Percy Gryce and the Satire of High Society in ‘House of Mirth’
In The House of Mirth, Percy Gryce is a rich young eligible bachelor upon whom Lily, one of Wharton’s central characters, sets eyes on. Gryce is used by Wharton as a vehicle to convey the shallowness and brutality of the New York high society, often through Darwinian references. The idea of the survival of the fittest was rising to increased influence in science and through society at the time of the novel’s publication. Wharton plays on this scientific finding and uses it as an extended metaphor in which to animalise her characters, and thus make them appear to the reader more savage. As well as this, the animalisation of the characters is used for making satire of the society as it conflicts with each of the characters self-belief that they are far more sophisticated than anyone else, or any other ‘species’ for that matter. Wharton uses a variety of other literary techniques and extended metaphors throughout the novel to describe Percy Gryce which mock the society he is part of.
Percy Gryce is first depicted as a shy man by the omniscient narrator, who describes him to be ‘dissembling himself behind an unfolded newspaper’. Wharton’s lexical choice of the verb ‘dissembling’ is synonymous to ‘acting’ or ‘pretending’ which is to imply that Gryce is in fact pretending to be reading the newspaper in order to avoid contact with Lily Bart, a fellow passenger and protagonist within the novel. The narrator (Wharton) then continues to remark upon how peculiarly ‘engrossed’ Gryce is in his newspaper which again invites the reader to question the legitimacy of Gryce’s true motives when ‘reading’ the newspaper. Wharton has done this to lead the reader to an initial conclusion that Gryce is a shy man who does not enjoy the company of others. Wharton has then presented Lily to begin to pursue Gryce, a man who is minding his own business. Wharton has mocked the New York high society here as despite Gryce’s best attempts to avoid speaking to someone on the train lily totally ignores this and looks only to his wealth as an indicator that he is attractive to her despite his glaring personality defects. This theme of shallowness is used often by Wharton to mock the New York high society as this is shown to be the characters common trait, vanity.
Physically, Gryce is a man with ‘a face looking as though it had been dipped in crimson.’ Crimson is used by Wharton to connote the aristocratic/wealthy side to Gryce. (The colours of Elizabethan clothes, including the colour crimson, provided information about the status of the man or woman wearing them. This was not just dictated by the wealth of the person, it also reflected their social standing.) The crimson colour also demonstrates discomfiture/blushing from Gryce as he is an awkward man and notices the ‘hand gripping the back of his chair’ from Lily Bart. Gryce is further shown to have ‘the reddish tint in his beard’ ‘deepen’ again providing further implications of his wealth and embarrassment. Wharton has done this for ironic purposes which in turn mocks New York high society.
Gryce is then presented by Wharton as ‘prey’ which makes him the victim of the cruel cold hearted and shallow society that is described throughout the novel. This theme of Hunter and Hunted is continued when Wharton shows that ‘Lily had known the species before’. Wharton has done this to mock the society Lily and Gryce are a part of through the use of irony. The irony is that the sophistication the characters believe they are is put into stark contrast to the animals in which they behave like. This animalistic nature of the characters social structure is used throughout the novel by Wharton for the purpose of satire they are ‘brutal’ and ‘self-engrossed’. Gryce epitomises the shallowness of the society not through his own actions but in fact through the way in which despite his void of personality, the women such as Lily Bart gravitate towards him (due to his wealth).
Edith Wharton provides further irony through the depiction of Gryce’s personality vs reputation. As referred to earlier, physically Gryce is a man who one would expect to be sure of himself due to his wealth and ‘as Gryce was a handsome man in a didactic way’. However instead Lily Bart is ‘amused that anyone as rich as Mr Percy Gryce should be shy’. The fact that Lily has assumed that by Gryce being wealthy he is going to be confident demonstrates that being wealthy in this society was what defined a person as opposed to experiences in life. This insular train of thought Lily has to the observer appears comical due to its naivety which is how Wharton has used to further create satire out of the society they are a part of. To further this point, Gryce not only is shy but he also cannot hold conversation with Lily Bart other than the topic of his Americana collection ‘are you getting on with your Americana?’ a question Lily has asked purely to sustain a conversation as opposed to a genuine interest. This therefore continues the presentation of the selfish ambitions of Lily who is using all ‘methods’ just to ultimately have a financial gain whilst also demonstrating how impoverished Gryce is in other aspects of life other than his wealth.
Finally, Percy Gryce is very much considered to be at the bottom of the food chain in the novel. Wharton has construed him in this manner by likening Gryce to a ‘baffled beetle’, an animal which would have been thought to have been a lower organism that was prey to many. This is a result of Gryce’s wealth and thus desire to be eaten mixed in with the fact he was a shy man and thus an easy target for predators. Wharton however does not allow the reader to have pity for Gryce, he is in some ways as bad as the other characters. The metaphor that ‘Mr Gryce’s egoism was a thirsty soil’ is used by Wharton to describe how a conversation can be maintained with Gryce. The metaphor in context implies that Mr Gryce is (like the other characters) self-engrossed in himself however he requires continual indulgence in subjects that interest him and constant approval ‘germinating under the surface of smiling attention’ in order to release the hidden egoism that is within Percy Gryce. Wharton has added this detail about Percy Gryce to again mock the shallowness of New York high society for satirical purpose.
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In The House of Mirth, Percy Gryce is a rich young eligible bachelor upon whom Lily, one of Wharton’s central characters, sets eyes on. Gryce is used by Wharton as […]