The House of Mirth!
Check out Edith Wharton’s house.
The part I want to focus on in Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” is the last third of this text. Wharton’s text was published in 1905, and it takes place in New York. We learn in the second part of the book that Selden is in Europe, while Lily is on a cruise called Sabrina. We learn how Bertha feels jealous of Lily, and starts a rumor that her husband George and Lily are having an affair. Then, we learn of Mrs. Peniston’s death. She appears to be had been a wealthy woman who left Lily $10,000, however she will receive the money in a year. Once, Lily tells George she no longer wants to see him she goes to see Rosedale.
Lily tells Rosedale that she wants to marry him, however Rosedale tells Lily he heard about her and George’s affair. He no longer wants to marry her. Later on, we see Selden looking for Lily and he finds her working as a secretary for Mrs. Hatch. This job doesn’t last long before Lily finds herself another job working at a boarding house. A bit later Lily is fired from her job for not doing a good job, and Lily goes to talk to Selden. Once Lily leaves Selden’s place she wanders around the park where she meets Nettie Struther who she met with her friend Gerty. Nettie invites Lily into her home where she sees that this woman is living a successful life. That day, the money arrives that Lily got after Mrs. Peniston died. She sees that she can pay out all her debts before taking sleeping medication to fall asleep. The next day, Selden goes to see Lily and we learn she has overdosed on her sleep medication and died.
Wharton’s text is significant because it shows how one woman who appears to have been of upper class can fall into debt and be placed into the working class. Once Bertha started that rumor about Lily and George’s affair Lily started to be looked down upon in society. This adds to our literary history because it shows how in 1905 there were people traveling to New York who had gained a fortune; similar to the characters in Wharton’s text. Cynthia Griffin Wolff asserts how, “Extraordinary costume parties were given, for which guest would spend tens of thousands of dollars for a single striking ensemble. While men vied with each other in cut-throat battles for vast fortunes, their wives competed with ever more lavish entertainments and jewels and mansions” (Wolff ix). Wolff discusses the historical moment that Wharton lived in where people spent a fortune on their outfits for a single night. Men and women also competed with each other to show off their fortunes as well. In other words, these people in Wharton’s society were wealthy and not afraid to make it known to others. But, when we drop a character like Lily into the mix who spends time with people who are wealthy, however she isn’t wealthy herself we see it causes for a disastrous turn out.
Wharton’s text can be classified as a novel, but it’s a bit different than most novels because we see Lily who is of upper class and appears to have a lot of suitors fall from grace. She reminded me of Jay Gatsby who is a wealthy man, but he dies at the hands of someone who is of a lower class than him. Plus, both Wharton’s text and Fitzgerald’s text feature characters who are mainly white, and not color. But, back to Lily though we learn of her death from Gerty. She tells Selden how, “The doctor found a bottle of chloral- she had been sleeping badly for a long time, ad she must have taken an over-dose by mistake” (Wharton 325). I wanted to focus on the word “mistake.” We as readers never know for sure if Lily did mistakenly overdose on her sleep medication, even if she was able to pay out all her debts before she died. It’s a question that could be up for debate.
The second problem in this text is one I touched upon briefly before where there is not many people of color in this text. We could analyze characters like Nettie Crane who was, “…one of the discouraged victims of over-work and anemic parentage: one of the superfluous fragments of life destined to be swept prematurely into that social refuse-heap” (Wharton 13). In this section of book two, the closest we’ll get to someone who was sick and not wealthy is Nettie. Lily appeared surprised to see the life that Nettie was living, especially since she appears to be having a better life than Lily at the moment. This is a character that could be looked at to represent the poor in the text after her illness, but besides Nettie and Selden there weren’t a lot of poor people discussed in book two. Especially not poor and colored people.
House of Mirth was written by Edith Wharton and published in 1905. Taking this time period into consideration, it might be useful to think about the women’s rights movement. It is important to note that women were still not in and of themselves valuable, they were required to be attached to a man. The entire novel circles around Lily navigating the marriage market of the late 1800’s. Even something as simple as Gus giving Lily the money was enough to get rumors started that something was going on between them.
Lily starts out being in love with Lawrence Selden, but he does not have enough money, so she turns her attention to Percy Gryce instead. Already, this tells us two things. Firstly, not just being a man but being a wealthy man was something that women were particular about. It may seem pointless to mention the idea of money being a factor in romance because this attitude is not dissimilar to the one many people hold today, but its existence gives us insight into how and why these attitudes have such longevity. The second thing we can learn from Lily choosing Gryce over Selden is that the marriage market not only calls for women to find the wealthiest man but also for men to be wealthy. The men of this society have their legitimacy directly linked to how much money they have. It is made clear that Lily genuinely loves Selden, but that is not enough to make up for his lack of wealth. Lily knows this is wrong, which is why she calls it off with Gryce. The valuation of men based on their wealth and the absence of a woman’s value puts pressure on everyone involved. Lily eventually getting a job offers a glimmer of combat against these forces but she never ends up fully escaping the cycle. It is worth mentioning that she does manage to repay all of her debts before killing herself; she, unlike most women, was able to participate in the financial sphere with her own money.
Bourdieu would be a good theory to pair with House of Mirth because of the economic factors that seem to dictate everything the characters do. Part of the reason there is so much stress placed on men to be wealthy is so that they can take care of their families. Women are then forced into finding someone who can provide for them because they have been disabled from the professional world. Once people are married, they are then expected to participate in activities that are suitable for high class people and associate with people of their caliber. When we think about House of Mirth through Bourdieu’s lens, questions we should ask include:
-What expensive things are being casually brought up?
(Bertha inviting Lily to come on vacation with her on a yacht would be a good example to work with for this question)
-Who is able to afford them?
-Who only has access to those things through someone else? Why is that?
Also, women are viewed as property in this system. From birth, women are owned by their fathers and then that ownership is transferred over to their husbands when they get married; women are objects used by men to display wealth and success.
In Edith Wharton’s novel, Lily Bart is trying to hold onto the ladder of the elite social class. She is flailing to fit in and keep her name in the “esteemed” category. For Lily, life is about being elite and nothing else. If she cannot be a part of the high society, she does not want to be a part of anything at all. The factors of love, economy, gender, and social class are all tied into this novel.
• Wharton does a great job exposing the life in society for a woman during the early twentieth century. Women did not have many options when it came to choosing a path in life. It was either marry rich, or become poor. Those are not very flattering options.
• For Lily, trying to fit into a society that she was slowly being withdrawn from cost her everything. She did not wish to live a mediocre life with Selden; she wanted love, comfort, and money. Her lifestyle was on the high-end and she was adamant on keeping it that way.
• The fact that women were tied to these conditions in this society are a part of the form of the novel. They allow us to see the harm in the restrictions placed upon women of the time.
• Even being in the company of men was a notorious thing to do during this time. When Lily is seen alone with a man, it’s the end of the world apparently. Gossip spreads like wildfire, and it’s gossip that is untrue.
• Wharton gets down to the nitty-gritty of what it meant to be female. There were few options to take, and there was no means of independent economic gain to keep you in the elite class. Marrying a rich man was the only other option women had if they wanted to stay within the “in crowd.”
• Lily uses her charm and beauty to overcome her obstacles in many instances throughout the novel. It is through her manipulation and critical deducing abilities that she tries to win over Percy Gryce. She wants to marry him for financial support and stability. She claims she will not marry without love, so that puts her at least a bit above others in her position.
• She wants it all: love, wealth, and happiness. However, in the real world we don’t always get it all.
One quote from the novel that sums up the aspect of life for women is: “society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven;” (44). Being judged is the role that women have in this society. If you are lucky enough to be married and well off, then you are in the shoes of the judger. Unfortunately, for those who are not so lucky, like Lily, society talks. Rumors spread and if you don’t have the means, wealth decreases.
• Bourdieu would work well here because Lily is part of this “cultured” class, but one that she is dwindling from. What does the concept of being cultured produce for those who are slowly falling from that culture?
• How can being “cultured” deprive a person of consideration and sympathy?
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