Affluence to Influence: Social Class in House of Mirth
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton offers a multidimensional and fluid analysis of social class. Initially, Lily attempts to belong to the upper class. However, through a series of unfortunate decisions, we witness Lily’s inevitable descent into dinginess, poverty, and death. Towards the end, Lily is utterly “alone in a place of darkness and pollution” (Wharton p. 156). While Lily’s social actions are personally righteous, she discovers herself to be in a cruel and critical society often seeking to oppress lower classes. Just as Dante’s classical descent into Hell in the Inferno is meant to provide glimpses of the unknown in an effort to turn individuals toward salvation, Lily’s social deterioration showcases the perils of descending social class as well as the social chasms separating populations. Poverty became both a metaphorical and literal death for Lily. Further, Marx’s superstructure of social class is explored in the context beyond labor and property: one must also possess social prowess, power, influence, access, and proper taste to fully be accepted into the elite.
In The House of Mirth, the largest divide between classes comes in the form of social competency. For example, Simon Rosedale, a wealthy Jewish man belonging to the nouveau riche class, repeatedly tries to break into the social elite. However, despite attending some of the social events of the upper class, he is largely excluded based on his lack of social skill, as he is “still at a stage in his social ascent when it was of importance to produce such impressions” (Wharton p. 16). Franklin elaborates on the importance of a high social regard in his work Advice to a Young Tradesman. He explains how “the most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded … It shows, besides, that you are mindful of what you owe; it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest man, and that still increases your credit” (Franklin p. 59). If the lender produces a favorable opinion of an individual, more credit can be obtained for a longer period of time. When one individual has power over another, the more powerful person’s opinion of the less powerful is important and can greatly impact their relationship. While Rosedale has no monetary debt, he has little to no social credit to leverage. In The House of Mirth, Rosedale’s lack of regard, positive connotations, and social competence within the social elite holds back his social ascent.
To compensate for this shortcoming, Rosedale considers marrying Lily to boost his social capital and take his social ascent to the next level. However, following Lily’s sharp social decline, he laughs off Lily’s acceptance of his previous proposal as he knows she is unable to help him. Rosedale goes on to explain how he’s “more in love with you [Lily] than ever, but if I married you now I’d queer myself for good and all, and everything I’ve worked for all these years would be wasted” (Wharton p. 269). Despite Lily’s social aptitude, her regard has deteriorated within the social elite. Thus, she is no longer of any help to Rosedale’s pursuit of social standing. Further, in Rosedale and Lily’s final encounter, Rosedale offered to help Lily blackmail Bertha in an attempt to regain Lily’s social standing and have her be fit for Rosedale’s hand in marriage. He was beginning to develop real feelings for Lily, beyond the advantages she may offer him. However, Rosedale’s last offer before Lily’s passing remains an attempt to elevate his own social standing. If Lily were to expose Bertha, the old order of social standing could topple and leave room for social climbers to gain access within the elite, which primarily benefits Rosedale. This illustrates the self-serving interests of the wealthy.
However, selfish interests are not confined to the nouveau riche. The House of Mirth focuses on Lily’s pursuit of a suitable husband. However, the only desirable feature of the majority of the men Lily considers for marriage are their pocketbooks and social standing. Additionally, Lily donated money to Nettie Struther, but only to boost Lily’s own ego and feel charitable and good about herself (Wharton p. 329). Grace Stepney was also able to gossip about Lily’s gambling habits to Mrs. Peniston, thus ensuring Grace as the inheritor of the Peniston estate over Lily (Wharton p. 233). While both Lily and Grace are hanging on to others’ wealth, their self-serving agenda exemplifies the selfishness infecting society as a whole.
A crucial understanding of social class exemplified in The House of Mirth relates to the power wealth can buy. The rich (both the old wealth and nouveau riche) are repeatedly able to exert their will over others. For example, Trenor making sexual advances at Lily in repayment for her debts shows how his social standing and power allows him to exert his will upon Lily; she is only able to leave once he decides to stop his advances (Wharton p.155). Additionally, the inheritance difference between Lily and Grace Stepney from Mrs. Peniston showcases how she is able to assert her conservative beliefs upon individuals of a lower class and show her contemptuousness towards Lily’s gambling habit (Wharton p. 233). The affluence one possesses almost directly correlates to the influence they are able to exert.
With this power, the wealthy are able to construct a personal alternate reality. When Bertha Dorset removes Lily from the Dorset yacht, Bertha furthers her reality in which she is able to have affairs and exert power over those of a lesser class (Wharton p. 227). The sole reason she is able to control the construction of her reality is because she possesses the affluence and influence to do so. Therefore, the reality she constructs is one in which the truth society accepts is whatever Bertha says the truth is or whatever angle Bertha choses to exploit. However, the prime example of a self-constructed reality comes in the case of Selden. He has made a habit of excluding individuals based on class and insignificant deviations from their common character, whether it is at the Wellington Brys party or when he discovers Lily has changed hotels (Wharton p. 286). In Selden’s reality, every misinterpreted action “seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illuminated moment” (Wharton p. 285). The emotional chasm forming between Selden and Lily is a direct result of the walls Selden constructs based on misinformation. Even in Lily’s death, Selden was unable to accept the emotional failure he experienced with Lily and his own weakness due to the mental walls and alternate reality he constructed. To Selden, the truth has become whatever he thinks it is. While Selden is of the professional working/middle class, he is just like the rich in the sense that he is able to construct his own reality and exclude individuals based on his wrongful interpretation of their actions.
Further, The House of Mirth exemplifies the implicit connection between wealth, power, and freedom. Wealth leads to both power and freedom, as members of the pinnacle of social tiers experience a degree of freedom unparalleled by the lower classes. For example, many of the elite characters are able to sail off to Europe on their yachts (Wharton p. 192). Gerty, however, is not invited and is condemned to work in the dinginess of America. On this trip, Bertha invites Lily along to distract George while Bertha has an affair with Ned Silverton (Wharton p. 197). With Lily aboard the Dorset yacht, Bertha is able to frame Lily in an affair with George if she so chooses. Therefore, Bertha’s affluence has given her great influence over Lily and the freedom to exert her will upon Lily. Bertha’s affairs with both Selden and Ned Silverton remain out of the social spotlight. Her wealth and power have given her the freedom to do as she pleases. However, Lily is unable to escape the spotlight from Rosedale when leaving Selden’s apartment in the opening chapter, thus putting Rosedale in a position of power over Lily (Wharton p. 14). Lily is not wealthy, so she does not possess power and is not free to do as she choses. Affluence leads to influence, which can then be used later to further one’s personal agenda.
In order to ascend to the peak of the social elite, one must also possess impeccable taste in material goods. This lack of perceived taste in a hypercritical society is what keeps the Wellington Brys from the elite. At their party, Trenor eluded that the cigars tasted like soap and may have been selected by the chef, and the soup and champagne were not the correct temperatures (Wharton p. 146). Trenor noticed these inconsequential details as the society, and ruling class in particular, seeks to preserve the status quo. To move up in class, unblemished aesthetics must be maintained at all times. This is a large reason Lily frequently gets new dresses made; Mrs. Peniston understands the importance of flawless aesthetics to maintain or improve upon one’s societal place (Wharton p. 180). Even Lily’s name speaks to the level of pleasant appearances that must be maintained. Lilies are a beautiful flower with a very specific environment needed to thrive.
Marx explains the meaning behind new goods in his work Alienated Labour. Through his concept of commodity fetishism, the intangible aspects of one’s labor become tangible products with physical value. This valuation stems from the separation between what workers are producing and where the wealth is flowing (Marx p. 254). The producer and product have become obscured. Therefore, individuals are taught to crave and consume products as a commodity. Individuals such as Mrs. Peniston both need and want new goods, such as dresses. To Mrs. Peniston, as well as the society as a whole, the dresses serve as an external material marker of success and wealth. This ownership, in turn, helps the owner of the good appear wealthy, thus allowing them to socially ascend. Lily explains this belief in her conversation with Mrs. Peniston where Lily tried explaining the “expense a girl is put to nowadays” (Wharton p. 180). To Lily, the appearance of material wealth may be more important than the actual wealth itself, such as in the case of Lily’s mother’s striving to preserve the status quo following their financial ruin (Wharton p. 34). Commodity fetishism drives their habits of appearance, thus influencing their perceived wealth and class within the society.
Interestingly, the novel’s ending chapters exemplify the cyclical nature of class actions and wealth. Lily enters Selden’s apartment in one of the final chapters, just as she had done in the opening scene (Wharton p. 321). Additionally, Lily’s earlier financial gift to Nettie Struther is repaid in the form of hospitality as Lily makes her way to the boarding house (Wharton p. 331). As Franklin describes in Advice to a Young Tradesman, money produces more money, thus initiating a cycle of wealth (Franklin p. 59). The rich often get richer, and the poor often get poorer. Through Lily’s gradual descent into poverty, her initial lack of wealth precipitates in even less wealth.
Finally, The House of Mirth exemplifies differences in access to solutions to problems among the classes. The image of “poverty or death” emerged in numerous instances throughout the novel, including Lily’s parents’ financial ruin, the raunchy scene between Trenor and Lily, and when Lily purchased the sleeping medication (Wharton p. 33, 153, & 303). Frequent references were made to the fact that Lily’s “whole-being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required” and could only breathe in the air of affluence (Wharton p. 27). Just like the lily plant, she needed fresh air, water, and a suitable climate for mere survival. Lily’s ultimate poverty left her with very limited options as all viable solutions had been exhausted. Ironically, Lily received both poverty and death, showcasing how the two are inexplicably linked.
While the conditions of her death are somewhat ambiguous, suicide proved to be her only option of escape. Locking her dresses in the chest after laying them out symbolizes how her memories are appearing before her once again only to be lost forever, as the dresses held “an association in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past” (Wharton p. 334). Had Lily been wealthier, both monetarily and socially, more options may have been available. Her opportunities to marry into a higher class quickly faded with her reputation and social standing; she hesitated and lost Gryce, Rosedale, and Selden. Sandage would undoubtedly classify Lily as a failure; she utterly failed monetarily and preferred death to “a life of misery and disgrace” (Sandage p. 6). Once Lily received the check from Mrs. Peniston, she wrote out the payment to Trenor, locked her dresses away, and died (Wharton p. 335). Lily’s shrinking opportunities and “sense of deep impoverishment” embody Sandage’s ideas of failure (Wharton p. 336). Thus, her only relief from the poverty and dinginess of her life became suicide.
Class disparities forced characters into dire situations throughout the novel, but life goes on across all class levels. The Trenors are still able to drive by in their nice car, Gryce has his child and heir to his wealth sit on his lap, and Nettie flourishes with family life despite financial adversity (Wharton p. 332). The use of babies and children foreshadow a society in which the drama continues for at least another generation, and perhaps perpetually. Wharton optimistically paints a picture of social life continuing through class conflict. While Marx would likely disagree and insist class conflict drives society and individual lives, Wharton eludes that individual lives and society drive conflict. Nettie is content with her life and baby, but Lily was not content or accepting of her circumstances. Lily’s incessant drive towards the elite caused conflicts and ultimately drove her to an untimely death. Despite her unfortunate death, society continues forward.
Social class extends vastly beyond property and labor. To be a member of the pinnacle of the social pyramid, one must possess not just exorbitant wealth but also social prowess, power, influence, access, and proper taste to be fully accepted. Wharton illustrates how affluence leads to social influence and how the influence can be used to suppress members of a lower class. The society in The House of Mirth is cruel and critical, which can force individuals into dire situations. Lily’s tragic and untimely death results from her decisions as well as the societal class structure in its entirety, which proves class fluidity. Ultimately, Lily’s beauty and social prowess were unable to boost her class standing, underlining the variety of factors influencing mobility and class standing as a whole.
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