House of Mirth
Description Of Immoral Upper Society in House of Mirth
House of Mirth Essay Prompt
In the House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, the author presents her own thoughts on the increasingly immoral upper society and the problems of the upper class. The author uses each character and their thoughts to show. Each character has their own motivations and actions that they take, distinguishing the morally righteous Selden from other characters like the despicable Bertha Dorset. Edith wishes to paint a vivid picture of the faults that the American aristocracy’s lifestyle has. Each own social class has their own commentary. Wharton clearly states her belief that altogether, the upper society is immoral. Characters of each social class add life and believability to the book’s environment, giving a perfect way to comment on society’s faults.
The American upper class receives the most criticism by Edith Wharton. This class includes the despicable characters such as the Dorsets and the Trenors. Gus Trenor in particular is incredibly rich and elevated in the social order. However, his personality is completely despicable. He is a man who’s darker nature is barely held in place by societal demands. “To her surprise… Old Habits, old restraints, the inherited hand of order, plucked back the bewildered mind which passion had jolted from its ruts ”(pg 141). Edith Wharton also describes comments on the restrictive nature of the upper class, as well as the undesirable nature of it. It is societal standards that hold Gus back from fully assaulting Lily or pursuing his sexual desires more in depth. These restraints are also shown in Lily’s character. “How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self… What a miserable thing it is to be a woman” (pg 5). The awareness of social rules is what makes Lily different from the others. Instead of bending submissively to it, she resists and because of this, is cast out of her social class. Other characters benefit from this merciless environment despite being morally questionable. Bertha Dorset, in particular, displays a hostile nature. Many of her actions directly result in other characters getting hurt. She is the one who sets Lily up for her social downfall. She intentionally stops Lily from ascending because she finds Lily distasteful, saying “ ‘You know, my dear, you’re rather a big responsibility in such a scandalous place after midnight.’ ” (pg 197). In spite of her infidelity and dishonest nature, the upper class of society values her over the morally strong Lily because of her wealth . Bertha Dorset is shown to be ruthless and cruel, yet, despite her obvious disregard for the welfare of others, the individuals of her class must respect her because of her wealth. Through characterization, Wharton gives face to every flaw in the social elite. Wharton is able to perfectly present the problems of the social elite.
An outsider in the upper class, Lily serves as the flawed protagonist, giving the reader the proper lens to view the rigid structure of the social pyramid. Her inability to fully embrace her societal role prevents her from marrying. Because she can not, Lily fades from society despite being more righteous than any other members accepted into the circle. Her refusal to blackmail Bertha with the letters and her refusal to marry Rosedale marks interesting examples of restraint. “I don’t suppose you bought those letters simply because you’re collecting autographs.” stated Rosedale (pg 247). Despite being given a clear way to overtake the threat of Bertha, she chooses to restrain because she sees the action of using the letters as morally low due to the damage they could cause. Lily cannot bring herself to compromise or bend her morals. This shows the problems of the upper society. Furthermore, Lily is shown to be objectified multiple times throughout the novels. References to her as “ornamental” and passages that suggested that she is not valued past her looks all contribute to the idea of a inherently unequal and morally corrupt aristocracy.
As social class decreases, Wharton describes the increasing moral character that grows with the lack of wealth. Selden’s character truly exemplifies this. Despite being exposed to the corrupt ideals of the American upper class, Selden is the one who gives Lily motivation to stay inside the moral rights and prevents her from from breaking her ideals. “Perhaps I might have resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have pulled me down. And then I remembered–I remembered your saying that such a life could never satisfy me; and I was ashamed to admit to myself that it could. That is what you did for me–that is what I wanted to thank you for. I wanted to tell you that I have always remembered; and that I have tried–tried hard . . .” (pg 296). This morality also results in Selden’s prejudices influencing his judgement of Lily His sense of right and wrong is the guiding force behind Lily’s choices. However, his jaded nature shows the cynical view that other people including Wharton herself have on the upper class. “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?” (pg 8). His naivety and careless nature exemplifies how the middle class thought of the upper class according to Wharton.
Edith Wharton describes the immoral world of the American aristocracy through each character’s situation, motivations, and actions in the novel. Every character represents a different piece of commentary from Wharton. In particular, Wharton singles out the immorality and carelessness exhibited by the upper class with the grotesque and questionable characters in the upper class. In context with her personal life, Wharton is able to unveil the deceptive facade surrounding the American upper class revealing the ugly inner workings by exemplifying her opinions with characters in The House of Mirth.
Main Ideas Of House of Mirth Novel
House of Mirth by Edith Warton
Lily Bart is introduced to the audience as an attractive woman who longs for a loving marriage, albeit to the right husband-one who will have the money and social standing to support Lily’s own standing. It’s a general trait among a number of “traditional” female characters, at least for the prospect of finding true love. Though Lily has several chances to marry a man of high standing, she is often her own biggest obstacle. Wealth is a primary goal, but her flirtatious attitudes hinder her efforts as well. Then as the novel progresses and one fruitless attempt at romance after another comes and goes, she loses grip on the wealth and status she already had. She has riches at the start of the story and is left with not much more than rags by the end. In that sense, it’s the antithesis of a Horatio Alger narrative.
In the middle of the Gilded Age, Alger was known for penning stories about people who would start with little, go through various trials and tribulations, but emerge triumphant in the end with success in nearly every facet of their life. Perhaps it was his depiction of the American Dream. Then in 1905, Edith Wharton presents her story of a woman who has the opposite happen to her. Alger had penned stories of a woman’s rise to success and love, but what did Wharton have to gain by presenting the story she did?
Consider the social ladder in America, namely two parts of the three class structure. Middle class citizens, where Lily eventually ends up, had a moderate amount of success but often had more work as a result. With upper class, people were admired and were likely entrepreneurs or was related to one to retain large amounts of money and a high social standing. One could say that the only place where a person could be truly content and free was in the upper class, where Lily fell from as a result of many social shortcomings. A dinner party goes particularly awry and Lily is left with nowhere to go. Her downward spiral continues through the rest of the novel until she reaches what is perhaps the only other stage where one can have true peace: death.
Women were often at the mercy of men in past decades, either being labeled a daughter, sister, or wife before an individual. With no such position for her, Lily faces oppression and increasing debts. Salvation is coming, though not immediately. Yet when it arrives, it does not propel Lily forward with a new sense of freedom. Instead, it brings on a sense of relief in paying off all the debts but with her death close after. Lily’s death is ambiguous, and it is not told exactly if it was a suicide or accident. Regardless, Lily’s journey from riches to rags is complete.
Though in a bit of a sour twist in the penultimate chapter of the novel, Nettie Struther is introduced. It is told that Lily helped her with charity work in the past that was not shown in the novel. Nettie tells Lily how she rose from rags to riches in the form of a loving family life. In that sense, Nettie was introduced to be a foil for Lily; Nettie embodies what Lily could have been if she had not died. Lily helped someone who would rise to riches from rags but could not do the same. Another piece of the ironic puzzle of the narrative.
So what did Edith Wharton want to present? It could be a way of showing that a woman might be truly dependent on a man if she is to survive and be happy. There are, unfortunately, many unhappy marriages and a man is not the one complete answer for a woman’s happiness. Money is necessary for living, but too much of it can corrupt while too little can leave a person lacking in basic amenities. Maybe it’s meant to say that pride is not an enviable quality, that too much of it can cost you more than you expect to pay. Maybe Lily Bart is meant to be a tragic hero, one who wanted to contribute something good to society but was swallowed up in doing so. Wealth and death appear to be the opposite ends of a journey that have the same reward. What a person ends up with will depend on their character and determination, something that perhaps Lily Bart could not develop enough of in her stay in the middle class. In that sense, it could be a cautionary tale. Great literature should not only enthrall and entertain, but leave the reader with something to think about afterward, and this is a very solid example.
Lily Bart’s Characteristic in House of Mirth Novel
Lily Bart’s Character Progression
In The House of Mirth Edith Wharton tells the story of the adult life of Lily Bart—a woman trying to make her way in the society of early nineteenth century New York City. The readers are quickly shown what type of person Lily is through her actions during the story. It can be argued either way that Lily is a good or bad person, when in actuality it is neither. When the book begins, Lily is shown to be a somewhat unlikable person. However, as the novel goes on, Lily gradually becomes a much better person. This progression is shown through Lily’s struggle to find marriage, her interactions with other people, and her outlook on society.
To begin with, Lily is completely focused on finding a husband. In this society, it is very rare to find a woman without a husband, so it makes sense for Lily to be looking for one. However, it is for the reasons that she is looking, that reveal what kind of person she is. Lily is searching for a husband, merely to raise her social standings and to become rich. When Lily believes that she will be marrying Percy Gryce, she is very pleased because “her money troubles were too recent for their removal not to leave a sense of relief […]” (Wharton 39). By expressing her cheerfulness of marrying Percy simply because she will be rid of all her money issues shows that Lily is very shallow and doesn’t really care for Percy at all. However as the novel goes on, it is shown that Lily does actually have some hesitation for marrying someone only for money and social elevation. She realizes that she could have been involved in “the conventional rich marriage which she had been taught to consider the sole end of existence” (126) a couple of times now “but when the opportunity came she had always shrunk from it” (126). Even though she didn’t know it at the time, Lily actually never truly wanted to marry just for money; there was always something inside her that told her it was wrong. So Lily actually isn’t that bad of a person as she is originally depicted to be.
It is further shown what type of person Lily is in the way she acts towards other people. Very quickly in the story it is said that “Training and experience had taught her to be hospitable to newcomers, since the most unpromising might be useful later on (12). This explains that the first thing Lily thinks of whenever she meets someone new is how she can later use them to help her get what she wants. All she sees a person as is a tool to help her get father in life. This was also shown in her need to marry rich. More specifically, in the beginning when Lily first sees Percy Gryce on the train “she began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack” (13). Immediately Lily starts planning how she can use Percy to her benefit, which is in this case marriage. Another constant problem that arises in Lily’s life is her need for more money. She is constantly spending money she doesn’t have on dresses, bridge, and other unnecessary items. When she realizes her predicament, she seeks help from Gus Trenor asking for “the greatest of favors” (67). At this point Lily knows that Trenor is having some issues with his wife and his infatuation with Lily. Being the way she is Lily uses this hold she has over Trenor to get him to help her with her problem. This all shows that at first Lily is a very manipulative person and cares little for the feelings of the people she is using. However, Lily does abandon this habit in probably the situation that it would have been most useful. Lily at this point is almost completely cast out from society because Bertha Dorset spread a rumor that Lily and George Dorset were having an affair. However, Lily has some love letter Bertha sent to Lawrence during their affair that could easily knock Bertha out of society and Lily back in. When Rosedale comes to convince Lily to blackmail Bertha with the letters he “stared a moment, puzzled by her sudden dash in a direction so different from that toward which she had appeared to be letting him guide her” (211). Of course, Rosedale expects Lily to blackmail Bertha since that is what she would normally do. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that Lily does not feel comfortable with doing so. Just from the simple gesture, it is shown that Lily has changed drastically from the beginning of the story. She starts to care what her manipulation will do to the other people involved, which shows Lily’s progression to becoming a good person.
Additionally Lily’s view upon society illustrates her progression as a person. As it is very well known at this point in the story Lily is obsessed with having wealth. She longs for a life of “fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel” (73). All she wants in life is to be at the top of the social ladder and have the riches and perks that come with it. Even though she doesn’t necessarily enjoy being in the company of some of the people of the upper class, Lily puts up with it so she can be a superior member of society. Since she wants this life of luxury and preeminence so much, it causes her to look down upon dinginess and anyone who lives a life of dinginess. Anyone that is lower than her in social standings is not worth Lily’s time. One of those people in particular is Gerty Farish, Lawrence Selden’s cousin. When talking about Gerty, Lily says “she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know” (4). It becomes very obvious that Lily cannot stand anyone lower than herself, which is ironic because those end up being the only people who will help Lily later on. As was previously stated, Lily does fall into some trouble which causes her to lose her place in society and any luxury she had. The people that Lily aspired to be like, the members of the upper class, end up ignoring her and wanting now part in helping her get back into society. As it turns out, the only people who willingly help her are the people Lily considered to be below her, Gerty Farish in particular. After Lily’s downfall of society, Gerty takes Lily in and Lily begins to better understand the way that Gerty lives. Lily begins helping out at the Girls’ Club that Gerty started and becomes interested in the philanthropy that Gerty takes part in. While at the Girls’ Club Lily meets and helps a young woman named Nettie Crane. At the end of the story Lily visits Nettie’s house. They begin talking and Lily eventually holds Nettie’s child for a little bit. When holding the child, “the old life-hunger possessed her, and all her being clamoured for its share of personal happiness. Yes—it was happiness she still wanted, and the glimpse she had caught of it made everything else of no account” (260). This shows that Lily realizes that even though Nettie is of the lower class, someone Lily used to consider under her, Nettie is still living a happy and full life. Lily gains a new respect for the working class, and she finally comes to terms with the fact that it is okay to be a part of the lower class and that she isn’t superior to anyone in that class. She knows that she can still be happy and be a part of the class she used to resent.
All things considered, Lily greatly progressed throughout the novel. Her progression from being a bad person to a good person is shown through her attempts at getting married, her dealings with other people, and her attitude towards society.
The Role of Carry Fisher in the House of Mirth
Commonly called “a novel of manners” because of the way characters are shown thinking and speaking about how people in society ought to conduct themselves, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton focuses chiefly on Lily Bart, a woman whose social decline and fall is read chiefly as a criticism of the habits and customs of New York’s upper class in the early 20th century. Lacking personal resources, not entirely respectable, and long past the age where women of her era were regarded as marriage material, Lily Bart nonetheless enjoys both celebrity and a lavish standard of living until her inability to adapt to social expectations pushes her farther and farther down the social ladder until she dies in poverty. Many critics describe Lily’s decline and fall as something inevitable, however the text contains powerful evidence that it is not. Most of the evidence is concentrated in the character of Mrs. Carry Fisher, a character who in many respects is a foil for Lily. Despite disadvantages far more severe than the heroine’s, Carry thrives while Lily self-destructs. This disparity refutes the popular notion that Lily Bart is a helpless creature who has no other options except to make the choices she makes. This essay will show how Carry Fisher is exactly what Lily imagines herself to be, but is not: a woman who survives and thrives because she knows how to be exactly what the occasion requires.
The House of Mirth was set in the early 1900s and published in 1905, when women could not yet vote. Although women could own assets in their own right, most money and property was controlled by men. Both Lily and Carry have a similar problem—they lack a male provider and have very little in personal resources. But their problems exist for different reasons, and the two women deal with them in radically different ways. Whereas Lily ignores problems, relying on her good looks and her ability to lie and manipulate her way out of unpleasant situations (1), Carry prefers to deal with reality. She asserts that “half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any” (2), she acknowledges that she lives in a world where most people have to earn their keep, and she understands that her very survival depends on her utility to others. The fact she is willing to embrace the transactional aspect of society is one reason why she survives.
Lily and Carry are members of the upper class of New York Society at the height of the Gilded Age. They are surrounded by both material wealth and an atmosphere of social and economic upheaval. The conservative element of upper-class society, as exemplified by Percy Gryce, Julia Peniston, and Grace Stepney, struggles to maintain its increasingly tenuous grasp on social privilege. Scorning ostentatious displays of wealth, and willing to spend money but loath to waste it, the conservative members of the upper crust are the final arbiters of what is, or is not, appropriate behavior (3). Yet their hegemony is threatened by the fashionable faction, many of whom are relatively new to their wealth and inclined to flaunt it. The Trenors, the Dorsets, and the various hangers-on who attend their parties and adorn their drawing-rooms love conspicuous consumption. They compete to see who has the biggest opera-box, the largest yacht, and the most outrageous house-parties (4). In this rarified fashionable milieu, attention is a form of currency, many conventional societal norms are pass?, and hospitality is a spectator sport complete with newspaper coverage. Although neither Lily nor Carry is independently wealthy or even financially independent, they begin the novel moving chiefly in the fashionable circles of society. Whereas Lily’s participation is from personal inclination, Carry participates out of necessity.
Lily is an orphan whose parents lost nearly all the family money due to years of living beyond their means. She grew up in an environment where conspicuous consumption was normal, where she was not taught the value of a dollar, and where it was considered acceptable to not pay bills or servant salaries on time. The resulting instability in the home, and the bickering between her domineering, overspending mother and her meek but hardworking father, was something she considered normal. Her father’s bankruptcy and death occurred after Lily’s coming-out (5) when she was nineteen years of age and an adult according to the customs of the time. Although she still has a small amount of invested capital (6), the interest from it is not enough to allow her to live independently even if she were to do as her “dingy” cousin Grace Stepney did and rent a room in a boarding-house. But Lily is supported financially by her aunt Julia Peniston, whom she despises for her frugality and lack of frivolity (7). Lily has a bedroom in the Peniston house on Fifth Avenue, is fed and clothed at her aunt’s expense, and has all her ordinary expenses paid through irregular but generous gifts of cash from her aunt (8). This is why she can afford to dress splendidly, attend fancy parties, and be critical of people who do not. Lily’s contempt extends even to her aunt, without whom she would be destitute. Although Lily expects to inherit enough from Aunt Julia to live comfortably, she spends the first half of the novel trying intermittently to attract a wealthy husband and to avoid negative consequences for living beyond her means. Despite her musings with Lawrence Selden about the failings of society (9), and despite her acknowledged desire for wealth (10), Lily completely fails to accept that she is part of a transactional society and not a person with inherent value who is admired and appreciated simply because she exists. She resents any suggestion that she help others in exchange for the hospitality or gifts she receives (11), she fails to understand why people she treats poorly by failing to hold up her end of a commitment do not continue to have a positive opinion of her (12), and she believes that she can claim the privileges of adulthood while being indulged as a dependent child if she maintains enough of a wilful ignorance (13) about even the most basic aspects of the agreement she is making. In short, Lily’s perspective is that of a petulant, overindulged toddler.
After surviving two divorces, Carry Fisher has no significant personal wealth. She receives a small amount of alimony from her second husband, and has what is described as a “tiny” house near the fashionable Fifth Avenue but not actually on it (14). At the beginning of the novel people make frequent reference to how Carry needs every dollar (15), but the reason why is not revealed until the second book: Carry has a young daughter she must support. Exactly who the girl’s father is isn’t obvious, however she must have been born before the events in The House Of Mirth because Carry is consistently visible throughout the first portion of the book, with no reference made to a pregnancy in progress. Unlike Lily, Carry has no wealthy aunt to support her. She earns her living by working as a special kind of social secretary to the nouveau riche. She introduces newly wealthy people to high society and helps them learn to dine, dress, and entertain according to the standards of the era (16). For this, she charges fees sizable enough to allow her the occasional luxury (17). Sometimes she serves as a kind of employment agency, setting her wealthier peers up with household employees such as cooks or occasional workers such as musicians or decorators (18). Yet this sort of income is not steady. At times she borrows from male characters in the book, or gets them to speculate in the stock market on her behalf, and although there is never any suggestion that Carry fails to repay money that is borrowed, there are veiled suggestions that she might exchange romantic attention (if not outright sexual favors) for money. But most of her wealth in the second half of the book comes from commissions, fees, stock tips, and other income related to helping new millionaires integrate themselves with the social elite (19). As a sophisticated investor and businesswoman, Carry therefore attends fancy parties for business purposes. She knows that other people gossip about her and complain about her presence: hostesses such as Judy Trenor expect their guests to make a little stir, and Judy in particular wants Carry to placate and distract her “dull” husband whose work and investment decisions make the party possible. (20)
From the perspective of the conservative set, both Lily and Carry are damaged goods. There are reasons why the attractive Lily has reached the relatively old age of twenty-nine (21) without having been married. Although her parents’ financial woes were not her fault, Lily has made her share of scandalous blunders. At the age of about twenty, while living in Europe out of reach of her mother’s creditors, Lily was engaged to be married to the Italian Prince Varigliano. But while the property agreement was being drawn up that would have provided for Lily and her family in the event of her husband’s death, the Prince’s attractive stepson appeared on the scene. Lily began an unwise public flirtation with him and he broke off the engagement (22). In the late 1890’s a broken engagement was not quite so scandalous as a divorce, however since then Lily has sabotaged one romantic connection after another. This, together with her basic dishonesty, her adoption of the habits and mores of the fashionable set, and her habit of treating people very poorly unless she wants something from them, has caused Lily to be “talked about” (23) in a way that is not appreciated by her conservative relatives. While among her fashionable friends, Lily smokes cigarettes, plays cards for money, and even borrows money off of Ned Van Alstyne, her elderly second cousin. For an unmarried woman of the early 1900s, these are not respectable activities. Yet whereas Lily’s fashionable peers have enough money to insulate them from the otherwise predictable consequences, Lily does not.
From the perspective of the fashionable set, Lily and Carry are valuable but for different reasons. Although in previous years Lily gallivanted about as a professional houseguest due to her charming personality and good looks, at the start of the novel her charm is fading. She is no longer a novelty and is receiving fewer invitations every year. People are no longer willing to entertain her solely for the pleasure of her company. (24) Her aunt expects her to help her supervise the fall cleaning, her hostesses such as Judy Trenor expect her to take a seat at the bridge table and to help write out address cards (25), and she is revolted to find that she is now expected to find a way to contribute to the society she inhabits. Were she married, with access to a dining room and drawing room of her own, she could easily reciprocate hospitality simply by throwing a party and inviting everyone who had entertained her in the past (26). Yet as Julia’s ward, Lily has no hospitality of her own to offer (27) and therefore cannot participate in society as a full adult. Carry offers hospitality to others, however in the first part of the novel it is of the low-budget sort: Lily generally regards Carry’s “small, crowded house” as being beneath her (28). But Carry’s primary contribution to other people’s parties is as a social lubricant. She earns her living by helping newly wealthy people such as Simon Rosedale, the Brys, and the Gormers set up their households and ease their way into the social scene (29). Carry serves her clients first by integrating them with fashionable part of society which is more accepting of newcomers. Once she establishes them with the fashionable set, she helps them expand their influence until it includes the conservative set as well. In the process, she helps provide both the fashionable and conservative sets of society with the entertainment and novelty they crave.
As physically attractive women, Lily and Carry both get a lot of male attention, but they use it differently. Lily has very advanced social skills and is capable of making another person feel as though Lily truly likes them, trusts them, and is willing to reveal her innermost secrets. This can be endearing, especially to men, but Lily uses her power of fascination chiefly to entertain herself. She makes fitful attempts to trap a wealthy husband and she manipulates Gus into pretending to speculate on her behalf in exchange for romantic attention. But as soon as she gets what she wants from people, Lily treats them like something she’d scrape off the bottom of her shoe. The way she stands up Percy Gryce repeatedly once she is prematurely sure of his fondness for her (30), her callous treatment of Gus Trenor (31), and the way she snubs the Brys socially when she no longer needs their hospitality or support (32) are examples. Furthermore, Lily has no problem showing her contempt to people she believes she does not need, such as Mrs. Haffen (33) or her poor cousin Grace Stepney (34). The fact that the people Lily uses and discards generally notice it is evidence that Lily is not as shrewd a manipulator as she believes she is: an expert manipulator is never caught or even suspected. By contrast, Carry flirts and acts like the embodiment of “a spicy paragraph” (35). Although she occasionally uses people, especially men, she never misleads them. She is described as frank, she freely acknowledges the source of her money (36), and she admits when she’s wrong (37) instead of trying to lie her way out of a problem or pin the blame on other people the way Lily does after the Percy Gryce fiasco. She never tries to present herself as something she’s not, such as when Lily tries to pass herself off as an innocent babe in the woods early on in her courtship of Percy (36). The people Carry uses invariably benefit enough through their association with her to want to continue their friendship. Carry is also a loyal friend who does not abandon Gus Trenor, Lily Bart, or Simon Rosedale after she gets back on a solid financial footing.
Although Lily fancies herself an adept reader of people, she is not. She completely misjudges Simon Rosedale (37) and believes she can flirt with Gus Trenor to get financial help out of him but ignore him when he comes looking for repayment. She ignores the fact that her poorer cousin Grace Stepney is a potential enemy due to having been displaced by Lily as Aunt Julia’s heir-presumptive (38), and she fails to predict Bertha Dorset’s attack in Monaco despite having already been on the receiving end of one at Bellomont (39). She misinterprets the beginning of Percy Gryce’s interest in her as evidence of an attraction strong enough for her to describe it to others as a de facto engagement (40). She does not recognize Bertha Dorset’s motivations (41), and she can’t recognize when she’s about to lose her Aunt Julia’s favor, along with her only financial support, as a direct result of her increasingly scandalous behavior (42).
Unlike Lily, Carry is extremely perceptive. She is well read and very well educated for a woman of the era. Besides drawing analogies to natural science (43) Carry is described as having studied and adopted several different causes over the years, including Christian Science, socialism, and municipal reform (44). She is also very mindful in her interactions with others: she never talks about herself unless it’s for a specific purpose, and she pays close attention to how other people think and how they react. She shows herself to be very astute, for example, in her assessment of Louisa Bry’s reasoning during their falling-out in Monaco. She treats each person as an individual rather than as a representative of a class or group, and she does not rely solely on surface impressions or personal likes and dislikes when deciding whether to associate with somebody. She is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt: to Carry’s way of thinking, “it didn’t matter who gave the party, as long as things were well done” (45). Whereas Lily and her friends snub Simon Rosedale and describe him as socially “impossible” because he has difficulty understanding the unwritten rules of the upper class, Carry has no problem accepting Rosedale’s hospitality in his opera-box and inviting him to her home as a guest when she has the means to do so (46). This, in many respects, sets Carry up as a foil for Lily, who persists in prejudging people based on appearances alone despite having been trained not to do so (47). Carry therefore is able to deduce the real reason Lily is aboard the Sabrina, recognize the danger to Lily, and explain it in the clearest possible terms to Lawrence (48), hoping he will intercede because Lily tends to take his advice. It is Carry who recognizes a tabloid reporter on the train who notices that Lily has been seen arriving at the yacht with George Dorset. When George catches his wife Bertha returning in the wee hours of the morning with her lover, Lily is completely unaware of the danger she is in. It is Carry who recognizes how critical the situation has become. She urges Lily to leave the yacht (49) and even sets Lily up with an opportunity to withdraw gracefully by taking over Carry’s position with the Bry family, income and all. (50)
Throughout the novel, Lily believes that she can smoothly adapt herself to become “exactly what the occasion requires” (51). But her social skills are actually effective only so long as the situation requires a social butterfly who can buy clothing and jewelry, trim her own hats, spend other people’s money, and give instructions as to how a party “ought” to be set up. Although Simon Rosedale believes she would be a matchless hostess and social leader (52), and although she sneers privately and publicly at other people’s lapses from her ideals of physical and social perfection (53), Lily never shows off any skill of her own except in the sartorial domain. She fails completely as a husband-hunter, an heiress, a professional houseguest, a social secretary, a philanthropist, and even a hatmaker’s assistant.
Lily’s failure in the fine art of husband-hunting is showcased and referenced throughout the book, but nowhere is it more overt than during her ludicrous attempts to trap Percy Gryce, a conservative but wealthy man somewhat younger than herself. Pretending to be a bashful, innocent young woman who has never touched tobacco or played bridge (54), Lily piles one lie on top of the next while stroking Gryce’s ego in an attempt to make him fall in love with her. While at the Trenors’ house party at Bellomont, Lily presents herself as a religious, conservative young woman, and goes so far as to make her hostess’s adolescent daughters agree to get up to come to church with her. Although she creates a false image of herself as exactly the sort of woman Percy Gryce would want, she does not invest the effort needed to keep the image alive. She spends so much time fantasizing about how boring it would be to marry Percy that the omnibus leaves for the church without her. In Lily’s absence, Percy finds out that Lily never goes to church and that the adolescent girls only agreed to accompany her this time out of friendship (55). Percy returns to find Lily in the company of Lawrence Selden, the erstwhile romantic property of a very vicious Bertha Dorset who is upset at what she interprets as Lily’s interference. When Lily cancels her walk with Percy that afternoon, urging Percy to go along in a motor-car expedition to the Van Osburgh home in a nearby town and thinking that the time apart might whet his appetite for her (56), Bertha is so enraged about the way Lawrence stays behind to spend time with Lily that she retaliates by making sure Percy hears every scandalous detail about Lily’s past (57). Terrified, Percy flees, leaving for home by train the next morning. Lily spends the next few weeks distracted by a variety of things while, unbeknownst to her, Bertha sets Percy up with Evie Van Osburgh, the youngest and most conservative of the Van Osburgh heiresses. Evie is a perfect match for Percy in terms of character and personality. Although Lily believes she can get Percy back whenever she wishes (58), he proposes to Evie instead (59).
Lily fails as a celebrity femme fatale partly because she insists on also marketing herself as a “jeune fille ? marier”, that is to say a young, marriageable girl (60). At age twenty-nine, Lily is well out of girlhood and her background and conduct make her anything but marriage material. She visits the private apartment of a single man in broad daylight and appears in a tableau dressed in scanty clothes and in a posture calculated to show off her figure. Yet she does not embrace her slightly risqu? image the way Carry Fisher does. Carry succeeds socially partly because she does not go out of her way to shock people, and partly because she also never attempts to pass herself off as respectable. She is therefore free to do things such as finding out about business, learning about money management, and advancing her own interests using whatever means are available. Lily, who willingly studies subjects that might be of interest to a future husband, turns up her nose at acquiring knowledge inconsistent with her ingenue self-image. Thus she does not acquaint herself with any aspect of financial management or business. This does not deter her from deliberately entering into a pay-for-play business transaction with her best friend’s husband (61). But because she is pretending to be an innocent young girl, Lily believes she does not have to hold up her end of the tacit agreement she makes with Gus, and is very upset when he insists on his due. Instead of spending time alone with him on a drive at Bellomont the way Carry does (62), in the relative privacy of the country, Lily makes sure to only be seen with him in public, which eventually causes their names to be linked romantically by gossips (63). Meanwhile, anyone can see that Lily is spending a lot of money (64), so eventually the news comes to Grace Stepney’s and Julia Peniston’s attention that Lily may be receiving money in exchange for paying attention to Gus. The gossips, in this particular case, are perfectly right. This fact, together with Lily’s habits of gambling and borrowing money, disillusion Aunt Julia and damage Lily’s relationship with her.
Lily does not capitalize on opportunities that come her way. The day after the Brys’ winter party, Lily attends a dinner at Carry’s home to learn that, while Lily has spent her windfall from Gus chiefly on clothing and trinkets (65), Carry has bought real estate, adding another apartment onto her small house. She uses this space to earn some extra money by modeling, and she hosts informal gatherings in which she introduces various new artists, musicians, and other entertaining people to wealthy friends who want to be the first to discover something new (66). These evenings make Carry indispensible to the entertainment-hungry Gwen and Jack Stepney, creating a social bond that helps Carry avoid blame when Gwen’s younger brother narrowly escapes a predatory marriage (67). By ignoring all opportunities to acquire real estate and other assets that could make her independent, Lily never develops even so much as reasonable cash reserves. Despite being surrounded by people, including women, who have no problems managing their own money or paying other people to do so, Lily never develops even the slightest interest in looking after her own financial security.
Another example of Lily’s failure to capitalize on opportunity is the way she spurns Julia Peniston’s company, avoiding her during the fall cleaning and resenting her lack of willingness to spend money redecorating or entertaining. To Lily, nothing is worse than being voluntary dingy, frumpy, or miserly. So instead of showing her aunt the slightest consideration, and instead of being aware of people who could potentially take her place as Aunt Julia’s favorite, Lily avoids her aunt’s company, engaging in the kind of gambling, borrowing, and scandalous behavior she knows her aunt would despise. She gratuitously snubs the poor, middle-aged Grace Stepney who was her aunt’s former favorite, arranging for Grace to be disinvited from one of the occasional family dinner-parties that were Grace’s primary social activity. Throughout the book, Lily’s self-absorbtion and sense of her own superiority is so intense that she truly does not notice the people she hurts. Lily thinks that no matter how outrageous her behavior appears or how badly she treats “dingy” people, they will love her, forgive her, and find the most positive possible explanation for her conduct like the dowdy philanthropist Gerty Farish does. When the people Lily offends retaliate, it always comes as a surprise. Until the moment her aunt’s will is read, she genuinely believes she will inherit a substantial amount of money while avoiding any form of reckoning or negative consequences for acts that brought shame on Aunt Julia and her family. (68)
Whereas Lily constantly shifts her image in an attempt to be “exactly what the occasion requires”, and failing miserably either through her own incompetence or her lack of attention to details or follow-through (69), Carry Fisher is the same person all the time. She never pretends to be anything except what she is, and she has a talent for looking at the big picture. At the start of the novel she is enjoying a fling with young Ned Silverton, but when he shifts his attention to Bertha Dorset Carry does not treat him poorly. When things are going well for Carry, she does not snub the people who helped her when she was in difficulty. Shrewd and pragmatic, Carry may indeed be a “battered wire-puller” (70), and she is not shy about extracting maximum value from the people who can afford to pay for her social midwifery, but she also either repays the money she borrows or provides some kind of favor in kind. The fact that Judy Trenor, who is fully aware of her husband’s financial dealings (71), never stays angry at Carry the way she does at Lily despite the fact that both women use her husband financially is not evidence that Carry has a special dispensation of some kind, but that she has found some way to repay what she borrows either in money or in some other form of social currency.
While Lily is quick to shun unfashionable people and resents being teased about “her friends the Wellington Brys” (72), Carry does not select her companions based on other people’s opinions. She is also honest and sometimes more frank than other people would like, but she is also one of the only people willing to interact with Lily during her fall from social favor. When she treats Lily poorly in a restaurant because she is surrounded by other people whose support she needs, Carry regrets her part in the scene. She apologizes to Lily at the first possible opportunity (72), and sets her up with several ways by which she might earn a living (73). Indeed, the only people who remain friendly to Lily toward the end of the book are the people who choose their friends without regard to the opinions of others. Carry, Lawrence, Gerty, and Simon are the only ones who do this.
“I wish she’d give me some of her discarded opportunities” (74), says Carry, when speaking to Lawrence about his beloved Lily. Unlike Lily, Carry very seldom overlooks an opportunity. Known for her social promiscuity and willingness to attend any good party, no matter who hosts it, Carry has friends in low and upwardly-mobile places (75) as well as among the elite. That’s how she finds the aspiring social climbers who employ her to help them gain entry to high society. Carry therefore cultivates and socializes with people from multiple social classes. She is also not too proud to monetize such advantages as she has. In this respect, Carry is Lily’s opposite.
Over the course of the two books that make up the novel, Carry tries several times to set Lily up with opportunities to earn money. She introduces her to her clients the Brys, first as a way for Lily to escape from some of her problems over the Thanksgiving holiday after the wedding and later as an opportunity to take over Carry’s duties and earn money by providing useful services. But after the holidays are over, Lily not only ignores the Brys while vacationing on the French Riviera but helps Bertha Dorset sabotage Louisa Bry’s much-anticipated dinner with the Duchess of Beltshire. She does this not out of a sense of enmity toward Louisa, but simply for fun (76). When Carry and the Brys part company and the field is clear for Lily, Lily makes some of the appropriate mouth noises to Louisa but immediately loses her ability to provide social advancement: she loses her place on the Dorsets’ yacht and is suddenly in need of help herself. Instead of attaching herself to the Brys or getting to New York as quickly as possible to ensure that her side of the story is heard first, Lily makes a leisurely progress back to London by way of Paris, arriving in New York at least four weeks after the incident (77) and possibly longer depending on whether the news came from the travelers themselves after a voyage of several days, or instantaneously by transatlantic cable. So despite having impressed Louisa Bry well enough to get her to fire Carry, Lily does not capitalize on her gain and take Carry’s place as Louisa’s social secretary. Louisa Bry recognizes her mistake almost immediately and retains Carry again. Accordingly, while Lily languishes in a hotel in New York, Carry can afford to rent out a house in Tuxedo for the fall months.
Carry is careful to understand who her friends and enemies are, and she is careful to never allow her enemies to be in a position of power over her. Not so with Lily. Serving as a social secretary requires a solid social position of some kind and strong social connections among the upper class. But while serving as the Gormers’ social secretary Lily fails to consolidate her social position: she allows Bertha to remain her enemy. Despite having proof of Bertha’s affairs, Lily never neutralizes her by either convincing George to divorce her or by blackmailing Bertha into compliance, which would have paved the way for Lily to marry Simon Rosedale if she so chose. Lily’s indecision creates an opportunity for Bertha to cut Lily out of the Gormers’ social network, particularly since Lily never displays the ability to do anything socially for the Gormers that they aren’t able to do for themselves, nor does she create enough gain for Mattie Gormer to justify the social disadvantages of keeping her around (78). Thus Lily never succeeds in doing as Carry does: she never gets her living expenses paid in exchange for providing introductions or social advice. Indeed, as soon as Bertha Dorset appears on the scene with her impeccable upper-class credentials, Mattie Gormer discards Lily quite willingly.
Lily is aware that she can make transactions and exchanges with others, but unlike Carry she does not choose transactions that are beneficial to her. Instead of making sure to cultivate her aging, ailing Aunt Julia, Lily notices that she can be useful to Bertha Dorset as a way to distract her husband George while Bertha pursues an affair with Ned Silverton (79). This, to most of the other characters in the book, is penny-wise but pound-foolish. Instead of repairing the relationship with her aunt, which was damaged due to what Lily describes as her sizable gambling debts, Lily takes off on a last-minute transatlantic cruise. This is a critical decision: although Julia Peniston has supported Lily financially for eight years, and although Lily has displaced the dowdy Grace Stepney as Julia’s heir-presumptive, Lily’s inheritance has never been explicitly promised and is not in fact guaranteed. When Lily further disgraces herself overseas and word reaches New York, Aunt Julia changes her will (80). In one stroke, the money that would have allowed Lily to live comfortably the rest of her life (if not as extravagantly as her fashionable friends) disappears.
Lily and Carry differ in terms of their work ethic. When the occasion requires a woman willing to set aside her self-image long enough to inform herself of the basics of business or take action
Existing Apart: Manifestations of Otherness in The House of Mirth
In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, the cold and unforgiving world of New York’s high society never favors the perspective of the outsider, or the looker-on. But the author seems to award a great deal of credit to those characters who adapt to this position, thereby accepting its flaws along with its attributes. Lawrence Selden is one of these figures, and unique for the fact that society accepts him as a looker-on, perhaps because he accepts himself in this stance. He views everything from a separated stance, always stepping back to view scenes he himself is participating in. His love for Lily is both born of and destroyed by this aspect of his personality. Her love for Selden, on the other hand, is simply complicated by this perspective. Lily’s relationship with her own aloof and separate tendencies changes during the course of the novel, greatly affecting her view of the world, and most importantly her relation to Selden. For most of the novel, however, Lily is an outsider who refuses to admit it. And just as for Selden, and all the rest of the characters in this category, Lily will find this trait to be both her blessing and her doom.Selden’s place as an outsider is maintained mostly by his tendency to keep himself always separate from activity, looking down. This stance allows him to remove himself not only from any main activity, but to understand the events unfolding around him with more reason than those who are more actively involved. His choice to remain apart is clear in moments like one at a ball, where “Selden…found himself, from an angle of the ball-room, surveying the scene with frank enjoyment.” (138) He purposefully places himself in a corner, becoming a sort of audience. The allusion to theater comes in his idea that “the very rich should live up to their calling as stage-managers and not spend their money in a dull way,” (139) the very concept that brings him to the spectacle involving Lily in a tableau vivant.Selden’s place as a looker-on facilitates his love for Lily. Because Lily possesses unearthly beauty, and constantly uses this trait to make herself into an object for observation, she is the perfect creature to be watched from afar. Selden seems to understand her most in her moment onstage at the ball, when he can simply sit and watch, sharing with an entire audience “the touch of poetry that [he] always felt in her presence.” (142) It is in this moment, when Lily becomes the object that Selden has always naturally created of her, in his own mind, that he understands her most. As he simply observes her, “he seem[s] to see before him the real Lily Bart,”…and even “[has] time to feel the whole tragedy of her life.” (142) Even when Lily is next to him, he is carefully watching her, as though she were a scene before him. In the beginning, after the reader is told that “[a]s a spectator, he had always enjoyed Lily Bart,” (6) Selden walks beside her and speculates on her beauty. He notes “the modelling of her little ear,” and even wonders of “her hair was it ever so slightly brightened by art?” (7) Although his stance proves usually to please or entertain Selden, it also leaves room for cold reality and constant loneliness.Selden is not alone in representing the role of the outsider in this novel. He is joined by several key characters, most of whom seem equally unlucky in love, and essentially alone in the world, but also have a heightened perception and understanding of reality rather than the pigeon-holed view afforded by more active participants. Mrs. Peniston is one of these characters, who, “as a looker-on…enjoy[s] opportunities of comparison and generalization such as those who take part must proverbially forego.” (127) She exemplifies the loneliness in this perspective, separated even further by her age. Other characters of this type include Carry Fisher and Gerty Farish. Like Selden, these women rejoice in their differences and also offer advice and help to Lily when she needs it. Mrs. Fisher wishes simply “to view [Lily’s situation] from the outside and draw her conclusions accordingly.” (247) And when she does not set herself apart, and simply follows the pack, as most in this milieu seem prone to do, she apologizes to Lily for it. (240) Gerty, on the other hand, does not so much consciously set herself apart, as find herself naturally different. Her triumph in her outsider status comes in the great joy she derives from simply watching beautiful things, such as the Van Osburgh wedding, where “her chirping enthusiasms…[seem] only to throw her own exceptionalness into becoming relief and give a soaring vastness to her scheme of life.” (94) Gerty is able to see beauty where most criticize, but she is also doomed in love, as shown by her failure in giving Selden a romantic dinner.Lily, although an outsider by nature, in unlike any of these characters. She simultaneously accepts and rejects this perspective. What sets her apart the most is her stunning beauty and grace an attribute that she clings to as her main tool of survival. This physical beauty is the aspect of her differences that she embraces and accepts. She sets herself physically apart from her group when she knows her beauty will make an impression, as in her choice of scene at the Wellington-Bry’s ball, where she chooses something very different than everyone else. She does this also at the reading Mrs. Peniston’s will, where she sets herself up for a scene of triumph by “[seating] herself in a chair which seemed to have been purposefully placed apart from the others.” (231) Like her natural separateness, this lonely chair will ironically become a horrible place to be apart, when the scene becomes a tragedy for her when she least expected.Lily tragedy of poverty is the force behind her eventual realization of her inherent otherness. What she had only embraced as a tool in getting things begins to reveal its negative force in her life as well, as “a hard glaze of indifference [is] fast forming over her delicacies and susceptibilities.” (243) Her perpetual position as guest among friends at Bellomont, and later always the “third wheel” with married couples in Europe or Alaska was one symptom of this alienation. She was also too far apart from reality to see any situation but her own. She sees the height of her previous self-centered embrace of aloofness in remembering her visits to Gerty’s philanthropic girls’ clubs; “she had felt an enlightened interest in the working-classes, but that was because she looked down on them from above, from the happy altitude of her grace and her beneficence. Now that she was on a level with them, the point of view was less interesting.” (297) Lily has been forced to experience her worst nightmare in order to see the nature of her own being, to see that “she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations.” (31) She is finally apart, and alone, and able to see who she really is.What most destroys Lily in this ignorance is the capacity her separateness holds for true love with Selden. Perhaps he sees himself in her natural aloofness. He is entirely taken, “especially struck…[by] the way in which she detache[s] herself, by a hundred undefinable shades, from the persons who most abounded in her own style.” (223) Lily is too busy trying to belong by marrying the right man, and becoming accepted and normal, all things contrary to her nature as outsider. Selden has made his ability to be alone and separate into financial success, as he seems to be only entirely accepted male character in this social milieu with a steady job. They travel in opposite directions because of these different reactions to the same characteristic. It is only in her last hours before dying that Lily is able to see what she has been denying to herself all along:”It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking…it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling that embraced her now, the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had any real relation to life.” (331)It is only after making these observations about herself that Lily is able to consciously embrace her difference in a series of decisions. Her abrupt decisions to sign away her last dollars to Gus Trenor, and to take too much of her medicine come on the brink of this self-realization. But what also arrives in this time is her awareness of “something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them.” (335) Selden too, as the reader later learns, has realized the one word he must say during this night. It seems that in the very moment that Lily’s self-awareness has blossomed, so has the love between herself and Selden. This is also the moment when her life ends, dooming Selden to eternal loneliness, a role he will play well.Although Lily cannot live with an understanding of her status as outsider, she capitalizes on it all along. This inner dilemma is one of the central conflicts of the novel. To see Lily so often next to Selden, or Gerty Farish, it becomes clear that her path would perhaps be less rocky and certainly more defined if only she could embrace her own defining quality. And the author even emphasizes this conflict with her style of writing and use of language. By adopting a style of objective derision, Wharton appears to detail the events taking place without pausing for moral persuasions while actually infusing the writing with an undercurrent of meaning. This is an irony that pervades the novel and reveals the authorial perspective hidden from the surface, just as Lily’s ironic dilemma reveals her own true nature, so long suppressed and hidden on her impeccable surface.
Objectification as a Naturalist Tool in The House of Mirth
Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, is understood from chapter 1 to be a female of remarkable beauty. Throughout the novel she is classified as uniquely attractive, a woman to be desired by men and subtly threatening to women. But beauty is not the only way in which Miss Bart is distinguished from the other characters in The House of Mirth – Wharton repeatedly depicts her as an object (or, if not explicitly objectifying her, Wharton has Lily Bart treated by others as an object). This tactic suggests numerous things about Wharton’s protagonist – most of all, it accentuates the degree to which, as the reader realizes at the novel’s poignant end, Lily Bart is a character trapped in a world which obeys the rules of Naturalism to an almost cruel degree.It can not be truly said, however, that the Naturalist tone of the book manifests itself in a cruel way for Lily and Selden. The very definition of Naturalism absolves it from the type of value judgment that a word like “cruel” imparts. Like the Darwinism that gave rise to the notion of Naturalist laws at play in society (and also the books which carefully examine and deal with those laws), Naturalism hinges upon the concept of greater (in scope but not value) machinations which blindly steer events and people toward an end which is unseen and unseeable. Naturalism amplifies the level to which characters are out of control of their own lives, but at the same time it denies the existence of any conscious “controller.” One might point to Bertha Dorset or Mrs. Peniston as individuals who knowingly manipulated Lily’s life, but true Naturalism would deem that their actions are just as natural and, in a way, excusable, as anyone else’s. These are characters who act in certain ways because of the environment or niche in which they exist – it is to be understood that some people are manipulators and some are the manipulated, but neither of these roles is any more consciously chosen than the other. The environment makes them what they are.This is what makes the depiction of Lily as an object such a useful tool for Wharton. Throughout The House of Mirth Lily Bart is the victim of twists which are sprung upon her and are impossible (or just very difficult) for her to predict or change. Lily is, as Selden observes on page 6, “so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her.” Lily even thinks to herself that she “had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another” (134), as though she is always at least a step behind of the people or events which have the most critical bearings on her life. But it is not one step or two by which Lily’s awareness trails – she never even has a chance to catch up to the mechanisms that impact her life. She is not scrambling to regain her footing after every setback – she is rootlessly thrown about – quite more like an object than an active human. When Bertha Dorset frames her, she stomachs it without a fight. She does the same when Mrs. Peniston’s will is announced and the estate is not placed into her possession. Only as the book draws to an end does Lily grasp the reins of her own life by burning Bertha Dorset’s letters to Selden, repaying her debt to Gus Trenor, and overdosing on sleeping drops.In chapter one, Selden asks Lily, “‘Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t that what you’re all brought up for?'” Lily responds, “‘I suppose so. What else is there?'” (8) Even from the beginning, Lily and the reader are aware that she is stuck traveling a path which she does not herself prefer. But just as telling is the fact that Lily does very little to actively explore other routes for her own life. Her dabblings in charity work are the result of Gerty Farish’s proddings. Otherwise, she simply coasts along the “marriageable woman” pathway. She accepts the invitations to Bellomont and similar engagements. Later, as her star falls, she continues to accept the invitations given to her – to Alaska, for example, although the circle in which she travels and the trajectory of her own life have changed.But these are only vague examples of Lily being portrayed as an object. How does this differ from her simply being a passive person? For one, even a passive person meditates upon each of the conditions which pull her in various directions as these conditions arise. Lily succumbs to them and allows them to pull her in whichever direction they choose, but she never seems to dig her heels into the ground and stop to think. Selden, who thinks to himself that he is “as much as Lily a victim of his environment” (160), can be classified as a passive person who never quite reaches the level of passivity that would suggest objectification. He struggles more with the rules of their social scene which keep them apart. He also observes, as cited above, the fact that he and Lily both suffer from their environment, a realization which Lily comes to only in the end. She feels herself as “rootless and ephemeral” (338), a “flower grown for exhibition” (336), but only in her final night of life. Earlier in the novel, in fact, in the rare instances when she considers her relation to her external environment, she feels erroneously as though she is some sort of master of it. On page 20 and again on page 101 she remarks that she has a special talent for “profiting from the unexpected.” This is after several missteps including her awkward treatment of Rosedale’s inquiry outside the Benedick and her misplay of her chances to marry Percy Gryce.It is appropriate in light of the fact that Lily Bart is, for much of the novel, so unaware of how little she is in control of her own life, that Wharton elected to write the novel in third person. Given such a clear protagonist, it would seem like a natural option to choose the first person, either placing the perspective in Lily’s own eyes or through the eyes of a peripheral foil. But both options are inappropriate to the subtleties of Lily Bart. The third person enables Wharton to write a long novel about a character who does little inner meditation about the events in the narrative. Yet instituting a peripheral narrator would also be an ill choice because it precludes the actual possibility of remarking upon the protagonist’s inner thoughts. The third person is perfect for the very reason that it is possible and even expected that Wharton would “check in” on Lily’s reflections regarding events but glaringly chooses not to. The story is absent of much exploration into Lily’s mind, and it accomplishes Wharton’s intended task of objectifying her main character.Selden is offered as a contrast to Lily in that he is treated in the other way that Wharton could have dealt with Lily in a third person narrative. Given how little he actually appears in the novel, his thoughts are shared with the reader with relative frequency. In chapter one it is Selden’s thoughts about Lily that are divulged, not vice versa. At the Wellington Brys event, Selden’s adoration of Lily’s beauty in the tableaux constitutes the central reflection in the chapter – Lily’s own personal opinion about the event is completely left out (except, perhaps, in the rare bits which she shares through dialogue).In the tableaux vivant chapter more than any other, the reader is shown the actual extent to which Lily Bart is defined as the object of other people’s actions and observations. Obviously, the concept of a tableaux vivant inherently and intentionally objectifies its performers. But while the other females are placed in exotic or mythical depictions, Lily undergoes hardly any changes at all. This scene suggests quite clearly that Lily is, in all honesty, never completely not a piece of art to be seen and appreciated, lifted and moved. The ease with which she fits into the tableaux vivant format is telling of her status in real life. The scene simply amplifies the effect for the reader (and the observers at the party).The Wellington Brys party establishes that Lily is not depicted as an object only insofar as she does not control herself and is “used” or manipulated by others. She is also depicted as an object strictly in mannerism or physical appearance. The tableaux vivant is only one example. At Selden’s apartment for tea, her hand is described as “polished as a bit of old ivory” (5). Also in the first chapter, Selden considers that “the qualities distinguishing herwere chiefly external, as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay” (3). How does this superficial level of objectification contribute in any way toward Wharton’s Naturalist goals? The answer can be seen as the novel goes on, and the chain of unfortunate events begins to wear on Lily Bart. “Cracks and vapours” begin to appear in her life (213); Lily’s “delicately hollow face” begins to show lines (324); fatigue appears on her face in the form of “pencilling”, as if the fatigue has been drawn onto a portrait. In these superficial descriptions, Wharton highlights the effect to which Lily has been helplessly beaten down by circumstance. It is hyperbole to compare Lily to a tangible good, used towards an end and forgotten, but not by much. Lily herself begins, at long last, to realize this as the novel reaches its end – in one of her final encounters with Selden she notices feeling like “no more than some super-fine human merchandise” (270). But these observations are neatly timed to occur when it is finally too late – after the environment and the other players in her various circles have had their effect on Lily. Naturalism has been played out, and Lily has emerged as the clear loser by the time she realizes that she is a player at all.The poignancy of the novel’s end is drawn from the hurried scramble of Lily’s last moments. Her sudden all-too-late awareness of her predicament and the means to ameliorate it is clearly tragic to the reader, who know and dread that the ending looms too near. Throughout The House of Mirth we are privy to similar but scant moments of awareness, and it is these moments that make the novel emotionally gripping. The reader and most of the other figures in Lily’s world know full well the powerlessness that Lily has over her life’s footing and orientation. She truly is an object – not only in that she is manipulated and given some superficial value, but also in the slightly different meaning of the word “object” which describes the perspective of the novel – it is told largely from the viewpoint of an admirer (or jealous onlooker). She is the object of others’ schemes, adoration, or simply of their observation. But at rare moments, and fully in the end, Lily makes the right connections and notices the almost star-crossed path of her life. These quick pauses from the autopilot setting make it all the more distressing and pitiable when, once again, Lily surrenders her life to the whims of the outside world.
Economy of Risk
The society in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is immersed in an economy of risk. The men work as businessmen, trading on the fluctuating stock market; the women spend their time at the bridge table wagering their family savings. Wharton makes a comment on the extent to which this economy pervades the society when she describes the conversational skills of the banal Percy Gryce: “Mr. Gryce was like a merchant whose warehouses are crammed with an unmarketable commodity” (23). By making reference to Gryce’s words as a “commodity,” or saleable object, Wharton connects money to things beyond goods and services; in this description Wharton creates a connection between money and words. While this is one of the few explicit connections Wharton makes between money and words, the association pervades the novel. Wharton does not bombard the reader with this association, instead she suggests the association at a few points on each level of the novel, the literal level, the level of people and decisions, and the level of plot movement. The association is most apparent in societies use of the telegram – a device that literally makes words worth money. The connection then extends to the social relationships in the book, particularly that between Gus Trenor and Lily. The association is finally present in the largest scope of the book in the fall of Lily Bart. At each level Wharton quietly links the characters of society – most of all Lily – to a pecuniary view of words. Wharton gives this economy of words form by mirroring it on the economy of money. As in the real economy, Lawrence Selden lies outside of it, and also as in the naturalistic economy of money of House of Mirth, the economy of words is one of chance in which the downtrodden are trodden down even further. Through the multi-layered reference to this economy of words, reference that is placed within the careful form that the economy of money takes, Wharton points to an economy of words within the society she writes about.The most tangible connection Wharton makes between money and words is through the telegram, a device that literally made words worth money. By having her characters send telegrams she links them to this economic view of words. In the middle of the novel, while Lily is waiting pensively on Selden, “the drawing-room door opened to admit a servant carrying a telegram” (189). The telegram comes from Bertha Dorset – a prototypical creature of society – asking, “Will you join us on a cruise in Mediterranean?” (189). The terse wording, with its missing definite article, draws the readers attention to the telegraphic nature of the note, and the fact that Dorset was keenly aware of the monetary value of words – the few extra cents that a “the” would have cost. But this telegram is not only from Bertha Dorset. While she is the sender, the first person, plural pronoun marks this telegram as coming from the collective conscience of the societal group. The careful wording of this short note seems to tie the group to usage of the telegram, and the monetary value of verbage that it connotes.If Wharton merely had all of her characters communicate with telegrams it would be difficult to say that Wharton points to an economic value of words with the telegram. But Wharton carefully places the use of the telegram next to Selden’s use of the postal service, a system that did not make words worth money. Moments before she receives the telegram from Bertha Dorset Lily awaits a note from Selden explaining his absence. While a telegram would have been the ideal way to send this information, Lily is clear in expecting that if an epistle were to come, “there would be a note from him by the late post” (187). The morning after the Welly Bry’s party Wharton creates this contrast again. When Lily wakes up she receives two unspecified notes – one from Selden, one from the Judy Trenor. When Lily responds she recognizes the different means of communication called for by the different recipients. To the Trenors “she dispatched a telegram to say that she would be with her friend that evening at ten.” Writing to Selden, Lily “took up her pen,” and then “slipped the sheet into its envelope,” before sending it off by post (148). This subtle difference between correspondence with Selden, and correspondence with others in society is significant because Selden, while accepted into societies events, lies outside its ideologies and beliefs. His status as outsider seems to stem from his parents, of whom we learn, “neither one of the couple cared for money” (161) – an upbringing counter to that of Lily, the most detailed representation of high society’s beliefs that we have. His place outside the economy of society is marked by his profession; he is not a businessman like the other male characters in the book who work. Selden’s place outside of the economy also places him outside of the economy of words suggested by the telegrams. The contrast in the way Selden and the larger society view words is evident from the first mention of the telegram. When Selden unexpectedly arrives at Bellemont during Lily’s first sojourn there, Judy Trenor places her own expectation about missives next to Selden’s when she remarks, “He didn’t even wire me” (57). The single circumstance in which Selden and Lily do revert to the telegram represents the odd moment in the novel when the couple’s relationship enters the business realm of Lily’s other relationships. While in Monte Carlo Lily sends a telegram to Selden, the only lawyer she knows, in an attempt to repair the damage she has done to the Dorset’s marraige. This marriage is one of little emotional interest, but great economic interest. A divorce would be of particular economic concern for Lily because of the damage to her reputation, and thus her chance of betrothal, it would represent. Lily integrates these societal concerns – so separate from the purely personal concerns that have defined her relationship with Selden – in “the telegram she managed to send him” (213). When Selden responds it is in “less from the sense of any special relation to the case than from a purely professional zeal” (217). A few hours after this professional’ exchange, Selden recognizes the departure from the steady state of their relationship when he sees “the deeper eloquence which Selden had lately missed in it” during their business exchange (224). This odd moment, when cements the connection between that characters functioning within societies norms within this society, the telegram suggests a connection between a Wharton’s careful use of the telegram clues the reader in to the connection Wharton is suggesting between money and words. But this connection extends beyond the literal layer of the book. Lily, a falling member of this society, involves herself in social situations that create a more subtle tie between money and words. The first, and most apparent such situation is Lily’s purchase of the correspondence between Bertha Dorset and Lawrence Selden. When the letters are unexpectedly offered to her by Mrs. Haffen, a maid in Selden’s building, Lily is caught off guard. After Mrs. Haffen says, “I brought em to you to sell” (110), Lily earnestly contemplates the morality of buying the letters. Coming up with no clear answer Lily takes a break from her contemplation and looks down to the table: “Lily’s glance fell on a word here and there; then she said in a low voice: What do you wish me to pay you'” (111). The then’ in the middle of this sentence seems to establish a direct casual link between her seeing the words and her decision that the letters are worth money. The moral concerns are tossed out as Lily falls back on the simple value system that has society members send telegrams while Selden sends by the postal service. Those words – not the meaning behind them – ultimately convince Lily that the letters are worth money. Lily also recognizes the value of her words in an economic sense in her dealings with Gus Trenor. Soon after she receives the first check from him she realizes that “to listen to his stories, to receive his confidences and laugh at his jokes,” i.e. to exchange words, “seemed for the moment all that was required of her,” to continue receiving money from him (91). In the end nothing more is required of her – while she decides to repay the debt, Gus never requires this of her. Trenor himself admits to the terms of the deal a few moments later when he tells her, “I don’t want to be thanked, but I should like to say two words to you now and then” (98). When the situation falls out it is only because of her unwillingness to speak with him.In the end, it is in the larger context of the novel – in Lily’s fall – that the economy of words is seen at its most sweeping, and at the same time most subtle. Her fall may appear to be a result of uncareful behavior, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the key events in Lily’s economic fall are based on words or a lack thereof – not the actions or thoughts behind them. The event that begins her downward arc is the loss of Percy Gryce. Lily is aware that Gryce is worth little more than money – as Judy Trenor reminds her, “they say he has eight hundred thousand a year” (49). In her eyes, the marriage is directly equal to money. With resentment, Lily recognizes that all Jack Stepney – a stable bachelor – has “to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet” (52). To get her money, Lily must do anything but stay quiet. This recognition raises the point that it is only for Lily – an unstable member of the group – that words make a difference. But this moment is more immediately important in demonstrating that Lily’s capture of Gryce, and thus the money, is reliant upon words. When she does lose Gryce, Judy Trenor makes clear that it was words not actions. She begins by saying that “it was the idea of a gambling debt that frightened Percy.” But as she continues Judy says it that in telling Gryce of the gambling debt Bertha Dorset “knew just what to tell him!” (82). The gambling debt was irrevocably in her history – it was only the particular telling that Bertha provided which lost Gryce, and his money, for Lily. Of course the biggest loss in Lily’s downfall is the loss of her Aunt Peniston’s inheritance. After Lily has found out that the inheritance has gone to Grace Stepney, Lily goes to Grace in desperation and asks to borrow 9,000 dollars so that she can repay her debt to Gus Trenor. Grace refuses Lily by saying, “it was the idea of your being in debt that brought on her illness” (239). This might lead the reader to believe that it actually was Lily’s shady dealings that caused both Miss Peniston’s illness and Miss Peniston’s decision to give her inheritance to Grace Stepney rather than Lily. But the true cause seems to lie rather in the words that were exchanged than Lily’s actual behavior. Soon after Mrs. Peniston learns of Lily’s shady dealings from Grace Stepney, Wharton implies that Mrs. Peniston had assumed Lily was not perfect, but that she had avoided learning of such imperfections: “Mrs. Peniston dislike scenes, and her determination to avoid them had always led her to hold herself aloof from the details of Lily’s life” (134). The events would have stayed quiet if they were left to themselves, but Grace Stepney chooses to gamble with words because she realizes their value. While telling Mrs. Peniston of Lily’s transgressions, Grace weighs her words as a gambler would her cards: “It was agreeable to shock Mrs. Peniston, but not to shock her to the verge of anger.” Each moment is calculated with little concern for Mrs. Peniston’s well-being, and a great deal of concern for the end her words might affect. After a few carefully placed words Grace “felt that the moment was tremendous and remembered suddenly that Mrs. Peniston’s black brocade, with the cut jet fringe, would have been hers at the end of the season” (132). However, even this initial exposure to Lily’s actions does not convince Mrs. Peniston. After Grace has her conversation with Miss Peniston, Lily’s aunt continues to pay her clothing bills. When Lily herself comes to tell Mrs. Peniston of her behavior, her aunt says, “It’s true, then; when I was told so, I wouldn’t believe it” (181). In this moment Mrs. Peniston concedes that it is only with Lily herself confessing that Mrs. Peniston finally shuts Lily out – an exclusion which results in Grace Stepney receiving the inheritance. The behavior would have gone unnoticed if it were not for the words, first of Grace and then of Lily. The significance of words in affecting this result is emphasized by the fact that Lily’s confession to her aunt is not even the truth. She says that her debt arose from bridge games – “Sometimes I’ve won – won a good deal – but lately I’ve been unlucky” (181) – not from Gus Trenor. In the fact that what finally shuts her out is not even the truth we are brought to see, again, that it is not the reality that loses the inheritance, but rather the words. After the bridge game early in the novel, where Lily first realizes her tough economic situation, she bitterly remarks, Of course she had lost – she who needed every penny, while Bertha Dorset, whose husband showered money on her, must have pocketed at least five hundred, and Judy Trenor, who could have afforded to lose a thousand a night, had left the table clutching such a heap of bells that she had been unable to shake hands with her guests when they bade her good night. 31The real economy has a cruel naturalistic way of allowing the blunt edge of chance to fall upon the already fallen. In Lily’s downfall we see that the same rules apply in the economy of words. Only for the downtrodden does the economy of words make a noticeable difference. This point is emphasized in the final moments when Lily is floundering for food money with the other failures from society. Each of them is attempting to reassert themselves with words. For Jane Silverton – whose arc has been seen in the distance behind Lily’s – the only hope for a job is that she “reads aloud very nicely” (274). Lily herself, believes she can make money if she can find some “notes to write and visiting-lists to make up” (276). In these last moments Wharton again makes the connection between words and money apparent to the reader. While many of the connections that Wharton provides between money and words are not so apparent, the mass of examples of this association, at all levels, evidences an economy of words in which all characters, within the high society of the novel, take part.
Questioning the Social Order
Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth creates a subtle, ironic, and superbly crafted picture of the social operation of turn-of-the-century New York. In her harsh expression of community, she succeeds in portraying a world of calculation operating under the pretenses of politeness. The characters become competitors in the highly complex game of social positioning with an amorphous body of socially formed laws. Through her presentation of Lily Barton’s ongoing struggles to “recover her footing-each time on a slightly lower level” in this game of skill, Wharton forces her audience to question this social order (272). Lily’s fate gives way to a satirical commentary on how a social order governed by convention, sanctions, beliefs, and customs can crush its individual members by mutating into a force greater than its collection of participants.Wharton’s bleak portrayal of this environment reveals an exchange system in which transactions are made only to further one’s personal interest. Shaping this perception are the relations between men and women; as Lily explains to Selden, women must enter into “partnerships” (14) to strategically enhance their standing in the social regime. Lily must use her beauty and charm to allure a mate with the monetary power which to solidify her place in the upper circle. Compatibility beyond the advantages of the match in the social scheme is of little import, explaining Lily attempts at alluring Percy Gryce “to do the honor of boring her for life” (29). With similar motivations, Simon Rosedale offers Lily complete financial backing in exchange for the social savoir-fare to enter New York high society. Lily recognizes Rosedale’s “small, stock-taking eyes, which [make] her feel herself no more than some super-fine human merchandise,” confirming her awareness that marriage is a mere business transaction. The emotionally barren marriages which emerge from these motivations, confirm the notion that relationships truly are a pretense. Lily observes “long stretch[es] of vacuity” between the Trenors as they sit at opposite ends of the diner table at Bellomont. Gus’ financial backing is the spark which provides the current for Judy’s “glaring good looks, of a jeweler’s window lit by electricity” (59). Further tarnishing the picture of conjugal bliss is the continuance of the Dorset’s relationship despite Bertha’s philandering. Wharton shadows the true nature of their marriage; immediately after Gus discovers the truth about Bertha and Ned Silverman, the Dorsets are seen “presenting their customary faces to the world[;] she was engrossed in establishing her relation with an intensely new gown, he shrinking with dyspeptic dream from the multiplied solicitations of the menu” (223). She needs his financial resources just as he recquires her presence to continue their unmitigated status of social prestige. Wharton includes the consequences of failure to fulfill conventional contractual roles in this society when Lily’s father “bec[omes] extinct when he cease[s] to fulfill his purpose” (36).The alliance between men and women adds yet another dimension to the competition. Women become commodities in the marketplace who must champion their own assets over those of their competitors while men become the consumers of these societal products. In Lily’s observations of the operative nature of female society, she shows an understanding of the fragile nature of these relationships which only seem to thrive in the absence of rivalry.The collective nature of her interests exempted her from the ordinary rivalries of her sex, and she knew no more personal emotion than that of hatred for the women who presumed to have bigger dinners or have more amusing house parties than herself. As her social talents, backed by Mr. Trenor’s bank-account, almost assured her ultimate triumph in such competitions, success had developed in her an unscrupulous good nature toward the rest of her sex, and in Miss Bart’s utilitarian of her friends, Mrs. Trenor ranked as the woman least likely to “go back’ on her. (44)Despite her seeming understanding of female alliances, it is in Lily’s calculation of these relationships that she makes her fatal errors. Despite Judy’s warning of Bertha’s nastiness, Lily initially draws the battle-lines between herself and Bertha at Bellomont when she interrupts a private meeting between Bertha and Selden. The failure to recover this relationship ultimately allows her to become “singled out as a sacrifice” (253) when Bertha needs to maintain superficial dignity and her marriage with George. Lily also blunders when she uses her guile and charm to manipulate Gus into speculating for her; in doing so, she loses her most powerful ally, Judy, by tapping into the one source of Judy’s jealousy- Gus’ pocketbook. Lily’s beauty and social grace threaten these women, and her failure to garner their support proves devastating. Her assets are easily disposable in a social system which functions with little loyalty. Although Lily treats her beauty as a “weapon she [has] slowly fashioned for her own vengeance,” (37) this advantage in the field of males proves to be a detriment in her dealings with females. Her assets are easily disposable in a social system which functions with little loyalty.In this game of intense competition, Wharton seems to toy with many of the ideas of social Darwinism. Even “Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest and that to convert it into success other arts are recquired.”(38). In the battle for social position, only the fittest will survive in a system independent from morality. The application of this logic to the social environment explains why “the lower organisms” (23) Gus Trenor and Percy Gryce are able to maintain their position as the economic pinnacles of society. Enforcing this notion is Judy Trenor’s remark that “for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman” (48). In Judy’s insightful observation lies a potential answer to what factor makes Lily incompatible with a society that she seemingly possesses the attributes to dominate. While raised in an environment that has impeccably polished and finely tuned her social graces into an art form, she appears to lack the baseness of character to achieve success in the struggle for social position. She is unable to Bertha’s letters to use to her advantage, thereby exposing the injustice of her social punishment. Similarly, Lily fails explain to Judy the pretenses under which that she took money from Gus. Although Lily might not completely exhaust her arsenal of social weapons, she seems to be a victim of the forces of chance. A sense of arbitrariness of the operative system of society emerges through Lily’s economic decension from the social ornament of the Dorsets and Trenors, to social advisor for the Gormers and then Norma Hatch, then to a laborer in a factory, and ultimately to the isolation of the boarding house.Society functions as a force that manipulates actions and the human components become like puppets on a stage. The momentum of social forces obliterates the moral sensibility of individuals within the system. The spectacle of Mrs. Pensiton’s rigid adherence to her strict moral code as she plays at religious miserliness seems particularly ironic as it is used to reward the ‘spiritually correct’ Grace Stepney, who most likely shaped Mrs. Peniston’s decision to disinherit Lily. Sadly enough these are the only warped moral standards which emerge from this society; all of the other characters lack any concept of ethics. Rosedale thinks nothing of advising Lily to blackmail Bertha for her own advantage. Judy cuts Lily from social prominence the minute that their connection is no longer socially acceptable. In establishing this framework, Wharton carefully orchestrates the actions of her characters until they perform their roles in nearly robotic calibration to what their proper roles in the social order depleted of moral considerations. The surface of interaction which conforms to the quest for social prestige overrides and blurs the moral sense of the characters. Manners become a guise for the underlying struggles of power. Conversation becomes the embodiment of artification. In clever bantering the characters carefully take risks, not revealing a large amount of personal feeling. This lack of truth is carried to the extent that it is a tacit rule that one conceals all feelings and thoughts that do not conform with what is socially condoned. Selden is the one individual who attempts to distance himself from this environment. With his lofty, pretentious talk of a “republic of the spirits,” (73) one could nearly hope that there is an alternative to the crassly materialistic and competitive social environment. During Lily’s conversations with Selden, we see Lily diverge from the socially accepted, almost scripted, dialogue. Lily describes, “[t]here were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other grasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears” (69).Selden offers Lily with an alternative to the world of social hierarchy and succeeds in allowing Lily momentary separation from the social system. During moments with him, “the (her) free spirit quivered for flight” (69). It is during these moments, when Lily is divorced from her social conditioning, that she encounters a way of thinking that makes her continuation in this society impossible. Lily’s battle between her inner and outer persona explains the inconsistency in her behavior. When she is carrying out her socially approved ways, she achieves great success in the social world, but her digressions from this mind frame give rise to moral and ethical considerations that destroy her carefully articulated social plans. As Selden notes, “to be the unforeseen element in a career so accurately planned was stimulating even to a man who had renounced sentimental experiments” (73). But Selden’s lip service to such ideas is undermined by his failure to affirm them when the opportunity arises. It is Selden who ultimately remains chained to the social force when he refuses to rescue Lily from her social demise until it is too late. Wharton makes a resounding statement on the inability for someone within the system to escape intact. The mechanisms of the systems overwhelm the individual until he is incompatible with the world outside of the social rat race, but he is unable to continue within its grip. Selden succeeds in releasing Lily from society’s trap, but never completely escapes from this because of his need to remain in his comfort zone until it is too late to rescue Lily. Although Lily is ultimately freed from her role in the social system, her fragmented character cannot survive without the machine she depended upon for so long. As Lily’s moral self is crystallized her social position and self-worth are shattered. Then one must wonder about the truth in Selden observation that “she was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (9). However, Wharton creates a more complex picture than that of Lily’s plight as a victim helplessly struggling against her environment. Throughout her societal career, she consciously makes choices that are conventionally taboo. Despite her impeccable breeding and skilled articulation, “the recollection of similar situations, as skillfully led up to, but through some malice of fortune, or her own unsteadiness of purpose, always failing on the intended result.”(262). In these incidents, it appears that Lily’s social decline is in part a result of her choices. The key here would be to evaluate to what extent she chooses with full comprehension of possible fatal ramifications and which choices are made as conscious rejection of the corrupt moral system of high society New York. As evidenced by Lily’s skillful manipulation of the social game, she knowingly threatens her position by taking risks. When Lily “leans[s] back in a luxury of discontent” and when she meets Rosedale as she exits the Benedict, she seems to be aware of the taboo of a single woman visiting a bachelor’s residence (9). The problem of evaluating Lily through the framework of her decisions is the fact that, until the end, Lily still clings to material comforts provided by this world. One can even conjecture that her life was ended by her failure to be able to survive in a world in which economic wealth is been replaced by spiritual wealth.
Society’s Effect on Relationships: Sense and Sensibility and House of Mirth
Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is a novel of society and manners, following two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in their bids for love and marriage. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905) focuses on New York’s high society and the struggle of a well-born socialite, Lily Bart. Both novels explore the integral themes of women, society and marriage. Despite being written almost a century apart, the social systems explored in these novels are overwhelmingly similar, with the end-goal of both female protagonists being ultimately marriage. The authors, in this sense, provide a critical view of the societies that place limitations on women.
In both novels, wealth, rather than love, is shown to be the most significant factor in marriage. The significance of wealth as a factor in marriage Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is portrayed at the end of the novel. Austen states that in Edward and Elinor’s situation, ‘One question after this only remained undecided between them, one difficulty only was to be overcome…Edward had two thousand pounds, and Elinor one…and they were neither of them quite in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would apply them with the comforts of life.’ Here, Austen suggests that despite love being a clear factor, wealth would always be seen as more important due to the reality of the societies in which these characters live. Indeed, the stability that wealth brings to relationships is presented as ultimately the most important factor, and when taking into account the context in which the novel is written (early 19th century), seems practical. Women at this period were under pressure for financial stability, as laws prevented them from owning property. In fact, British society at this time had many restrictions (perhaps one of the most obvious was not having the right to vote) that made women dependent on men. Census data from the 19th century also presents that there were a substantial amount more of women than men, meaning finding a wealthy partner was becoming a difficult feat.
Wharton’s House of Mirth presents a similar attitude through the protagonist, Lily Bart. Lily is a symbolic representation of the typical woman of this era, which, although is set a century later than Sense and Sensibility, is extremely similar. This is exemplified when Lily is at Bellomont, and the beginning of chapter three opens with Lily’s thoughts on the need for her to attain wealth through marriage. As she is walking through the luxurious halls of Bellomont, Wharton describes, ‘There were moments when such scenes delighted Lily, when they gratified her sense of beauty and her craving for the external finish of life; there were others when they gave a sharper edge to the meagreness of her own opportunities.’ The language Wharton uses here juxtaposes the extravagance of ‘the external finish of life’ with her lexis choice of the noun ‘meagreness’, bringing connotations of inadequacy, thus portraying the importance that Lily places on wealth as a lack of wealth is immediately associated with a negative lifestyle.
Wharton goes on to express that Lily feels forced into seducing Percy Gryce, a rich and eligible (although uninteresting) bachelor, to marry her, ‘She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce – the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice – but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.’ Here, Wharton’s repetition of ‘boredom’ reiterates how essentially uninteresting Gryce is to Lily, reflecting the hardships of women to marry for wealth rather than love at this time.
Furthermore, Wharton selects the qualities of a woman having ‘fresh compliances and adaptabilities’, which presents the expectations of women in this time period to impress men. This idealistic image of a woman being poised, polite and impressive is similar to the way Elinor knows she should behave in Sense and Sensibility. For instance, when Elinor finds out that Lucy is involved with Edward whom she is in love with, she withholds her emotions; ‘she was almost overcome – her heart sunk within her, and she could hardly stand; but exertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings,’ Wharton’s choice of lexis here shows how absolutely Elinor struggled against her own emotions, particularly through the adverbs ‘almost’ and ‘hardly’ and by presenting the idea that this behavior was ‘indispensably necessary’ in which her use of adjective shows the pressure that society put on women to repress their feelings. Michal Beth Dinkler suggests that ‘Austen favors Elinor’s self-possession’ which is an interesting viewpoint; is it arguable that Austen supported the repression of such intense female emotion that Marianne obviously does not? It is more likely that Austen used Elinor as a device to convey her criticisms of the society which encouraged the repression of emotion for male benefit. For this reason, Marianne represents the opposite of what society would have expected young ladies to behave, as she has an excess of emotion, a view supported by Dinkler; ‘Marianne, the true Romantic, luxuriates in her own floridity, languishing in layer upon layer of love language and succumbing to morose and mournful melancholy.’ Overall in this section, it is clear that Wharton presents Lily as knowing that she needs to marry for financial stability, but ultimately resenting this, a position which many women would find themselves in during this time period due to their inescapable reliance on men.
However, it is arguable that Lily’s wish to marry wealthy is not purely an objective of society, but a personal one of hers. Wharton presents this through the use of third person narration, which allow the reader an oversight of Lily’s true thoughts and feelings which perhaps in a first person narration, Wharton wouldn’t allow Lily to admit; ‘No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury;’ which suggests that Lily could not live without the opulent lifestyle that a wealthy husband would provide her. This is reiterated by Wharton’s choice of adjectives ‘mean’ ‘shabby’ ‘squalid’ which all present a lack of wealth as being disgusting and unfair. Indeed, Lily in the novel is shown to be entirely conscientious of her need for wealth; ‘The certainty that she could marry Percy Gryce when she pleased had lifted a heavy load from her mind…She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased,’ but it is clear through the language ‘arrange her life as she pleased’ that Lily also craves the freedoms that wealth could provide her.
In contrast, in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is presented as only seeking enough wealth to have a stable and practical lifestyle. This is shown in a conversation between Marianne and Elinor where Elinor is explaining that Marianne has grown up oblivious to the necessity of wealth in her life. ‘What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?’ ‘Grandeur has but little,’ said Elinor, ‘but wealth has much to do with it…’ This rhetorical question followed by the declarative shows Elinor’s more mature outlook on marriage and wealth in this era: it is clear that she recognizes the practical need for wealth to support their lifestyles.
Furthermore, Wharton presents wealth as a more significant factor in marriage rather than love as Lily ultimately rejects Lawrence Selden, who, from the beginning of the novel, she is shown to be in love with. Although Selden is wealthy, he is not the most wealthy man that Lily is involved with, and therefore she does not find him a suitable partner. Despite her previous upheaval at finding Percy Gryce so uninteresting, she recognizes how Selden makes her view the world differently but still does not let herself act upon her affections; ‘his presence shed a new light on her surroundings.’ ‘That was the secret of his way of readjusting her vision. Lily…found herself scanning her little world through his retina: it was as though the pink lamps had been shut off and the dusty daylight let in.’ The emphasis Wharton places upon Selden representing light and realization in Lily’s life shows her true feelings for him. In contrast to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, rather than Lily’s true love, Selden, leaving her as Willoughby leaves Marianne, Lily simply chooses to not be with Selden. This highlights a difference in attitude between the two women; Lily is shown to believe that she deserves someone wealthy to support her lifestyle, but being adequately affluent herself, she is not under pressure to settle for Selden.
Another instance in which Austen puts forward the importance of wealth in marriage is through Willoughby, who marries Miss Grey just for her wealth, despite truly loving Marianne. Mrs Jennings reveals Willoughby’s sudden engagement to Miss Grey; ‘The lady then — Miss Grey I think you called her — is very rich?’ ‘Fifty thousand pounds, my dear. …Fifty thousand pounds!’ Within which Austen’s repetition of the exclamatory phrase ‘fifty thousand pounds!’ places emphasis on the basis of the relationship being primarily wealth. It may, however, be argued that Willoughby is unhappy due to his decision to marry for wealth. This is suggested at the end of the novel through his intense idealization of Marianne as the perfect woman as he is said to have ‘made her his secret standard of perfection in woman;’ his unhappiness is further shown as ‘Willoughby could not hear of her marriage with a pang;’. Here, Austen’s use of a third person omniscient narrator gives a clear and detailed insight into Willoughby’s thoughts and feelings, describing that although Willoughby had not ‘fled from society…or died of a broken heart,’ he thought of Marianne often and had effectively caused his own unhappiness by leaving her. By having Willoughby be ultimately unhappy at the end of the novel, Austen can be said to be criticizing the 19th century society in which she is writing: since Willoughby chose to follow society’s regulations of marrying for wealth, he ended up with unhappiness, whereas both Marianne and Elinor reject society’s traditional expectations for marriage and end up happier for it.
However, in Sense and Sensibility, it can be argued that Austen introduces the concept that love is often more important than wealth in regards to marriage. Austen presents this through the character of Mrs Dashwood, who, from the beginning of the novel, expresses her contentment with Edward Ferrars solely on the basis of his affections for Elinor. This is portrayed in Austen’s description that, ‘Some mothers might have encouraged the intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich;’ ‘It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.’ Austen’s technique of listing Edward’s positive qualities here shows that Mrs Dashwood truly appreciates the favorable parts of Edward’s character, showing that despite social expectations, she believes in marriage for love rather than wealth alone. Her willingness for Elinor to be with him is further re-instated as Austen presents that Edward is not particularly socially-striking, ‘He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.’ The adjectives ‘open’ and ‘affectionate’ suggest that Mrs Dashwood can look beyond typically shallow qualities of an idealistic partner for Elinor (namely handsomeness and manners); instead choosing to really understand Edward as a person. This further portrays that despite wealth being an important factor in marriage in the society in which Austen writes, love is being presented as the fundamentally significant factor. This shows that Mrs Dashwood is presented as an open-minded and kind character, further presented when Austen states that Edward’s ‘quietness of manner…militated against all her established ideas of what a young man’s address ought to be.’ Which shows that society’s expectations even for men (perhaps above all to be wealthy, handsome and well-mannered) can be overshadowed by love in Austen’s novel.
Women in both novels are shown to be living in a male-dominated society. On top of a woman’s pressure to marry somebody wealthy in order to sustain their lifestyle, various other social pressures determined from the patriarchal societies of both contexts are shown to effect the women’s lives. Lily expresses from the first chapter of The House of Mirth the advantages men have other women. When she goes to Selden’s apartment for tea, she expresses her amazement at the freedoms of men to own property; ‘How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman!’ In which Wharton’s use of repeated exclamatories shows Lily’s desperation for freedoms of her own. Selden expresses that women can too own flats, but Lily explains that no respectable woman would: ‘Oh, governesses – or widows. But not girls – not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!’ in which Austen’s use of the triplet of adjectives shows her true irritation in the society that depicts what women can and can’t do, and creates the idea that their behavior must present them, above all else, as marriageable. This shows society’s expectations of women constantly resulting in their ultimate lack of freedom. When the two then discuss the only women they know who lives in a flat, Gerty Farish, Lily says she is not a marriageable women, reflected by her living status. Lily’s pre-occupation with a woman’s status as ‘marriageable’ or not also reveals the pressure she feels herself. By having this section of the novel be predominantly dialogue between Selden and Lily, Wharton allows the reader to see an insight into the interactions between men and women and their opinions of others in society at this time, predominantly focusing on the restrictions that women faced. When Wharton does use narration in this section, it is often to reinforce the underlying message of Selden and Lily’s conversation, for instance that Lily ‘was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her,’ which portrays Wharton analyzing Lily’s judgmental attitude as being due to her being conditioned by the patriarchal society of this time, rather than a personal flaw of hers.
The male dominated society in The House of Mirth is shown further by Lily’s own awareness of it. She explains to Selden from the first chapter how men objectify women, and how their worth is exemplified by their looks. When Lily suggests to Selden that he could marry for wealth (‘But do you mind enough – to marry to get out of it?’) and Selden effectively conveys that he would never (‘God forbid!’), she plainly tells him the social expectations of women in contrast to men. ‘Ah, there’s the difference – a girl must, a man may if he chooses.’ in which Wharton’s lexis choices of the modal verb ‘may’ compared to the imperative ‘must’ reiterates the lack of choices and freedoms a woman has in this society. Wharton goes on to have Lily explain, ‘Your coat’s a little shabby – but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it.’ This long speech containing many complex sentences portrays Lily’s train of thought, giving a female viewpoint of her standing in society. She describes the objectification of women that is evident in this society. It seems almost every man Lily comes into contact with views her primarily as an object, including Selden. In fact, the first line of the novel, ‘Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart’ portrays this, predominantly through the lexis choice of ‘refreshed’ which gives connotations of Lily being a material object rather than a person. Wharton, by placing this at the forefront of the novel, sets the tone for the patriarchy that is shown to rule society throughout. Lily, rather than being a victim to her own society, is presented to be self-aware, realizing early in the novel that she is ‘no more account among [her social circle] than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child.’ in fact, when at Bellomont, she speaks of being aware of having to earn her stay there; ‘For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality.’ This clearly shows that in every social situation, women in this society were viewed primarily as objects for others to observe and enjoy.
It can be said that despite women being restricted by a patriarchy that reduces them to objects, Lily allows this to an extent. Literary critic Cynthia Wolff states, ‘The House of Mirth is about the disintegration of Lily Bart, about the psychological disfigurement of any women who chooses to accept society’s definition of her as a beautiful object and nothing more’ she goes on to point out: ‘Lily has adopted her society’s images of women narrowly and literally. She has long practiced the art of making herself an exquisite decorative object.’ This idea can be clearly shown in the novel, for instance in Lily’s performance at the Welly Brys’ tableaux vivant, where Lily dressed up and displayed herself as a living imitation of art. Lily enjoyed the ‘exhilaration of displaying her own beauty under a new aspect: of showing that her loveliness was no mere fixed quality, but an element shaping all emotions to fresh forms of grace’, thus showing that Wharton presents Lily Bart as enjoying being ‘such a wonderful spectacle’ (as Selden describes her), and objectified by others. In this way, it can certainly be argued that Wharton is presenting female characters of this era to further their own objectification and somewhat support the clear patriarchal and restrictive society they have been born into. An alternative viewpoint, however, presented by Debbie Lelekis, is that this performance creates an ‘inversion of gender roles’ as ‘Through her display of beauty, Lily manipulates the audience and temporarily seizes power.’ This perception is interesting when considering Wharton as a feminist writer, allowing the audience to question if Lily is a product of her society, or subtly questioning the ruling patriarchy through her behavior.
It is clear that a male dominated society also prevails within Sense and Sensibility, and this is established from the beginning of the novel. It’s important to recognize, however, that although women owning property was simply frowned upon in the context of The House of Mirth, it was legally impossible in Sense and Sensibility, prior to the Married Women’s Property Act 1882. This is one of the subtle differences in context in terms of a woman’s place in society in the 19th century compared to the 20th century. Indeed, Austen’s novel takes place in a society where there are limited roles and opportunities for women, including that the female characters cannot inherit property or have careers. Their future lifestyles depend almost completely on the men they marry, which explains why there are so many social expectations of women to make them attractive to potential husbands. This is reiterated from the opening of the novel when, because of the death of the family patriarch, the women were forced to resign their land and possessions to John Dashwood. Thus, the female characters had to abruptly move out of their home: ‘No sooner was his father’s funeral over, than Mrs John Dashwood, without sending any notice…arrived.’ Additionally, notably, the next house they move into had to be offered to them by a male relative: ‘the offer of a small house…belonging to a relation…a gentleman of consequence and property in Devonshire.’ further reiterating the reliance of women in this male dominated society.
In summation, it is clear that despite the subtle differences that can be seen in Austen and Wharton’s works due to the century between each being written, women’s positions in society changed little. Marianne, Elinor and Lily all reflect the struggles and expectations of women, and the ultimate expectation of them: to marry. Austen’s novel ultimately shows society’s victory in Marianne’s case: by the end of the novel she is no longer the hopeless romantic type, and has settled for stability and wealth. This idea is presented by critic Diane Shubinsky, who points out that Marianne learns ‘the errors of her ways and acknowledge(s) the greater suitability of the older and more stable man’ despite the truth that ‘she knew and had more in common with the rake than she did with her future husband.’ Despite this, it is arguable that Marianne had become practical in her pursuits, rather than the initial representation of her as the ultimate ‘sensibility’ and therefore impetuous and immature in her ideals of love. Elinor, on the contrary, can be seen as rising above the social conventions that force women into marrying purely for wealth, as she ends up with Edward Ferrars who she is shown to truly love (For instance, as she describes early in the novel that her understanding of him leads her to see him as handsome: ‘At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome.’)
The House of Mirth’s ending contrasts greatly with Sense and Sensibility, as rather than Lily ending up married and happy, she ends up committing suicide. This suitably tragic end for a character that has openly struggled with society’s plans for her can be seen as Wharton’s criticism of a patriarchy that leaves women without options. Indeed, a possible explanations of Lily’s death is simply that she couldn’t bear to be poor and unmarried with age setting in fast, as is suggested in the penultimate chapter of the novel through Wharton’s third person narration which recounts Lily’s emotions before she overdoses: ‘It was indeed miserable to be poor – to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle age,’ To add to this tragic ending, Selden realizes his true love for Lily only after her death, possibly another portrayal from Wharton of the unjust society that Lily had lived in. Debbie Lelekis argues this case, giving the explanation that ‘Lily does not give in and marry someone rich, and she pays the consequences of her actions.’ The final chapters of the novel show that Lily and Selden deeply loved each-other, both coming to the realization that they had something left to say. In Lily’s case, as she was falling asleep it is revealed that ‘she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them.’ Selden’s realization comes the following morning: ‘He only knew that he must see Lily Bart at once – he had found the word he meant to say to her,’ and more pointedly, the final sentence of the novel, ‘He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.’ This ending may be seen as ambiguous, but it is largely suspected that this ‘word’ was a declaration of love. Wharton’s decision to end the novel in this way portrays the ultimate struggle of Lily in the novel: a lack of wealth and love, essentially leading to her social downfall and eventual demise. The contrast in the endings of both novels highlights a clear difference in the society’s in which the authors are writing in. Austen was undoubtedly pushed to create a ‘happy’ ending for her characters as a struggling female author in an era of romanticism, whereas Wharton, almost a century later, could depict the final fate of her characters how she desired.
Climate Symbolism in “The House of Mirth”
In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton uses weather in a variety of ways that provide symbolic significance along with a vivid setting. Wharton uses weather, climate, and the change of seasons to foreshadow events in the immediate future and to reflect Lily’s emotional state or perceptions. When Lily’s view of events is impractical, unrealistic, or simply wrong, the climate and weather take on subtly ironic overtones. Yet to fully appreciate the ingenious subtlety of Wharton’s prose it is necessary to understand the climate and conditions in the settings she uses. This essay will begin by presenting a short description of the geography and climate relevant to The House of Mirth, with emphasis on how the change of seasons affects the behavior of Lily Bart and her peers so as to influence the plot of the novel. It will use specific examples to illustrate how the depictions of climate accurately reflect Lily’s subjective and frequently unrealistic impression of reality. It will show how climate is used to foreshadow key events, and it will present a scene in which climate symbolism is extremely ironic.
There are three settings in the novel where climate is relevant: the island of Manhattan, upstate New York, and the city of Monte Carlo in Monaco, next to the French Riviera. The wealthy characters live in New York City during the winter months but travel away from the city in the spring and summer. Much of the upper class is migratory, having “country” estates in New Jersey and upstate New York or even vacationing abroad during the hotter months. This is due in part to the fact that Manhattan is a very physically uncomfortable place to be in the summer without air conditioning… and in Edith Wharton’s day, residential air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet.
The island of Manhattan is in the warm temperate region, with summer conditions from late May through late September with hotter temperatures later in the season. In the early 1900s the island was already becoming densely populated and had been deforested and replaced with businesses, industrial parks, and living space for humans and horses.[i] Manhattan is not cooled by the ocean the way Long Island is, although because of the East River and the canal system there is a great deal of water that contributes to the humidity.[ii] When Lily is trapped there in the summer after her return from the disastrous events aboard the Sabrina, lacking any invitations out of the city into cooler climates and without financial resources of her own, she experiences literal heat which may be construed as reminiscent of Hell or perhaps Purgatory.
Compared to Manhattan, the Adirondack and Catskill mountain areas are cooler in the summer especially outside the Hudson River valley. They are not close enough to the ocean to be cooled by it, however the humidity is not excessive and the summer temperature tends to be cooler by several degrees than it is in Manhattan. The terrain is hilly and somewhat mountainous, with fertile land suitable for orchards. Most of the wealthy families in The House of Mirth own or rent private estates in towns such as Tuxedo, Rhinebeck, Peekskill, and elsewhere. These regions are called “upstate” New York. In Wharton’s era, towns and cities in upstate New York were connected by unpaved roads that were not always well maintained in the winter. The physical difficulty of moving between one semi-rural building and another to obtain food and supplies, and the inconsistent electrical and communications utilities which can be disrupted by bad weather even to this day, was a big reason why wealthy people tended to migrate back into the city in October instead of simply commuting in for social events. But during the summer, estates like the Trenors’ residence at Bellomont near Rhinebeck were a welcome refuge from the heat.
Upstate New York is known for beautiful fall foliage in October, with lots of gold, orange, and red leaves that tend to change colors in mid- to late October. The timing of the Van Osburgh wedding in mid to late October would have coincided with the peak of the fall leaf colors. Also in upstate New York is the Adirondack Park, which was declared “forever wild” as of 1894, having been declared a state forest reserve in 1885. It represents an area roughly the size of Vermont. This is where the Gormers and some of the other characters in the novel have a “camp” in the summer or over the Thanksgiving holidays in November. Yet there is an element of physical risk: winter storms may arrive at any time, at which point the unimproved roads would become impassable except by sleigh.
Another earthly paradise found in The House of Mirth is Monaco, which Lily visits as part of a somewhat Faustian bargain with George and Bertha Dorset. Known for its casino and luxury accommodations, its capital city of Monte Carlo is next to the French Riviera on a strip of land along the southern part of France that also includes Nice, Cannes, and parts of Provence. Monte Carlo has a deep-water port and a Mediterranean tropical climate. In mid-April, when the second half of the novel begins, one can expect to see blooming cactus flowers. The seasons of the year are more subtle than in New York: it never gets as cold in the winter, but the summers are also cooler. The French Riviera is therefore a very popular place for wealthy New Yorkers to go in the spring and summer, although the social “season” in the area is dictated more by the tourist habits of upper-class London. There, the social season has always ended earlier than New York’s due to differences in climate and custom: the British elite in the early 1900s tended to visit in March and April. So in the middle of April when Lawrence Selden encounters Lily Bart and her fashionable friends in Monaco, the local social season is coming to a close. Entertainments such as the water show in Nice are still being put on, but they are fewer and farther between than they would have been a few weeks ago.
Given that it is the seasons that impel Edith Wharton’s characters to flee the weather in one area by migrating to another, it is perhaps inevitable that climate should drive the plot of the story as well. The novel begins in early September, the hottest part of the New York summer, when Lily encounters her acquaintance Lawrence Selden and spontaneously accepts an invitation to visit alone with him for tea in his apartment. Lily is in the process of traveling out of the stultifying heat of the city because she has been invited to an exclusive week-long party at Bellomont, Gus and Judy Trenor’s estate in upstate New York. The contrast between the temperate, comfortable social “paradise” of Bellomont with the uncomfortable heat of Manhattan in the summer can be read as a clumsy analogy for Heaven and Hell, with less privileged people like the Jewish Simon Rosedale condemned to stay behind in the hot August weather while the more worthy social elite are able to escape the heat. Yet Wharton turns the analogy on its head: ironically it is at Bellomont where temptation and sin are most easily accessible. In New York, Lily would have been free from the temptation to overspend, to gamble, and to engage in the kind of conduct that eventually destroys her reputation and costs her what would otherwise have been a comfortable inheritance. But at Bellomont she gambles away almost all of her spending money and becomes indebted to her host, Gus Trenor, whom she manipulates into giving her money. This is a critical decision for Lily, because it sets her on the path of self-destruction.
During her walk with Lawrence Selden when Lily revels in the opportunity to simply be herself, she encounters a patch of “lingering summer”: a meadow with scattered trees, asters and bramble, sugar maples, orchards with fruit, and oaks.[iii] The fruit, most likely apples given the location and the time of year, is ripening on the tree. Lily herself is more than ripe for marriage, having been out in Society for eleven full years without finding a husband.[iv] Yet Wharton indicates that the loosened leaves were drawn to the ground much like Lily and Lawrence are drawn to one another.[v] Wharton describes mossy boulders and September “haze”, a landscape feature that occurs later in the novel on a similar walk. The haze symbolizes confusion. Although Lily begins the novel quite sure of her ability to entrap a wealthy young bachelor named Percy Gryce, her long walk with Lawrence shows her that other options exist. She therefore becomes confused about what she really wants, and sabotages herself. As a direct result of spending so much time with Lawrence, Lily loses her grip on Percy. Not only does she irritate Lawrence’s erstwhile lover Bertha Dorset, but she creates an opportunity for Bertha to poison Percy’s attitude toward Lily with a selective revelation of some of Lily’s past.
Through the first half of the novel, Lily experiences an increasing physical chill in the air that parallels Society’s gradual metaphorical chill toward her. The social chill is due chiefly to her own decisions and conduct, specifically her refusal to conform to the increasingly narrow societal norms available to her and also her decision to do socially unacceptable things such as visiting a single man’s apartment, gambling for money, and borrowing money from men to pay her gambling debts. But there are moments of reprieve.
The next appearance of weather in the novel occurs a few weeks later when Lily effectively invites herself as a guest for another of Judy’s parties. The weather at Bellomont this time is unpleasant, with the cold and the rain forcing the revelers indoors. Yet Lily’s social reception is also cold, both from Judy—who replies to Lily’s handwritten note via telegraph—and from her guests. In the weeks after her departure from the first party, Lily has been conspicuously absent from Bellomont. She is trying to avoid Gus, whom she has manipulated into investing on her behalf by pretending to be receptive to his romantic advances. Judy, who as Lily later realizes is fully aware of Gus’s financial indiscretion with her, is unimpressed because Lily took money from her husband (implying the exchange of sexual favors) immediately after Judy explicitly told her not to do so. As a means of repaying Gus, Lily has been seen at the opera with him, Simon Rosedale, and a pair of social strivers named Wellington and Louisa Bry, and the notorious Carry Fisher whose two divorces and habit of socializing with not-quite-reputable make her useful to many but admired by few.[vi] Although Judy, Gus’s wife, is initially amicable and pleased that Lily is becoming good friends with her husband, as it becomes evident that Lily is receiving money from Gus her attitude toward Lily cools. She allows the other guests at Bellomont to needle her relentlessly about her new habit of socializing with people she previously treated as being beneath her.[vii]
At the Van Osburgh wedding in October, the changing of the leaves parallel the change and decline of Lily’s social options. Despite the her status as an unmarried woman who is also a cousin of the groom, Lily does not offer herself as a bridesmaid chiefly because she does not want to invite comparison with the younger, wealthier, and more eligible girls. Among them—unbeknownst to Lily—is young Evie Van Osburgh. Evie, who had been introduced to Percy through Bertha Dorset as retaliation for Lily’s interference in Bertha’s affair with Lawrence, has caught Percy’s eye. Although Lily cherishes the notion that she can somehow win him back, her hopes are dashed at the wedding: Percy proposes to Evie, who accepts.[viii] Gus Trenor, meanwhile, is becoming more overt in his romantic pursuit of Lily, and has no compunctions about discussing their financial dealings in public. But despite manifest evidence that her strategy is not working she clings to it much like a changing leaf clings to the branch that once nourished it. Lily, at age twenty-nine, is still stunningly attractive but still unwed and without financial resources due to missed marriage opportunities in her youth.
Stung by the subtle criticism of her peers, and concerned about Gus Trenor’s increasingly persistent demands for attention, Lily accepts an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with the Brys in a camp in the Adirondacks. There, her hosts treat her with the deference her hereditary social status demands, although for all practical purposes they are far wealthier than Aunt Julia. This is an interesting distinction: the sizable inheritance Lily expects from her Aunt Julia is one path to financial comfort and social respectability for her, yet it will not vault her into the ranks of the super-rich. Instead of cultivating her relationship with her Aunt Julia to secure her inheritance, Lily spurns the old woman’s company whenever possible. Lily thinks of this as pursuing “opportunity”,[ix] yet in her pursuit of the two birds in the bush she inadvertently neglects the bird she has in the hand. Wharton describes the Adirondack camp weather as “invigorating”. Lily returns from the camp energized, strong, and full of confidence that turns out to be misplaced. This is the first time Wharton allows her description of the weather to be more in tune with Lily’s erroneous beliefs than it is with the reality facing her.
The gradual crumbling of Lily’s social world occurs during the winter, where the cold New York weather is relieved by the gaiety indoors. In the artificially heated environment of the Brys’ general entertainment, Lily scandalizes her family by appearing in diaphanous garments that leave very little to the imagination. The heat, like the warmth of her audience’s reaction to her appearance as Mrs. Lloyd, is artificial: people begin to gossip about her even before the party is over.[x] During this time, the warmth and succor available to Lily exists only indoors in artificial environments. Outside, the winter that symbolizes the predictable consequences of Lily’s decision making is closing in relentlessly.
Most of the episodes of the novel coincide with the ending of seasons. This is significant, because the end of a season is a time of literal and metaphorical transition. The Bellomont party occurs at the end of summer, and it parallels the end of the “summer” of Lily’s youth. Lily’s key decision to shift her social circle for financial reasons to include people she previously considered unworthy, and to compromise her standards for money, occurs as fall fades into winter. But when the consequences of her improvidence set in and she begins to feel trapped and snowed in by her debt to Gus Trenor, Lily makes a Faustian bargain with Bertha Dorset in order to flee to a more temperate climate.
Unlike the progress of the seasons, which is relentless, Lily does not move gracefully into any of the opportunities presented to her. Her decisions are fitful and almost random. She rejects the notion of marrying Lawrence Selden because she wants to marry for money,[xi] and she sabotages her match with Percy Gryce and rejects Simon Rosedale because she wants to marry for love.[xii] Instead of compromising and finding either emotional satisfaction or material comfort through marriage, and instead of maturing into a slightly more scandalous version of herself Carry Fisher style, Lily clings to an inappropriate and outdated self-image of the young, marriageable girl she once was raised to be.
The second half of the novel opens in Monaco halfway through April.[xiii] There, Wharton describes mid-April in Monaco, with exuberant flowers, blue sea, fiery shafts of cactus-blossoms, and soft shade. The temperate climate of the Mediterranean is a welcome relief from the New York winter, however the peace implied by the nice weather is artificial. Lily is in extreme danger. By agreeing to go on the Dorsets’ yacht, Lily has tacitly agreed to serve as a distraction so that Bertha’s husband does not notice her ongoing affair. But instead of focusing on her duties as a distractor, Lily becomes engrossed with her own social successes and neglects her primary duty. George Dorset notices that he is being cuckolded by his wife, and to protect herself Bertha publicly accuses Lily of adultery with George, and kicks her off the yacht. The resulting scandal reaches New York before Lily does. So the unclouded sunlight, purple waters, olive and eucalyptus do not offer permanent refuge, even on the “luxurious shade” of the after-deck where Lily finds Bertha taking tea with an illustrious guest as part of a plot to accuse Lily of an affair with George in order to cover up her own indiscretion with Ned Silverton.[xiv]
Immediately after the dinner party in which Bertha orders Lily off the yacht in front of a tabloid newspaperman, the weather is gusty and overcast. Reality is finally settling in for Lily, and she is finally aware of her situation. She is separated from her home by the Atlantic Ocean, in a country where her protectors are more interested in their own entertainment than in her well-being. Although her cousin Jack Stepney and his new wife Gwen Van Osburgh provide her with shelter for the night, Jack instructs Lawrence to put Lily on the very first ship back to New York. Lily rebels, preferring to journey to Paris and then London with her socialite friends. This decision seals her doom: in her absence, her Aunt Julia changes her will so as to provide Lily with scarcely more money than is needed to settle her debts.
When Lily arrives back in New York it is to drawn blinds. The windows have been covered not just against the oppressive June sun[xv] but also as part of a funeral custom. Aunt Julia is dead, Lily is effectively disinherited except for a nearly trivial sum that she needs to repay her debt to Gus Trenor. It will be several months before she inherits it, and the drawn blinds parallel the rejection Lily experiences from her cousin Grace, who has inherited the bulk of Aunt Julia’s property and who is financially in a position to borrow against it. Grace refuses to enable Lily’s prodigality by borrowing money in order to protect her from the consequences of her decision to borrow from Gus.
Lily flees New York to spend a “leafy” Sunday on the verandah with the Gormers. As a result of her friend Carry Fisher’s intervention, Lily accompanies the Gormers to Alaska for an extended vacation from reality.[xvi] By serving as a social secretary to the Gormers, Lily provides herself with food, clothing, and shelter for several months while retaining a modicum of social status. But by November, when summer is over and fall is well established, it’s becoming obvious that her refuge with the Gormers cannot last. Lily has not rehabilitated herself socially, so she cannot engineer the Gormers’ climb into Society and collect a fee for it the way Carry does. Indeed, instead of climbing into Society, the Gormers have created a local social scene centered chiefly on themselves. Through them, Lily finds herself associating with less reputable and sometimes even shady characters with whom she would not otherwise have spoken. Yet when Bertha Dorset swoops in to “discover” her, Mattie Gormer displays an appreciation for “proper” society and a desire for recognition and acceptance. Bertha provides it, but at a price: she pressures Mattie into severing relations with Lily.[xvii]
Carry Fisher again intervenes, saving Lily from homelessness by hosting her at a luxurious rented country house which was paid for by the Brys. There, during the November “haze” that heralds the onset of winter, Lily goes for another important walk in a rocky glen above a lake with Simon Rosedale. Rosedale, who has at this point replaced Lawrence Selden as Lily’s primary suitor, loves Lily for her own sake but does not wish to damage his own social progress by associating with her unless she can rehabilitate herself socially. She has the means to do this: a series of letters from Bertha to Lawrence, which Rosedale has arranged to fall into Lily’s hands. Lily is therefore in a position to either blackmail Bertha into playing nice, or to ensure the Dorsets get divorced and marry the wealthy George Dorset in Bertha’s place. Although Lily is now prepared to marry Rosedale, she is not yet willing to blackmail Bertha to regain her social standing.
The “hard winter sunlight”[xviii] Wharton describes in town contrasts with the exaggerated warmth and brightness of the hotel suite inhabited by the gold-digging Mrs. Norma Hatch. Lily agrees to be her social secretary—a job Carry Fisher found for her and passed along despite not knowing Mrs. Hatch. Lily sets about organizing Mrs. Hatch’s life and household, but finds herself surrounded by a wealthy yet disreputable crowd. Her situation ends with a fiasco: Mrs. Hatch nearly succeeds in marrying the young, impressionable Freddy Van Osburgh. The young man is rescued from the mismatch not by Lily but by Simon Rosedale and the old Ned Van Alstyne, who is distantly related to Lily, who has lent her money in the past, and who—along with Lawrence Selden—has seen her leaving Gus Trenor’s house late at night on an evening Judy was known to be out of town. Lily survives the social season because Carry finds her a place in a milliner’s shop, where she fails at trimming hats for a living. The sweetness of the April spring is ironic, since Lily is laid off early instead of in May. The boarding house where she lives is decorated not with flowers but with dried pampas grass. Desperate, Lily finally decides to visit Bertha during a cold rain. After meeting Nettie Struther, a poor woman who was once inspired by Lily and who turned her life around due in part to the love of a good man, Lily changes her mind. Instead of blackmailing Bertha, she visits Lawrence one last time and destroys the incriminating letters. She receives the payment of her inheritance that night, uses it to settle her debts, and then dies in her sleep as a result of an overdose of her sleeping drug. In the morning, Lawrence goes again to see Lily but finds her dead. Outside, the spring weather outside the drawn blind of her window is bright, sunny, and pleasant. Lily, it may be suggested, has gone to a better place.[xix]
Throughout the nearly two-year span of the narrative, Edith Wharton uses descriptions of weather, seasons, and climate in different ways. Sometimes the description is a symbolic reflection of Lily’s inner emotional state, other times it foreshadows events in the immediate future. In the last chapter of the book, the hope and promise of the nascent summer weather, which coincides with Lawrence Selden’s mood, is poignantly ironic. By using weather symbolism in several different ways throughout the book, Wharton does more than provide a setting: she experiments with a higher level of narrative that enhances the pathos of the story.
[i] Wikipedia. New York. Retrieved Dec. 19, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York
[ii] Wikipedia. Climate of New York. Retrieved Dec. 19, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_New_York
[iii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 6.
[iv] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 1.
[v] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 6.
[vi] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 4.
[vii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 12.
[viii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 8.
[ix] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 3.
[x] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 12.
[xi] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 1, Chapter 6.
[xii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 5.
[xiii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 1.
[xiv] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 2.
[xv] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 4.
[xvi] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 5.
[xvii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 6.
[xviii] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 8.
[xix] Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Book 2, Chapter 14.