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.
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