House of Mirth
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.
Mirth in The House of Mirth
You are Ibsen. Review House of Mirth.Which of the domestic palaces in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth claims itself as the titular source of the tragic novel? Each offers strong evidence in its own favor. There is the bucolic decadence of the Trenor’s Bellomont; the old money severity of Mrs. Peniston’s Fifth Avenue abode; the nouveau riche exhibitionism of the Wellington Brys residence; the philandering intrigue of the Dorset’s Sabrina; the flamboyant societal fringe chez Gormer; the “torrid splendor and indolence” that fills the rootless Mrs. Norma Hatch’s room at the Emporium Hotel; and, of course, the ironic shabbiness of Lawrence Selden and Gerty Farish’s flats (289). So where shall we look to find the locus of “mirth” that Ms. Wharton’s title promises? The answer, as the reader soon discovers, is nowhere at all and everywhere at once, for this house is one whose roof hangs ominously over the whole world of the novel’s characters.At the center of this world is Lily Bart, a beautiful but impoverished young woman, living off a stipend from her rich Aunt Peniston and the good humor of her wealthy friends. Determined to make a monetarily felicitous “match,” Lily has spent the past ten years navigating her way through high society’s marriage market. She is growing older, her marriage more imperative. As she herself confesses, “I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money” (24)But why must Lily have a great deal of money? Quite simply because she has been inculcated to the extravagance of the well-to-do. Her tastes range from the fancy to the opulent and she acts mostly in order to gratify “her sense of beauty and her craving for the external finish of life” (8). A victim of a decadent and ultimately disastrous upbringing, she feels both compelled and repulsed by the social world in which she moves. “Why, the beginning was in my cradle I suppose,” Lily laments, “in the way I was brought up and the things I was taught to care for” (237). Ms. Wharton never allows her readers to forget that Lily’s physical and moral courses flow at the bidding of fate and not the novel’s heroine. Even in a moment of leisure early in the novel, the author notes of the bejeweled young woman: “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” (6). Only a little later we hear the narrator intone of Lily’s life that “it was a hateful fate – but how escape from it? What choice had she?” (25) Indeed, what choice have we as readers if Ms. Wharton insists – so early in her novel – on plucking down fin de siecle New York society in an atmosphere of stifling Calvinist predestination? Lily continues to go about her business with an eye toward securing fiscal contentment, but we sense very soon that no choice of hers will make happiness suddenly rise above the dark horizon.And in sensing this, the reader proves to be quite right. After a potential union with the insufferable Percy Gryce falls through, Lily asks her friend Judy Trenor’s husband, Gus, to help her invest the minor sum in her possession. She quickly comes by a small fortune through her “speculations,” only to discover that the money has come straight from Gus’s pocket. By then, we should not be surprised to learn, it is too late for Lily. Gus attempts to take sexual advantage of Lily’s indebtedness to him, only to be rebuked by the incensed young woman. She vows to repay the debt and put her affairs in order, partly in homage to the scruples of her friend Lawrence Selden, partly at the urging of her own moral imperative.Lily’s sturdy moral fiber is perhaps the most frustrating quality that Ms. Wharton bestowed upon her ill starred heroine. Despite her frivolous and inexorable attachments, Lily acknowledges that society can be reduced to “the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at” (56). Stripped of its marble halls, its silk gowns, its indulgent meals, this world offers little more than its own claustrophobic boundaries; it is, as Lily thinks, a cage occupied by captives who, “having once flown in, could never regain their freedom” (56). These doubts are strong enough to keep her from committing to a society marriage, but too weak to drive her out of society all together. Lily also has a sympathetic if passive eye for the two oppressed groups in the novel – namely, women and the poor. Her own position makes her very aware that both society and matrimony subordinate females. “A woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself,” Lily asserts, “we are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop – and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership” (10). The main difference, she goes on, is that “a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” There are plenty of people, however, who believe that, given enough brio and courage, a girl may choose. This is the belief put forth by Lawrence Selden, who longs for Lily to seize upon “the streak of sylvan freedom” that he suspects is in her nature, and by Gerty Farish, who wishes she would follow up on her “generous impulses” (70, 164). This is also the belief of this reviewer, who wishes that Ms. Wharton would likewise have shown the courage to have her heroine eschew the invidious social circuit for a life of thoughtful self-autonomy. But since we have known from the beginning that Lily Bart moves but by the compulsion of a “hateful fate,” we can hardly expect her to break free. While Selden’s idea of success as a “republic of the spirit” tempts her, her own theory – that it is “to get as much as one can out of life” – tyrannizes her and keeps her marching straight ahead along a path to destruction (70). She takes another very great stride forward on this path by accepting an invitation from her friend Bertha Dorset to cruise around the Mediterranean. Although she intends the trip to be an escape from her wretched debt to Trenor, Lily ends up serving as a distraction for George Dorset while his wife carries on her infidelities with Ned Silverton. When George confronts Bertha about her behavior, the perfidious Bertha turns the whole debacle into an accusation against Lily. She is ruined in the eyes of society and, upon returning to New York, disinherited from her recently deceased Aunt’s estate. Penniless and proud, Lily trudges through the dregs of society rather than abandon her privileged lifestyle. At the same time, though, she clings tightly to her scruples. She refuses to use some incriminating letters to blackmail Bertha (a surefire way to get re-admitted to her old social circle) and she never loses sight of her intentions to reimburse Trenor.Lily’s grace under humiliating pressure only confirms something that we have suspected through out the novel – she is far better than the society to which she belongs. We see it, Selden sees it, why can’t Lily see it? Or, the more prickly reader might demand, why won’t Selden work harder to make Lily see it? Even Ms. Wharton seems to be silently imploring him to enter the scene and sweep Lily off her feet. True, she has let him down. “He saw himself definitely divided from her,” the author notes of Selden, “by the crudeness of a choice which seemed to deny the very difference he felt in her” (227). We also know, however, that Ms. Wharton regards her Lily’s behavior as being outside the realm of choice, so that the reader is presumably to feel an irony tinged pathos at the thought of Lily “choosing” her way out of Selden’s affections. Still, Selden, Ms. Wharton seems to say, should act swiftly and definitively in order to rescue Lily from her fate. “Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me,” Lily demands of him, “if you have nothing to give me instead?” (74) And therein lies the trouble with saving Lily; she refuses to acknowledge that she must save herself and not just receive rescue from another man in her life. She sees her happiness and well-being as exchangeable commodities (and what isn’t in her world?) for which she must barter or trade, and not things that may feasibly lie within herself. Yes, Lily is a victim of an exclusive patriarchal society. Yes, she has a fine moral sensibility and realizes that there are adversities working against her. And, yes, Selden hangs back, indulging in “the zest of spectatorship that is the solace of those who take an objective interest in life” (192) But Ms. Wharton’s intimations that Selden could have done more for Lily are ridiculous when the author shackles her heroine so tightly to fate that the poor girl cannot do anything for herself.It is in this very vein of helplessness that Ms. Wharton chooses to end her novel and her heroine. Destitute and abandoned, Lily lives out her days in a horrid boarding house. She suffers from malnourishment, insomnia, and a terrible sense of being “rootless and ephemeral” (338). She has been rejected from society and the working world, and now she must face the dire conditions of solitude and self support. She doesn’t face them for long, though. After writing out a check to square her debt with Trenor, Lily takes a large dose of a soporific and never wakes again. The next morning Selden comes to reconcile with her, only to end up grieving for her instead.Lily’s intentions in taking those sleeping pills are not explicit, though I should think that Ms. Wharton meant for the lamentable occasion to be another instance of that fate Lily never could avoid. This is a shame, for a dynamic woman like Lily Bart surely deserves to rise above her station in society and attend to those sacred duties owed only to the self. Unfortunately, though, Ms. Wharton keeps the doors to the House of Mirth under lock and key, allowing her heroine to perish among its plush finery and the noxious fate.
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.
Lily Bart and the Nature of Nature
Nature, whether in the form of the arctic tundra of the North Pole or the busy street-life of Manhattan, was viewed by Naturalist writers as a phenomena which necessarily challenged individual survival; a phenomena, moreover, which operated on Darwin’s maxim of the “survival of the fittest.” This contrasted sharply with the Romantic view, which worshipped Nature for its beauty, beneficence and self-liberating powers. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart attempts to “survive” within the urbane “drawing-room” society she inhabits. Although Selden uses Romantic nature imagery to describe Lily, throughout the novel such Romantic imagery and its accompanying meanings are continually subverted. By simply invoking different understandings and views of “Nature,” Wharton demonstrates that not only is Lily’s ability to “adapt” to various environments isn’t necessarily salutary, but also that flower imagery, used in an ironic fashion, captures perfectly Lily’s need for “climates of luxury.” It is Wharton’s image of a “hot-house,” however, which ultimately captures the ambiguous nature of what, to Wharton, truly is Nature. Lily, although a city-dweller, is described by Selden as one who is intimately connected with a benevolent, life-giving Nature. He exclaims, “The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline- as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room” (13). Selden’s notion of Lily’s “sylvan freedom” and her interconnectedness to all things “natural” is echoed later in the novel, when Lily is either described as, or compared to, a “rose,” (167) an “orchid” (150), a “water plant” (53) and a “fine flower” (216). Even her name, “Lily,” like the kind of flower, relates to nature and things natural. Thus a cursory reading of such material would suggest that Lily, despite her urban status, manages to retain a spiritual connection with Mother Nature, a connection, unfortunately, which is restrained and “subdued” by the “conventions of the drawing-room.” It could be argued, therefore, that Wharton views the industrial city as preventing Lily from understanding and experiencing her “true self”- namely that “self” present in a state of nature We shall quickly see, however, that Wharton doesn’t always share Selden’s Romantic view of Nature. Throughout The House of Mirth we witness Lily’s ability to “adapt herself” (53) to whatever environment she enters. Wharton writes, “Selden noted the fine shades of manner by which she harmonized herself with her surroundings” (192) and describes, “Her faculty for renewing herself in new scenes, and casting off problems of conduct as easily as the surroundings in which they had arisen” (196). Such ability is seen most clearly when Lily is forced, unwillingly, to enter the “Gormer milieu” (234). Although she doesn’t enjoy this “milieu” it is through “her immense social facility, her long habit of adapting herself to others without suffering her own outline to be blurred, the skilled manipulation of all the polished implements of her craft” that she wins “an important place in the Gormer group” (237). This “adaptability,” which ostensibly parallels Darwin’s notion that biological species, in order to survive, must adapt to changing environments, does not, in reality, contribute to Lily’s survival. Nor does it allow her to retain any sort of “spiritual connection” with Nature. Rather its effect is quite the opposite. Wharton writes, “(Lily’s) faculty for adapting herselfserved her now and then in small contingencies,” but ultimately “hampered her in the decisive moments of life. She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides” (53). Wharton’s simile here, “She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides,” changes the way in which the reader must understand and view Nature. Whereas Selden, when describing Lily, used Nature to represent a kind of benevolent, self-freeing phenomena, Wharton uses Nature in this instance to represent a heartless, unthinking Darwinian process where only the strong survive. Although Lily is still described in terms of “natural” imagery (a “water-plant”), her connection to Nature is no longer liberating or life-renewing, but rather serves to, as Wharton tells us, “hamper her in the decisive moments of life” (53). Thus in this instance Nature’s character is altered, which in turn changes how we can interpret the “naturalistic” imagery used to describe Lily. Her adaptability as a “water-plant,” rather than being spiritually rewarding, instead proves ultimately unhealthy.Although Lily has, as we have seen, adaptive powers, Wharton makes it clear that such powers, in addition to not always being healthy or beneficial, are actually quite limited in scope. Although Lily can survive for a while outside of her high-society “drawing-rooms,” she is inexorably drawn back to them, like a swimmer coming up for water. Wharton tells us, “(Lily’s) whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury, it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in” (26). We see again how the meaning of “Nature” has been completely transformed. Unlike Selden’s view of “Nature,” which held that actual, physical surroundings held the key to Lily’s well-being and self-liberation, in this case “Nature” has nothing to do with pastoral, idyllic settings, but instead refers to “drawing-rooms.” But similar to Selden’s view of Nature, we see that, Nature, (in this case, life in the drawing-rooms) is absolutely necessary for Lily’s continued existence. It is that which gives her life and allows her to breathe. As Selden tells Lily, “Your lungs are thinking about air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people-they may not be thinking of money, but they’re breathing it in all the while” 69). Not only, however, does Wharton (again) completely transform the meaning of Nature, she also ironically draws upon Romantic nature imagery to complete this transformation. Wharton avers, “(Lily) could not figure herself anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume” (100). The phrase “as a flower sheds perfume” captures accurately the irony which Wharton sees in using Romantic nature imagery (i.e. flowers) within the context of her own version of Nature, that of the drawing rooms. To say that a “flower sheds perfume” connotes the image of a flower giving off an odor, an odor which is then bottled and made into a “perfume,” a perfume which is then used by high-society ladies to smell nice. Thus Wharton, in choosing to describe Lily as a “flower” reinforces the notion that Lily’s “Nature,” her “natural habitat” was that of the drawing-room. But as she is a “flower” that sheds “perfume” Wharton captures the double-meaning extant in such a symbol, showing that not only was Lily’s “natural habitat” the drawing-room, but also pointing out the irony of Lily’s “Nature.” Wharton demonstrates that Lily’s supposed “Nature” is a world in which flowers don’t shed “scents” or natural “odors” but rather smell like bottled, artificial “perfume,” ironic, of course, because “perfume” is not commonly thought of as “natural.” Wharton’s final, and most effective, re-imaging of Nature comes when Lily contrasts “the dreary limbo of dinginess” with “that little illuminated circle in which life reached its finest efflorescence, as the mud and sleet of a winter night enclose a hot-house filled with tropical flowers. All this was the natural order of things, and the orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere could round the delicate curves of its petals undisturbed by the ice on the panes” (150). This passage is the absolute symbolic crux of Wharton’s Nature imagery, capturing fully the way in which Wharton views the relationship between Lily and Nature. In this instance Nature is not singly portrayed as a benevolent, life-giving force, nor a heartless, amoral reality, or as being embodied in high-society’s “drawing-rooms.” Rather Nature is an “artificially created atmosphere,” an insulated natural world with a “natural state of things” protected from the harsh Nature of external reality; a world, if you will, within a world, a nature within a greater nature. This symbology corresponds nicely to Wharton’s dual fashioning of Nature. Her two views of Nature, that it is an unthinking, unfeeling harsh physical reality, or, conversely, that it exists in the drawing-rooms of New York city as well as in the physical, rural environment, is embodied perfectly in Wharton’s image of a “hot-house.” The Nature, and natural forces, that exist within the hot-house can be viewed as being akin to the Wharton’s Nature, and natural forces, that exist in a drawing-room. Conversely, the external Nature which rages on outside of the hot-house, can be viewed as being akin to Wharton’s (other) Nature, and natural forces, of an unthinking, unfeeling harsh physical reality. If we accept, as we should, that the orchid represents, symbolically, Lily, we can understand fully Lily’s relation to Nature, viewed in either sense. To represent Lily as an “orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere” hearkens back to Selden’s Romantic view of Lily as a physically natural being which needed to be in “Nature” to truly understand and free her “self.” Selden’s view, however, employed the idea of Nature as being external, un-artificial and benevolent. Wharton’s hot-house although benevolent, is artificial and does not exist in rural nature, although it does function within rural nature. In any event, Wharton states that the orchard’s (Lily’s) development was the “natural order of things.” Such a statement, in turn, reveals the dual ways of thinking about what is actually “natural.” Is an orchid growing within a hot-house, within a larger “nature,” truly “natural”? That, of course, depends on how you choose to view Nature, a view left ambiguous by the decidedly ambiguous nature of a hot-house. Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a novel in the Naturalist tradition, but a novel which manages to express the endless complexities of Nature at work both in rural countrysides as well as urban jungles.
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.
Transaction or Transaction: Lily’s Choice at the End of The House of Mirth
Near the beginning of The House of Mirth, Wharton establishes that Lily would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich: “she was secretly ashamed of her mothers crude passion for money” (38). Lily, like the affluent world she loves, has a strange relationship with money. She needs money to buy the type of life she has been raised to live, and her relative poverty makes her situation precarious. Unfortunately, Lily has not been trained to obtain money through a wide variety of methods. Wharton’s wealthy socialites do not all procure money in the same way: money can be inherited, earned working in a hat shop, won at cards, traded scandalously between married men and unmarried women, or speculated for in the stock market. For Lily, the world of monetary transactions presents formidable difficulties; she was born, in a sense, to marry into money, and she cannot seem to come to it any other way. She is incapable of mastering the world of economic transactions, to the point that a direct exchange is repulsive to her highly specialized nature. Finally, these exchanges and the obstacles they present prove to be the end of her, and Wharton’s text joins naturalism’s Darwinian rules to an economic world. Whether Lily’s death is accidental or a suicide does not really matter in Wharton’s vision, because the choice facing Lily at the end of the novel–to make a transaction or to make a transaction–necessitates her death. Near the end of the novel, Wharton’s protagonist must make a choice–but both options are part of the environment in which Lily has not evolved to survive. In Lily’s attempt at wage-earning and her moral dilemma regarding Rosedale’s marriage proposal, she faces precisely the world of direct exchange with which she has never been trained to contend. Lily Bart has to die because she is completely incapable of adapting to this world of direct transactions, and in the end the only two paths she sees both lie firmly in that realm. First, a distinction must be made between direct and indirect transaction. Lily can happily live in a world where wealth circulates obliquely and freely. When Lily stays as a guest at Bellomont eating fine food at her hosts expense, she is not receiving payment for goods or services. Instead, her charm has earned her the benefits of friendship with the rich. Lily is not exactly being paid to be charming; instead, being charming attracts the generous hospitality and entertainment of wealthy friends. The distinction between this type of benefit and direct compensation is enormous. When the reader encounters Lily in Chapter Ten of Book Two, Lily has fled from the world of Norma Hatch to the milliners shop–and it was an offer of direct reward that made it necessary for Lily to escape. Wharton writes, “The sense of being involved in a transaction she would not have cared to examine too closely had soon afterward defined itself in the light of a hint from Mr. Stancy that if she saw them through, she would have no reason to be sorry” (293-3). Lily has no qualms about living as a guest of her rich friends, but the idea of selling her charm and becoming a sort of social mercenary holds no appeal for her: “The implication that such loyalty would meet with a direct reward had hastened her flight and flung her back, ashamed and penitent, on the broad bosom of Gertys sympathy” (293). This sentence combines the language of transactions and rewards with echoes of naturalism. The word flight suggests prey escaping from a predator or some other danger. The sentence makes Lily the object rather than the subject, suggesting the characteristics of naturalism; in biological language, an animal must obey the commands of its environment and genetic code. Language colors Lilys actions in a way that suggests instinctive flight rather than deliberated choice. In the text’s particular wording, she does not choose to leave but instead finds herself acting under the direction of forces that have hastened her flight or flung her back. A tempting option is open to Lily: she can accept Rosedale’s terms and marry him. Although such an arrangement would liberate her from the need to earn wages, it is just as firmly locked into the world of direct transactions that Lily cannot accept. Marriage to someone rich has always been Lily’s goal, but marriage to Rosedale means conforming to his requirements and exchanging an act for an act. While trying to reason why Lily will not marry Dorset, Rosedale reveals that his entire approach to life is based on the world of direct exchanges: “. . . taking a purely business view of the question, I think youre right. In a deal like that, nobody comes out with perfectly clean hands. . .” (267). Lily’s reasons for not marrying Dorset are based more on scruples and taste, but Rosedale sees all situations and options on a cold ledger of benefits and losses. He speaks of marriage from the business point of view, describing the situation as a deal. His language is always that of a businessman, a vocabulary which Lily is never able to master. For a moment, this world has appeal for Lily: “Lily’s tired mind was fascinated by this escape from fluctuating ethical estimates into a region of concrete weights and measures” (268). But quickly its baseness repulses her as she realizes how much Rosedale mistrusts her and expects her mistrust of him: “The glimpse of his inner mind seemed to present the whole transaction in a new aspect . . .” (269). Again, Wharton uses the word transaction with negative connotations; transaction, in this case, involves blackmail and marriage to a man Lily has always found repugnant. Lilys response to this world seems powerfully instinctual; she speaks scathingly in a voice that is a surprise to her own ears (269). Her own reaction seems not completely under her control; the world represented by Rosedale’s proposal is not the world in which she has evolved to survive, and she instinctively draws away from it. But after she escapes Mrs. Hatch, Lily’s attempt to become an independent milliner meet with disaster. The failure reflects Lilys general inability to make her own way as a wage-earner. Lily escapes one form of transaction to find herself contending with another. Employers and employees represent one of the basic transactions in the world of direct exchanges: work exchanged for money. But this is not her preferred world, where who a woman is–her charm, intelligence, style, and beauty–can indirectly win for her moneyed friends and a rich husband. Instead, this worker’s world only gives credit to what a woman does. In the former world, Lily is not easily equaled. In the latter world, she is utterly maladapted. With good reason, Mrs. Regina originally wishes to give Lily a place in the show-room (294), a place where Lily’s beauty and charm might be useful. Lilys biological strategy, in a manner of speaking, is ornamentation. The show-room more closely coincides with the world of fashion and charming conversations in which Lily can thrive, but Lily wants to learn a trade. By insisting on her need to learn the real work of millinery, Lily plunges herself into a hostile environment to which she cannot adapt: “. . . after two months of drudgery she still betrayed her lack of early training” (295). Conditioning has not trained Lily for such work, and apparently it is too late for Lily to begin learning the art. In the day of work that the reader sees, physical conditions seem to take agency away from Lily once again: What made her so much more clumsy than usual? Was it a growing distaste for her task, or actual physical disability? (296). In addition to referring to the specific task of sewing, the question posited in the second sentence might ask more generally about Lily as a working woman. She is out of the old affluent world where her taste or distaste mattered, and in this new world of transactions and wage-earning her own bodys physical limitations bar her way. Wharton summarizes the problem: “Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose leaf and paint the humming-birds breast?” (311). It is not only that Lily cannot sew; she would encounter tremendous difficulty in any kind of work she might attempt. Losing her job at the milliners does not open any new opportunities. Rosedale’s outburst is warranted: “The idea of your having to work; it’s preposterous (309). Lily’s attempts have the absurdity of an animal trying to do a job for which it has not evolved, like an eagle trying to swim or a monkey trying to fly. In her original conception of what work might be, Lily reveals just how unsuitable she is for the world of direct economic transactions: Here was, after all, something that her charming listless hands could really do; she had no doubt of their capacity for knotting a ribbon or placing a flower to advantage. And of course only these finishing touches would be expected of her; subordinate fingers, blunt, gray, needle-pricked fingers, would prepare the shapes and stitch the linings, while she presided over the charming little front shop–a shop all white panels, mirrors, and moss-green hangings–where her finished creations, hats wreaths, aigrettes, and the rest, perched on their stands like birds just poising for flight. (293) The passage reveals the immense difficulties Lily is bound to have. First of all, she does not grasp basic economic realities. In the world of transaction, only money will get her a shop, and while Lily’s fantasies are all about the accumulation of wealth, the mechanics of transaction have no place in her thought processes. Her dreams have the shop materialize instantly, in a form that is very much part of her native environment of beauty and ornamentation. Her vision of what her work will be involves two concrete objects of beauty: a bow and a flower, the arrangement of which she hopes will earn her a living. Although her hopes are to make money, the language of the passage is not the language of economics but the language of ornamentation. Her hands are not evaluated in terms of skill or dexterity but in terms of charm; the shop itself seems less about business than display. Mirrors, objects of pure display, are mentioned as an integral part of the shop, while the hats and accessories perch like birds just poising for flight. The dream does not compare the hats to birds as they appear in reality, in the context of survival and extinction, but instead gives the reader birds frozen at a specific moment in time when their beauty is at its greatest. The alien world of the workers is only hinted out; in describing the employees, the text does not even spare a pronoun. They are fingers and nothing more, hailing from an environment so hostile that Lily can barely conceptualize it. But their world is precisely the world that Lily must try to survive in once her dream vision proves groundless. Lily Bart has to die because she is completely incapable of adapting to the world of direct transactions, and in the end the only two paths she sees both lie firmly in that realm. In the Darwinian worldview of the novel, a failure to adapt has unavoidable and tragic results. Naturalism’s influence on the text brings us to the final scene, in which Lily, without agency, overdoses on her medicine. Caught in an unsuitable environment, the woman faces two unsurvivable options and dies. Her first encounters with this world of transaction may be traced to her disastrous money dealings with Gus Trenor. From that point on, no direct transaction does any good for Lily. She cannot live outside a world of beauty and ornamentation, but in her society that world of beauty is hopelessly intertwined with economics. Monetary transactions serve as the stitching and framework of Lily’s society, while beauty and ornamentation often feel like finishing touches. Lily can make pretty finishing touches on her hats, but she cannot do the stitching or detailed craftsmanship that put the hat together. In the same way, Lilys total and elegantly specialized command of grace and beauty cannot cover her vulnerabilities–her poverty, her inability to understand or live in the world of transactions–and her greatest strengths can do nothing to prevent her death. Works Cited
- February 1998. Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Signet, 1905.
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.
Affluence to Influence: Social Class in House of Mirth
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton offers a multidimensional and fluid analysis of social class. Initially, Lily attempts to belong to the upper class. However, through a series of unfortunate decisions, we witness Lily’s inevitable descent into dinginess, poverty, and death. Towards the end, Lily is utterly “alone in a place of darkness and pollution” (Wharton p. 156). While Lily’s social actions are personally righteous, she discovers herself to be in a cruel and critical society often seeking to oppress lower classes. Just as Dante’s classical descent into Hell in the Inferno is meant to provide glimpses of the unknown in an effort to turn individuals toward salvation, Lily’s social deterioration showcases the perils of descending social class as well as the social chasms separating populations. Poverty became both a metaphorical and literal death for Lily. Further, Marx’s superstructure of social class is explored in the context beyond labor and property: one must also possess social prowess, power, influence, access, and proper taste to fully be accepted into the elite.
In The House of Mirth, the largest divide between classes comes in the form of social competency. For example, Simon Rosedale, a wealthy Jewish man belonging to the nouveau riche class, repeatedly tries to break into the social elite. However, despite attending some of the social events of the upper class, he is largely excluded based on his lack of social skill, as he is “still at a stage in his social ascent when it was of importance to produce such impressions” (Wharton p. 16). Franklin elaborates on the importance of a high social regard in his work Advice to a Young Tradesman. He explains how “the most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded … It shows, besides, that you are mindful of what you owe; it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest man, and that still increases your credit” (Franklin p. 59). If the lender produces a favorable opinion of an individual, more credit can be obtained for a longer period of time. When one individual has power over another, the more powerful person’s opinion of the less powerful is important and can greatly impact their relationship. While Rosedale has no monetary debt, he has little to no social credit to leverage. In The House of Mirth, Rosedale’s lack of regard, positive connotations, and social competence within the social elite holds back his social ascent.
To compensate for this shortcoming, Rosedale considers marrying Lily to boost his social capital and take his social ascent to the next level. However, following Lily’s sharp social decline, he laughs off Lily’s acceptance of his previous proposal as he knows she is unable to help him. Rosedale goes on to explain how he’s “more in love with you [Lily] than ever, but if I married you now I’d queer myself for good and all, and everything I’ve worked for all these years would be wasted” (Wharton p. 269). Despite Lily’s social aptitude, her regard has deteriorated within the social elite. Thus, she is no longer of any help to Rosedale’s pursuit of social standing. Further, in Rosedale and Lily’s final encounter, Rosedale offered to help Lily blackmail Bertha in an attempt to regain Lily’s social standing and have her be fit for Rosedale’s hand in marriage. He was beginning to develop real feelings for Lily, beyond the advantages she may offer him. However, Rosedale’s last offer before Lily’s passing remains an attempt to elevate his own social standing. If Lily were to expose Bertha, the old order of social standing could topple and leave room for social climbers to gain access within the elite, which primarily benefits Rosedale. This illustrates the self-serving interests of the wealthy.
However, selfish interests are not confined to the nouveau riche. The House of Mirth focuses on Lily’s pursuit of a suitable husband. However, the only desirable feature of the majority of the men Lily considers for marriage are their pocketbooks and social standing. Additionally, Lily donated money to Nettie Struther, but only to boost Lily’s own ego and feel charitable and good about herself (Wharton p. 329). Grace Stepney was also able to gossip about Lily’s gambling habits to Mrs. Peniston, thus ensuring Grace as the inheritor of the Peniston estate over Lily (Wharton p. 233). While both Lily and Grace are hanging on to others’ wealth, their self-serving agenda exemplifies the selfishness infecting society as a whole.
A crucial understanding of social class exemplified in The House of Mirth relates to the power wealth can buy. The rich (both the old wealth and nouveau riche) are repeatedly able to exert their will over others. For example, Trenor making sexual advances at Lily in repayment for her debts shows how his social standing and power allows him to exert his will upon Lily; she is only able to leave once he decides to stop his advances (Wharton p.155). Additionally, the inheritance difference between Lily and Grace Stepney from Mrs. Peniston showcases how she is able to assert her conservative beliefs upon individuals of a lower class and show her contemptuousness towards Lily’s gambling habit (Wharton p. 233). The affluence one possesses almost directly correlates to the influence they are able to exert.
With this power, the wealthy are able to construct a personal alternate reality. When Bertha Dorset removes Lily from the Dorset yacht, Bertha furthers her reality in which she is able to have affairs and exert power over those of a lesser class (Wharton p. 227). The sole reason she is able to control the construction of her reality is because she possesses the affluence and influence to do so. Therefore, the reality she constructs is one in which the truth society accepts is whatever Bertha says the truth is or whatever angle Bertha choses to exploit. However, the prime example of a self-constructed reality comes in the case of Selden. He has made a habit of excluding individuals based on class and insignificant deviations from their common character, whether it is at the Wellington Brys party or when he discovers Lily has changed hotels (Wharton p. 286). In Selden’s reality, every misinterpreted action “seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illuminated moment” (Wharton p. 285). The emotional chasm forming between Selden and Lily is a direct result of the walls Selden constructs based on misinformation. Even in Lily’s death, Selden was unable to accept the emotional failure he experienced with Lily and his own weakness due to the mental walls and alternate reality he constructed. To Selden, the truth has become whatever he thinks it is. While Selden is of the professional working/middle class, he is just like the rich in the sense that he is able to construct his own reality and exclude individuals based on his wrongful interpretation of their actions.
Further, The House of Mirth exemplifies the implicit connection between wealth, power, and freedom. Wealth leads to both power and freedom, as members of the pinnacle of social tiers experience a degree of freedom unparalleled by the lower classes. For example, many of the elite characters are able to sail off to Europe on their yachts (Wharton p. 192). Gerty, however, is not invited and is condemned to work in the dinginess of America. On this trip, Bertha invites Lily along to distract George while Bertha has an affair with Ned Silverton (Wharton p. 197). With Lily aboard the Dorset yacht, Bertha is able to frame Lily in an affair with George if she so chooses. Therefore, Bertha’s affluence has given her great influence over Lily and the freedom to exert her will upon Lily. Bertha’s affairs with both Selden and Ned Silverton remain out of the social spotlight. Her wealth and power have given her the freedom to do as she pleases. However, Lily is unable to escape the spotlight from Rosedale when leaving Selden’s apartment in the opening chapter, thus putting Rosedale in a position of power over Lily (Wharton p. 14). Lily is not wealthy, so she does not possess power and is not free to do as she choses. Affluence leads to influence, which can then be used later to further one’s personal agenda.
In order to ascend to the peak of the social elite, one must also possess impeccable taste in material goods. This lack of perceived taste in a hypercritical society is what keeps the Wellington Brys from the elite. At their party, Trenor eluded that the cigars tasted like soap and may have been selected by the chef, and the soup and champagne were not the correct temperatures (Wharton p. 146). Trenor noticed these inconsequential details as the society, and ruling class in particular, seeks to preserve the status quo. To move up in class, unblemished aesthetics must be maintained at all times. This is a large reason Lily frequently gets new dresses made; Mrs. Peniston understands the importance of flawless aesthetics to maintain or improve upon one’s societal place (Wharton p. 180). Even Lily’s name speaks to the level of pleasant appearances that must be maintained. Lilies are a beautiful flower with a very specific environment needed to thrive.
Marx explains the meaning behind new goods in his work Alienated Labour. Through his concept of commodity fetishism, the intangible aspects of one’s labor become tangible products with physical value. This valuation stems from the separation between what workers are producing and where the wealth is flowing (Marx p. 254). The producer and product have become obscured. Therefore, individuals are taught to crave and consume products as a commodity. Individuals such as Mrs. Peniston both need and want new goods, such as dresses. To Mrs. Peniston, as well as the society as a whole, the dresses serve as an external material marker of success and wealth. This ownership, in turn, helps the owner of the good appear wealthy, thus allowing them to socially ascend. Lily explains this belief in her conversation with Mrs. Peniston where Lily tried explaining the “expense a girl is put to nowadays” (Wharton p. 180). To Lily, the appearance of material wealth may be more important than the actual wealth itself, such as in the case of Lily’s mother’s striving to preserve the status quo following their financial ruin (Wharton p. 34). Commodity fetishism drives their habits of appearance, thus influencing their perceived wealth and class within the society.
Interestingly, the novel’s ending chapters exemplify the cyclical nature of class actions and wealth. Lily enters Selden’s apartment in one of the final chapters, just as she had done in the opening scene (Wharton p. 321). Additionally, Lily’s earlier financial gift to Nettie Struther is repaid in the form of hospitality as Lily makes her way to the boarding house (Wharton p. 331). As Franklin describes in Advice to a Young Tradesman, money produces more money, thus initiating a cycle of wealth (Franklin p. 59). The rich often get richer, and the poor often get poorer. Through Lily’s gradual descent into poverty, her initial lack of wealth precipitates in even less wealth.
Finally, The House of Mirth exemplifies differences in access to solutions to problems among the classes. The image of “poverty or death” emerged in numerous instances throughout the novel, including Lily’s parents’ financial ruin, the raunchy scene between Trenor and Lily, and when Lily purchased the sleeping medication (Wharton p. 33, 153, & 303). Frequent references were made to the fact that Lily’s “whole-being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required” and could only breathe in the air of affluence (Wharton p. 27). Just like the lily plant, she needed fresh air, water, and a suitable climate for mere survival. Lily’s ultimate poverty left her with very limited options as all viable solutions had been exhausted. Ironically, Lily received both poverty and death, showcasing how the two are inexplicably linked.
While the conditions of her death are somewhat ambiguous, suicide proved to be her only option of escape. Locking her dresses in the chest after laying them out symbolizes how her memories are appearing before her once again only to be lost forever, as the dresses held “an association in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past” (Wharton p. 334). Had Lily been wealthier, both monetarily and socially, more options may have been available. Her opportunities to marry into a higher class quickly faded with her reputation and social standing; she hesitated and lost Gryce, Rosedale, and Selden. Sandage would undoubtedly classify Lily as a failure; she utterly failed monetarily and preferred death to “a life of misery and disgrace” (Sandage p. 6). Once Lily received the check from Mrs. Peniston, she wrote out the payment to Trenor, locked her dresses away, and died (Wharton p. 335). Lily’s shrinking opportunities and “sense of deep impoverishment” embody Sandage’s ideas of failure (Wharton p. 336). Thus, her only relief from the poverty and dinginess of her life became suicide.
Class disparities forced characters into dire situations throughout the novel, but life goes on across all class levels. The Trenors are still able to drive by in their nice car, Gryce has his child and heir to his wealth sit on his lap, and Nettie flourishes with family life despite financial adversity (Wharton p. 332). The use of babies and children foreshadow a society in which the drama continues for at least another generation, and perhaps perpetually. Wharton optimistically paints a picture of social life continuing through class conflict. While Marx would likely disagree and insist class conflict drives society and individual lives, Wharton eludes that individual lives and society drive conflict. Nettie is content with her life and baby, but Lily was not content or accepting of her circumstances. Lily’s incessant drive towards the elite caused conflicts and ultimately drove her to an untimely death. Despite her unfortunate death, society continues forward.
Social class extends vastly beyond property and labor. To be a member of the pinnacle of the social pyramid, one must possess not just exorbitant wealth but also social prowess, power, influence, access, and proper taste to be fully accepted. Wharton illustrates how affluence leads to social influence and how the influence can be used to suppress members of a lower class. The society in The House of Mirth is cruel and critical, which can force individuals into dire situations. Lily’s tragic and untimely death results from her decisions as well as the societal class structure in its entirety, which proves class fluidity. Ultimately, Lily’s beauty and social prowess were unable to boost her class standing, underlining the variety of factors influencing mobility and class standing as a whole.