Objectification as a Naturalist Tool in The House of Mirth

May 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

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 herŠwere 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.

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