Bromell's essay argues that Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Nella Larsen's Passing both represent and enact a core problem in theories of deliberative democracy: how to assess the value of differences among citizens (of race, gender, or age) when democracy is understood primarily in terms of its communicative practices. On the one hand, a deliberative democracy would appear to need some minimal “common standards” of what constitutes reasoned communication. On the other, it also seeks to allow as much genuine difference to enter into democratic deliberations as possible. What exactly does it mean for democratic citizens to communicate successfully? How should they understand the act of communication with an “Other” who is different, and how should they understand what it means to “know” this Other?
These questions animate both novels. The House of Mirth is concerned with gender difference primarily and Passing mainly with racial difference, but both are careful also to situate these differences within an explicitly acknowledged range of other differences, including those of class and sexuality. These novels depict the failed and successful communicative strategies adopted by their characters as they encounter others who are “different” and struggle to “know” and communicate with them. Both novels go beyond merely representing the problem of knowing and communicating difference to deploy sophisticated narrative methods that and pull their readers into this problem, requiring us to employ and test various strategies ourselves. They thereby offer a democratic pedagogy that encourages readers to understand that knowing an “Other” means acknowledging also that we can never completely know and fix the meaning of difference.