Questioning the Social Order

May 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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