Intro to Literary Studies
Lily Bart‟s Modern Day Role: Popular Theory in The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton‟s novel, The House of Mirth, is typically classified by critics and
reviewers as a romance novel. The flowery and metaphoric language that Wharton uses in the novel seems to establish this classification, however there are many different aspects of the novel that require a more intense and sociological reading of the text. The characters in the novel are primarily representative of upper-class society. Throughout the novel, we see Lily Bart striving to be apart of this class with her limited means. Lily‟s pursuit in the novel reveals much about the class she strives to be apart of.
Lily‟s motivation throughout the novel is aimed at finding her place within this social
class she interacts with- the class is represented by wealthy socialites that use their money to purchase items that demonstrate the extent of their wealth. The construct of the society is grounded strongly in the spirit of capitalism. Though the story takes place in the early th20 century, the presence of capitalism is so strong, in fact, that it would be appropriate to view these instances from a viewpoint that scrutinizes capitalism. To examine the novel from this standpoint, one must discover the characteristics of this social class and how it functions while considering whom Lily Bart is and what she represents. There are strong capitalistic implications that can be broken down in the process of the examination.
The reader gets a very explicit description of Bellemont, the residence of the Trenors. Wharton does a great deal in describing the elegance of the house. A passage reads “ On the crimson carpet a deer-hound and two or three spaniels dozed luxuriously before the fire, and the light from the great central lantern overhead shed a brightness on the women‟s hair and struck sparks from their jewels as they moved” (25). This is a representative of the extent of the Trenors‟ wealth. They could afford luxuries that even
catered to their pets. The desire to have elegant belongings is characteristic of the time period they were living in. In Reginald Abbott‟s article, “A Moment‟s Ornament: Wharton‟s Lily Bart and Art Nouveau”, there is an explanation of the art nouveau period.
This period in history was a response to rapid urbanization and technological advances following the Industrial Revolution. The article goes to great length at explaining how jewelry designing and home furnishings became a necessary façade in the upper-crest of society. The idea that the Trenors would purchase goods to reflect their wealth is a significant capitalistic principle. This involves Marx‟s idea of commodity fetishism.
Karl Marx‟s explanation of commodity fetishism can be explained by saying
“Commodities… have a decidedly abstract quality: They are valued not for their own genuine characteristics but for their ability to participate in a money economy the workings of which are inscrutable to most individuals. The commodity thus represents the embodiment of powerful and mysterious hidden forces, which in some cases endows the commodity with an almost mystical quality and leads individuals to become enthralled with the commodity, thus making the commodity a fetish” (Booker, 73).
Considering this definition of commodity fetishism, the wealthy people in the novel consume the furniture, expensive jewelry, and designer clothes not for their function, but
for their value in the money economy. These luxury items are indeed fetishistic as a representation of wealth. They (the commodities) are purchased to be seen and demonstrative of wealth.
During this time period, due to the art nouveau movement and an increase in industrialization, there was probably a surge in luxury purchases. Bonnie Lynn Gerard quotes Ruth Bernard Yeazell and Elizabeth Ammons belief that “America‟s turn of the century leisured class displayed its incomparable wealth by engaging in what Thorstein Veblen terms the „conspicuous consumption‟ of material goods” (1). Since this class has so much money to spend, it either purchased items in a way that put their wealth on display, or used their money as a recreational activity. Examples of this are in the bridge games that are played in the novel. These wealthy people gamble in these games not to gain money, but it is because they can afford to lose. In Yeazell‟s article, she discusses these card games as being synonymous with wealth. She explains that the characters “acquire and maintain their status by displaying how much they can afford to waste” (1). The gambling aspect of the game seems to give the display of wealth some kind of context. Yet and still, it has a greater role in the novel. There are many examples of this. Gus Trenor seems to be gambling when he loans Lily money. He offers the money expecting an affair, yet he does not seem to consider, or even care, what this deed could do to his marriage. Bertha Dorset‟s extramarital affairs reveal the same lackadaisical attitude. These characters represent the notion that it is easy to gamble when one had nothing to lose. The marriages and relationships with people do not mean anything as long as financial security exists. A notable observation is the fact that, though she is not financially secure, there are numerous instances that Lily gambles.
If nothing else from this elite class of society has affected Lily, gambling has. Early on in the novel, Lily is at Bellemont contemplating her losses at bridge. The section reads “For a long time she had refused to play bridge. She knew she could not afford it, and she was afraid of acquiring so expensive a taste…For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality, and for the dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenished her insufficient wardrobe…Once or twice of late she had won a large sum, and instead of keeping it against future losses, had spent it in dress and jewelry; and the desire to atone for this imprudence, combined with the increasing exhilaration of the game, drove her to risk higher stakes at each fresh venture” (26-27). It is evident that Lily
eventually developed a passion for gambling that seemingly affected other parts of her life.
The reader learns that Lily Bart is a 29 years old woman that is seeking to marry a man to solidify her place in the high-class social circles. This is especially important in the time that Lily Bart is living in. Laura Johnson talks about Lily‟s need to marry in her
article. To summarize her article relating to The House of Mirth would attribute Lily‟s
th desire to marry as being significant to how women were perceived in the early 20century. Women needed a man, in some sense, to solidify their social status. While it seems like, considering her age, Lily would be desperate to marry a rich man, but she does not seem as eager as one would think. The reader is informed that Lily has had other opportunities to marry, but has declined offers. In this sense, her marrying becomes a gamble- she is not satisfied with marrying and stabilizing herself in society. It seems Lily
is looking for something else in a husband that she ultimately does not find due to her untimely death.
While it is obvious that in the moments before Lily takes the fatal dose of sleeping pills that she is destined to be a social outcast, the reader never really learns how this fact affected Lily‟s outlook. This is because the explanation of her death is so vague. Lily
seeks to go to sleep but ignores the warnings about the sleeping medication she is taking. Does Lily intend to kill herself? It is a question with no clear answer. It could be, however, another instance of Lily‟s gambling habit. While she knows the possible
outcome, in this situation, she really has nothing to lose. This is the first time in the novel that she is on the same level as her rich acquaintances; she is able to gamble with her life because the outcome will cost her nothing. Still, it is impossible to tell what Lily‟s
motivation is. This is due to the fact that while the novel is about Lily Bart, the reader does not really get to see what she really feels about her life and surroundings.
Towards the end of the novel, Lily Bart is talking with Gerty Farish when Gerty asks her “But what is you story, Lily? I don‟t believe anyone knows it yet”, and Lily replies “From the beginning…Dear Gerty, how little imagination you good people have! Why, the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose- in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or no- I won‟t blame anybody for my faults: I‟ll say it was in my
blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of the Charleses”
(226). At this point in the novel, it is obvious that Wharton is not going to allow a deeper introspection into Lily‟s mind. All the reader sees are her superficial actions and reactions to her surroundings. Perhaps this is because Wharton is attempting to make a bigger
statement about the women Lily represents and the class structure she seeks to be in. Offering an external view of the society allows for it to be dissected.
An important aspect of society that Wharton seemed to be concerned about in The
House of Mirth is the class structure. This relates back to Marxism since Marx believed that capitalism requires the separation and alienation of classes. Jennie Kassanoff refers to comments Wharton made regarding The House of Mirth saying “social conditions as
they are just now in our new world, where the sudden possession of money has come without inherited obligations, or any traditional sense of solidarity between the classes, is a vast & absorbing field for the novelist” (62). Kassanoff contends that Wharton would
implicate “…less genealogically privileged citizens, whose ascendancy has fostered the culture of materialism and mobility that spells Lily's doom. Because their advantages are bought goods rather than birthright, these Americans have challenged the foundations on which the social hierarchy is based” (62). It is demonstrated once again that the conspicuous consumption of goods was at the heart at how the wealthy were defined and recognized. Before this, wealth was inherited and passed down through elite families. A notable fact is the wealthy families at this point in history were the race of people Lily described to Gerty- people of Anglo- Saxon descent.
The issue of race seem to be largely ignored in novels that do not deal with a minority group however, Kassonoff argues that the function of race is very important in The House
Of Mirth. Lily tells Gerty that she is in the position she is in because of her ancestors. This revelation demonstrates that Lily, coming from people that were used to high-class, must maintain the life her race of people are accustomed to. Kassanoff says “Wharton
will gradually insist that Lily represents an exclusive, albeit imperiled, race, at once superior and fatally overspecialized” (63). Lily represents “…the natural reconceived by the upper classes and recast as an emphatic rejection of ethnic and racial pluralism” (64). This all equates to the idea of Lily being privileged in the sense that she came from the right genes, but she met her demise due to her lack of money. Wharton gives the impression that she values the idea of classes within a society, but she does not condone these classes being based on wealth because wealth is not an impermeable boundary. Wealth alone would allow for a destruction of the “high class” and create a situation where culture could fall into the “vulgar taste of the masses” (61). Lily become a tragic figure because she represents everything that the upper-class people should be-cultured and influenced by well-bred ancestors, but is ultimately cast out because she lacks financial stability.
th The House of Mirth proves to be laden with many ideas reflective of the early 20
century. While most readers would not believe that Wharton attempted to make bold statements about society regarding race, class structure, and capitalism, it is apparent that these elements are present in the novel. Perhaps The House of Mirth can transcend the
time period it was written in because there are issues included that affect us in modern day society. Because of this Lily Bart and this novel will be, in a sense, representative of American culture for many years to come.
Abbott, Reginald. “A Moment‟s Ornament: Wharton‟s Lily Bart and Art Nouveau”.
Mosaic: Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Winnipeg; Spring 1991.
Vol. 24, Iss.2. pg. 73
Booker, M. Keith. “Marxist Criticism”. A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory.
Longman Pub. New York; 1996. pg. 71-85
Gerard, Bonnie Lynn. “From Tea to Chloral: Raising the Dead Lily Bart”. Twentieth
Century Literature. Winter, 1998. pg. 1-13
Johnson, Laura. “Edith Wharton and the Fiction of Marital Unity”. Modern Fiction
Studies. West Lafayette; Winter 2001. Vol. 47, Iss. 4. pg. 947
Kassanoff, Jennie. “Extinction, Taxidermy, Tableaux Vivants: Staging Race and Class in
the House of Mirth”. Publication of the Modern Language Associations of America.
PMLA, New York; Jan. 2000. Vol. 115, Iss. 1. pgs. 60-75
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Scribner‟s Son Pub. New York; 1933
Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “The Conspicuous Wasting of Lily Bart”. ELH. Baltimore; Fall
1992. Vol. 59. Iss. 3. p. 713