II. Lily’s Place in the New York society
III. Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden
IV. Women in the Leisure Clas
V. Lily’s Final Escape
The House of Mirth is one of Edith Wharton’s most famous and most discussed novels. The novel is the story of Lily Bart who is a product of the society of New York. This society is hypocritical and unkind to those who do not completely conform to their rules and expectations. In The House of Mirth Lily’s struggle with the New York society and her fall from this circle of people is traced.
Critics loved this book. E.E.Hale, JR., a contemporary critic, wrote in his review: “we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the bussiest kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. That is the exact description of a mental state that many will probably experience on reading The House of Mirth“ (Ammons 1990: 309). The Saturday Review (a contemporary London paper) wrote in 1906 “It is the striking art of Miss Wharton as a writer that keeps the reader’s sympathy from first to last. She can evoke the emotions of pity, horror and love. In Lily Bart she has created a character that will haunt the imagination of the reader and live in his memory. The book is one of the few novels which can claim to rank as literature“ (Ammons 1990: 313). Edith Wharton reflects in her fiction issues and arguments, such as criticism on conspicuous consumption in the leisure class, the economics of marriage for women and “the physical rigors and deprivations of working-class life for many Americans“ (Ammons 1990: ix), broadly current in her culture.
The tension between the real and the ideal is expressed throughout the novel, and also from Wharton’s choice of title to her imagery and characterization. She selected the title for her book from the bible, from Ecclesiastes 7.4 – “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth“ (Singley 1995: 70). Ecclesiastes is a skeptical and pessimistic text that had, at the turn of the century, a special relevance for a society engaged in material and spiritual debate. “Wharton’s use of this biblical text emphazises the tragedy of the novel: the human failure to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic.“ (Singley 1995: 70).
II. Lily’s Place in the New York society
Lily Bart was born into the upper class of the New York society. From a young age, Lily was taught that her only goal in life was to find a wealthy man to marry. After her father’s financial ruin, Lily’s mother selected her daughters beauty as the dominant strain for survival. She trained Lily to become a decorative object. Therefore, Maureen Howard describes her mother as “a devil’s chaplain of Darwins note on the cruelty of nature“ (Bell 1995: 144). When the novel opens Lily is an orphant and at the age of twenty-nine, and she has failed in the business of getting married. “And, what is most evident, she has no inner desire to be wed. The pressures are all external“ (Bell 1995: 142). The more her financial and social circumstances demand marriage the less responsive she is. Although she understands the material advantages of marriage, she is never interested in its power, “though she observes the use of that power by her friend Judy Trenor and her adversary Bertha Dorset“ (Bell 1995: 142). Lily explains to Selden: “I’ve been about too long – people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry“ (Wharton: 10).1
The upkeep of her beauty and style requires a lot of money. Her aunt provides some pocket money and gives her a place to live, but the biggest part is managed by her wealthy friends who replenish her wardrobe and purse to keep her among their ranks. “Brought up to be ornamental, she is valueable to them as a symbol“ (Ammons 1990: 348). This dependency on other people and being without a setting of her own doesn’t satisfy Lily. When she visits Selden’s cozy bachelor apartment, “she connects the freedom of having one’s own place with the possibility of goodness“ (Bell 1995: 138), she remarks “If I could only do over my aunt’s drawing-room I know I should be a better woman“ (Wharton: 8). This is a sign for her rootlessness and her self-doubt. Lily has a vague sense that there must be somewhere a better life than that into which she has drifted. She is aware of her situation and her position in New York’s society and complains about her best friends: “they use me or abuse me; but they don’t care a straw 1 Wharton‘s The House of Mirth edited by Elizabeth Ammons
what happens to me“ (Wharton: 10). Her rich friends use her as a secretary to write notes and as a blind to protect them from boring, importunate and suspicious husbands and they “cannot understand the squeamishness which keeps her, at the critical moment, from extracting a proposal from the rich bachelor (Gryce) whom she has not been too squeamish to pursue“ (Ammons 1990: 317). On the other hand there are her respectable relatives who cannot understand her smoking, gambling and being seen in company with married men. Lily stands between two sides and cannot please either one. She cannot come to an agreement with herself to marry Mr. Rosedale for all his millions, or Mr. Lawrence Selden for their similar characters. Louis Auchincloss points out that the reader from the beginning on knows that Lily is condemned to failure. He says: “She has only her lovliness, and what is that in a world that puts its store in coin and hypocricy?“ All the people around her are in a constant readiness to humiliate her: “Grace Stepney to tell tales on her, Mrs. Peniston to disinherit her, Bertha Dorset to abandon her in foreign port, Gus Trenor to try to seduce her, his wife to say he has“ (Ammons 1990: 317). Lily learns that without money she is unarmed in this society and rehabilitates herself each time on a slightly lower level. The society of New York continually defeats her. The reader follows Lily from “Bellomont“ at the Hudson and to other country houses, to the place of the Gormers, who, although rich enough to be accepted, still need help to climb up on the social ladder, and finally to the “gilded hotel of the demimondaine Norma Hatch“ (Ammons1990: 319).
Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes that repeatedly throughout the novel, “Wharton gives evidence that Lily’s special skill in the representation of herself lies in an uncanny ability to experience herself as others must see her (and thus to anticipate their reactions and control them)“ (Ammons 1990: 334). On the train to Bellomont when she looks ahead to a possible meeting with Mr. Gryce , Lily “arranged herself in the corner with the instinctive feeling for effect which never forsook her“ (Wharton: 17). She knows always when she is observed, and then she automatically plays to her audience. “She has learned so thoroughly to experience herself as an object that is being observed by others – not directly as an integrated human being – that her sense of “self“ is confirmed only when she elicts reactions from others“(Ammons 1990: 334), and when she is alone her inner emptiness becomes terrifying and unbearable to her. In the train to the Trenor’s she looks for company “to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew“ (Wharton: 17). From the beginning of the novel Lily is portrayed as concious of the distortions created by a society that offers a very limited woman’s role. She surveys critically to Selden “A girl must [marry to get out of dingy routine], a man may if he chooses.“ And she also complains that “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are part of it“ (Wharton: 12).