Mrs. Peniston and the Hilarious Vulgarity in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth

When reading respected literature from the Western canon, it can be difficult to process humor found within a thick tome. Sometimes it’s too difficult to understand the comedy because it relies on antiquated references (imagine how well Family Guy might hold up). Oftentimes it’s just too difficult to accept that there even can be humor in a work that’s made it into the all-important canon. While there are exceptions (Mark Twain being the most obvious one), most classic works tend to be very serious, or at least have such a reputation. With comedy already unexpected, it becomes all the more surprising when one encounters what amounts to a series of dick jokes.

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth was first published in 1905. Wikipedia reveals that it was “Wharton’s first important work of fiction.” With that vote of confidence, we can safely say that The House of Mirth is part of the canon. We can also be sure that the book is very serious because Wikipedia also tells us: “Although The House of Mirth is written in the style of a novel of manners, set against the backdrop of the 1890s New York ruling class, it is a text considered to be part of American literary Naturalism.” That sentence practically promises a lack of hijinx, farce, or any sort of humor. So you can imagine my surprise when I ran into protagonist Lily Bart’s aunt, Mrs. Peniston.

Read that name again:

Mrs. Peniston.

Few things stick out like Peniston. No matter how you cut it, Mrs. Peniston is a hilarious name. It has the word “penis” in it, if you didn’t notice. And the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that the word was in regular usage well before Wharton’s time. (OED cites a physical dictionary from 1684, which states: “Penis is the Yard, made up of two nervous Bodies, the Channel, Nut, Skin, and Fore-skin, &c.” That sounds about right.)

Granted, this could just be an extremely juvenile reaction to a funny-sounding name. After all, The House of Mirth is Great Literature; any sort of penis-based comedy gleaned from the work is probably just the reader projecting. Or maybe I’m just reading it wrong; my English professor made sure to pronounce the name as “pih-nis-ten.” And research shows that nonfictional characters have also had such a surname. Besides, Jonathan Franzen proved that Edith Wharton was a prude. An important author like her wouldn’t make dick jokes, let alone write a line like this:

Mrs. Peniston was a small plump woman, with a colourless skin lined with trivial wrinkles (p. 172).

The snickering reader cannot be blamed for making a crude connection when presented with that honey of a dick joke. If an author names a character Peniston and then describes said character as “small and plump” with “colourless skin lined with trivial wrinkles,” it is literally impossible not to think of a scrotum. This might be more forgivable if it was an isolated circumstance — a Freudian slip, perhaps. But no, this continues throughout the novel. Soon every mention of Mrs. Peniston can’t help but create dong-based imagery.

Mrs. Peniston rose abruptly (p. 174)

Like an erection!

Mrs. Peniston, who leaned helplessly on her niece in social matters (p. 198).

Probably due to flaccidity.

It was agreeable to shock Mrs. Peniston, but not to shock her to the verge of anger (p. 200).

I can imagine how that scenario would climax.

Accuse me of having penises on the brain (not completely untrue), but I’m not the one who named a character Mrs. Peniston. One could easily apply a Freudian analysis to Mrs. Wharton’s subconscious, though she had to have been unaware of the hilarity she created. As Franzen points out, not only was she a prude; she was a prude who didn’t edit herself:

Her biographers supply this signal image of the artist at work: writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.

It’s like it all just… came out of her.

Perhaps the clearly repressed Edith Wharton found that she could channel her arousal through Mrs. Peniston, at least until the author tried her hand at erotic fiction. The writer and character are not unalike: both have been described as unattractive and appear to despise anyone who fails to meet their aesthetic standards. In Mrs. Peniston, Wharton has not only a surrogate, but also an outlet for her sexual thoughts. More importantly, an outlet Wharton could easily deny, chalking it up to the depravity of the reader. She writes: “It was really pitiable to be as ignorant of the world as Mrs. Peniston!” (p. 199). Edith, that tends to happen when your mind is stuck in a guy’s pants.

Now what happened to Mr. Vaginasly?

Justin Geldzahler is ashamed that he had to use a thesaurus to find synonyms for “penis.” He is also compunctious.

Mrs. Peniston and the Hilarious Vulgarity in Edith […]