Description Of Immoral Upper Society in House of Mirth
House of Mirth Essay Prompt
In the House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, the author presents her own thoughts on the increasingly immoral upper society and the problems of the upper class. The author uses each character and their thoughts to show. Each character has their own motivations and actions that they take, distinguishing the morally righteous Selden from other characters like the despicable Bertha Dorset. Edith wishes to paint a vivid picture of the faults that the American aristocracy’s lifestyle has. Each own social class has their own commentary. Wharton clearly states her belief that altogether, the upper society is immoral. Characters of each social class add life and believability to the book’s environment, giving a perfect way to comment on society’s faults.
The American upper class receives the most criticism by Edith Wharton. This class includes the despicable characters such as the Dorsets and the Trenors. Gus Trenor in particular is incredibly rich and elevated in the social order. However, his personality is completely despicable. He is a man who’s darker nature is barely held in place by societal demands. “To her surprise… Old Habits, old restraints, the inherited hand of order, plucked back the bewildered mind which passion had jolted from its ruts ”(pg 141). Edith Wharton also describes comments on the restrictive nature of the upper class, as well as the undesirable nature of it. It is societal standards that hold Gus back from fully assaulting Lily or pursuing his sexual desires more in depth. These restraints are also shown in Lily’s character. “How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self… What a miserable thing it is to be a woman” (pg 5). The awareness of social rules is what makes Lily different from the others. Instead of bending submissively to it, she resists and because of this, is cast out of her social class. Other characters benefit from this merciless environment despite being morally questionable. Bertha Dorset, in particular, displays a hostile nature. Many of her actions directly result in other characters getting hurt. She is the one who sets Lily up for her social downfall. She intentionally stops Lily from ascending because she finds Lily distasteful, saying “ ‘You know, my dear, you’re rather a big responsibility in such a scandalous place after midnight.’ ” (pg 197). In spite of her infidelity and dishonest nature, the upper class of society values her over the morally strong Lily because of her wealth . Bertha Dorset is shown to be ruthless and cruel, yet, despite her obvious disregard for the welfare of others, the individuals of her class must respect her because of her wealth. Through characterization, Wharton gives face to every flaw in the social elite. Wharton is able to perfectly present the problems of the social elite.
An outsider in the upper class, Lily serves as the flawed protagonist, giving the reader the proper lens to view the rigid structure of the social pyramid. Her inability to fully embrace her societal role prevents her from marrying. Because she can not, Lily fades from society despite being more righteous than any other members accepted into the circle. Her refusal to blackmail Bertha with the letters and her refusal to marry Rosedale marks interesting examples of restraint. “I don’t suppose you bought those letters simply because you’re collecting autographs.” stated Rosedale (pg 247). Despite being given a clear way to overtake the threat of Bertha, she chooses to restrain because she sees the action of using the letters as morally low due to the damage they could cause. Lily cannot bring herself to compromise or bend her morals. This shows the problems of the upper society. Furthermore, Lily is shown to be objectified multiple times throughout the novels. References to her as “ornamental” and passages that suggested that she is not valued past her looks all contribute to the idea of a inherently unequal and morally corrupt aristocracy.
As social class decreases, Wharton describes the increasing moral character that grows with the lack of wealth. Selden’s character truly exemplifies this. Despite being exposed to the corrupt ideals of the American upper class, Selden is the one who gives Lily motivation to stay inside the moral rights and prevents her from from breaking her ideals. “Perhaps I might have resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have pulled me down. And then I remembered–I remembered your saying that such a life could never satisfy me; and I was ashamed to admit to myself that it could. That is what you did for me–that is what I wanted to thank you for. I wanted to tell you that I have always remembered; and that I have tried–tried hard . . .” (pg 296). This morality also results in Selden’s prejudices influencing his judgement of Lily His sense of right and wrong is the guiding force behind Lily’s choices. However, his jaded nature shows the cynical view that other people including Wharton herself have on the upper class. “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?” (pg 8). His naivety and careless nature exemplifies how the middle class thought of the upper class according to Wharton.
Edith Wharton describes the immoral world of the American aristocracy through each character’s situation, motivations, and actions in the novel. Every character represents a different piece of commentary from Wharton. In particular, Wharton singles out the immorality and carelessness exhibited by the upper class with the grotesque and questionable characters in the upper class. In context with her personal life, Wharton is able to unveil the deceptive facade surrounding the American upper class revealing the ugly inner workings by exemplifying her opinions with characters in The House of Mirth.
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