form of reproduction. If, as Irigaray claims, ‘Woman thus has value only in that she can be exchanged’ Kismine’s ‘still-born tear’ then becomes something more perverse, precisely because her means of production is governed by her father. Kismine then becomes representative of the unproductive use of capital and a form of pure exchange value.

Although Lily complies with Irigaray’s notion of the virginal woman as ‘pure exchange value’ among men, Kismine’s virginity can be viewed in a way that differs from this. Unlike Lily, Kismine resides in the stability of the château and of her father’s wealth, or what she believes to be stable. While Lily’s virginity becomes a matter of life or death, Kismine’s virginity is not of equal importance because the individuals who visit the château cannot testify to or deny her virginity, precisely because they are murdered before they leave. Like the diamond that the château is built upon, Kismine’s sexuality becomes sinister as she uses it as a means of seducing John, despite being fully aware of his predetermined fate at the hands of her father. It is evident that Kismine’s virginity is something that remains important, as when John suggests that she is ‘more sophisticated’ than he first thought her to be she becomes extremely distressed. As economic beings, the virginal woman is exchangeable, which seemingly provides Kismine with a sense of purpose, she, therefore, avoids John’s accusations of her being ‘sophisticated’ because this would remove her from this exchange system. Kismine, in attempting to provide testament to her innocence defines herself as ‘absolutely fresh ground,’ which seemingly suggests that she virginal and untouched by any male. However, an implication of Kismine as ‘fresh ground’ that is less apparent is the evoking of the violent production of grinding a substance. Kismine can then be perceived as an artifice that on the surface appears innocent, but when looking at her interior becomes violent. This innocence soon becomes a disillusionment as John learns that Kismine is complicit in her father’s corrupt system that he uses to maintain his wealth.

There is a sense of deceit that surrounds Kismine’s virginity which becomes apparent when she says ‘You haven’t asked me to kiss you once. I thought boys always did that nowadays,’ to John. This sense of knowledge and her sexual manipulation of John presupposes that Kismine has in fact acquired experience with other males that have been shipped in for her pleasure. On the surface she appears entirely innocent as a production of virginity, but under her exterior she embodies the form of the female as a seductress. The entire novel is based around a mine of wealth, and ‘Kismine’ then becomes the erotic, and reproductive mine which is further exemplified through her depiction as ‘fresh ground.’ Her ‘stillborn tear,’ however, is indicative of the limits to her ability to reproduce, precisely because she is unable to marry anyone that her father does not control. Kismine then becomes an artifice that is violent and a fantasy that is in fact false. In suggesting that she ‘can’t let such an inevitable thing as death stand in the way of enjoying life,’ Kismine, herself, becomes a source of abhorrence and violence. In allowing herself to form a relationship with John, and the other guests, she remains unaffected by their inevitable fate precisely because she does not enable it to interfere with the pleasure and what she gains from the relationship. Like the wealth that the Washington’s family is based upon, Kismine’s perfection that John perceives at the beginning becomes a disillusionment of what actually lies beneath this beautiful exterior.

It is evident that John views females as commodities as he is ‘critical about women. A single defect – a thick ankle, a hoarse voice, a glass eye – was enough to make him utterly indifferent.’ For John, Kismine is an extension of the beauty of the château; Upon seeing her for the first time he believes that she is ‘the incarnation of physical perfection.’ The fact that Kismine’s perfection, that is also interrelated to the château, is on a ‘physical’ basis underpins the sense of something more sinister lying beneath the exterior. As an extension of the château, Kismine’s beauty and purity becomes a form of duplicity that John is deceived by precisely through his own perception of Kismine as a commodity and a form of exchange. However, there also remains a potential to view Kismine’s commodification of John. Kismine is aware that the guests who visit the château are marked by their death, but she believes that ‘it’s only natural for her to get all the pleasure out of them that she can first.’ Despite being aware that John, like the other guests, has a predetermined fate, she initiates a relationship with him that is beneficial for herself and provides her with a source of entertainment. Despite a façade of remorse for these individuals, and for John, Kismine states that she would prefer to see John ‘put away than ever kiss another girl.’ Like the other guests, John then becomes a commodity as Kismine values him not as a human, but rather as a possession that she can use for her own pleasure.

Despite both Percy and Kismine having ‘inherited the arrogant attitude in all its harsh magnificence from their father,’ it is important to question why Percy is not condemned in the way that Kismine is. Kismine’s naïveté becomes apparent in that she has a ‘chaste … selfishness’ that controls her every thought. Kismine can then be read as a satirical figure who represents the rich and narrow class that do not have any insight into their own world, and its destructiveness. This is the same class that Wharton also expresses anxieties about, but the difference between Lily and Kismine remains in Kismine becoming a trap for John, as despite her potential to provide him with access into her world, she remains dangerous. Kismine then becomes the result of control and exclusion within elite class systems and her naïveté is seemingly reflective of Fitzgerald’s critique of this class, and elite system of wealth. When John asks Kismine to bring jewels with her to enable them a stable future, Kismine mistakenly takes rhinestones. In claiming that she ‘likes these better’ because she is ‘a little tired of diamonds,’ Kismine’s naïveté and ignorance render her with no use-value, which then situates her as a figure of pure exchange-value based on her “virginity” because she is no longer a source of wealth.  

07 July 2022
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