Friday, 7 December 2012

Part XVII - The Middle Class Wife

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. His fourth chapter is Conspicuous Consumption. 
In the last post we saw how in the leisure class the wealthiest members had a retinue of hangers on, whose vicarious leisure and vicarious consumption were necessary to demonstrate the master’s wealth. 

Veblen then takes us forward into more modern times and begins to discuss other segments of society.  He reminds us that the role of vicarious leisure was first assigned to the wife or chief wife, before the whole retinue thing developed.   As society has progressed, the institute of servility has declined; there are fewer grand households, fewer servants and fewer hangers on, though they are still in demand in the very highest of the leisure class. 
As one descends the social scale eventually there really only remains the wife in the role of performing vicarious leisure and consumption.  Veblen says this is most frequently observed in the Western culture at the lower middle classes.  Here, he says, there occurs a ‘curious inversion’:  the head of the middle-class household has been reduced to going to work, as in the ordinary business man of Veblen’s day.  However  the middle-class wife still carries on the business of vicarious leisure, for the good name of the household and its master.  This leisure and consumption by the wife is regarded as important. 
“It is by no means an uncommon spectacle to find a man applying himself to work with the utmost assiduity, in order that his wife may in due form render for him that degree of vicarious leisure which the common sense of the time demands.”

Just as the leisure class is not truly idle, neither is the leisure of the middle-class wife indolent.  It is disguised under some kind of work or social duties, but Veblen maintains these occupations are simply to demonstrate she doesn’t do anything gainful or useful.   He describes her attentions to the household as having a decorative and mundificatory character (! Don’t you just love that word? It means ‘pertaining to cleansing’).   He insists that the results of her housekeeping are pleasing only because household decoration and tidiness are part of the ‘canon of propriety that demands just these evidences of wasted effort.’
“There goes into these domestic duties much solicitude for a proper combination of form and color, and for other ends that are to be classed as aesthetic in the proper sense of the term; and it is not denied that effects having some substantial aesthetic value are sometimes attained.”

The housewife’s efforts are under the guidance of traditions shaped by the law of conspicuously wasteful expenditure of time and substance.   The more desirable items of ‘household paraphernalia’ are both items of conspicuous consumption and the means of putting in evidence the vicarious leisure rendered by the housewife.
Apparently Veblen was married twice.  His first marriage  ended in divorce after 23 years; the second after the death of his wife after six.   I can’t help but imagine it would have been confusing to know what he expected of his wife, given that he casts such a sceptical eye on the usual customs of his time. 

In the next post we’ll cover more about conspicuous consumption in the lower classes.


Beryl said...

I can't decide if it's easier to be a modern wife. I think maybe it is.

Carolyn said...

I cannot imagine how either of his wives ever put up with him!

Anonymous said...

It's intriguing to think of how the marital roles have evolved in the upper classes. In present times - at least, here in the US - even women in the economic classes that can claim financial independence or stability very frequently pursue a career which requires working outside of the home.

Shelley said...

Beryl - I'm positive it's easier to be a modern wife; far more legal rights, to start with!

Carolyn - He does seem to have been a bit of a pill; but I still like his book!

Ilegirl - Lovely to hear from you! I doubt we often really appreciate how much women's lives have changed in the last 100 years or so. Even 50-60 years ago, women here in Britain were not allowed to continue work once they married.

Susan Partlan said...

He does sound like a pill!

Some of Dickens' characters were hangers on, as I recall.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be a modern woman/wife.

Shelley said...

I think the whole male/female relationship thing back then (before women had the vote - they'd only recently got the right to own anything) was horrible. I'm very grateful to live now instead of then, though I remember the 60s and 70s still being rather fraught with chauvinist ideas.

Gam Kau said...

I agree Shelley, I'm grateful to be living in this time period. I'm always amazed at the romanticization of past times. Many people claim they wish they were born in earlier times. I usually name antibiotics as a simple reason to stay in modern times. :)