Criticism about the habits and lifestyle of the bourgeoisie


I am currently reading the book, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, published in 1959. It tells the story of the middle-class Bridge family of Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly from the perspective of the eponymous Mrs Bridge.

Mrs Bridge’s life revolves around her children and her social life. The social environment in which she moves is described as “unity, sameness, consensus, centeredness”.

Not much dramatic ever happens in her life, although she is sometimes faced with uncomfortable issues such as class consciousness. She also recalls that her one friend once asked her if she also sometimes feels like she is hollowed out and empty on the inside. She remembers this on the day she learns that the same friend killed herself.

According to Wikipedia, the book did not quite garner the attention it perhaps deserved:

By 1962, when critic Michael Robbins proclaimed that Mrs. Bridge answered the question asked by writer and social critic, “what kind of people we are producing, what kinds of lives we are leading”, the novel was already out of print: readers of College Composition and Communication were urged to write the publishers in hopes of getting the book reprinted. In 1982, when both Bridge books were republished [Mr. Bridge followed in 1969], Brooks Landon, in The Iowa Review, commented that “Connell seems to have become one of those writers we know to respect but may not have read”.

One of Mrs Bridge’s confrontations with class consciousness takes place one day in a bookstore while browsing through a book titled, The Theory of the Leisure Class, an actual 1899 book by Thorstein Veblen. The book is described as social criticism about the habits and lifestyle of financially comfortable members of the middle and upper-middle class. It focusses on what is called conspicuous consumption:

Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power—either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth. Sociologically, to the conspicuous consumer, such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status.

Moreover, invidious consumption, a more specialized sociologic term, denotes the deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.

The article continues:

In the 19th century, the term conspicuous consumption was introduced by the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), in the book The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (1899), to describe the behavioural characteristics of the nouveau riche (new rich) social class who emerged as a result of the accumulation of capital wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution (ca. 1860–1914). In that social and historical context, the term “conspicuous consumption” was narrowly applied to describe the men, women, and families of the upper class who applied their great wealth as a means of publicly manifesting their social power and prestige, be it real or perceived.