House of Mirth.
“Lily mused. ‘Don’t you think,’ she rejoined after a moment, ‘that the people who find fault with society are too apt to regard it as an end and not a means, just as the people who despise money speak as if its only use were to be kept in bags and gloated over? Isn’t it fairer to look at them both as opportunities, which may be used either stupidly or intelligently, according to the capacity of the user?’
‘That is certainly the sane view; but the queer thing about society is that the people who regard it as an end are those who are in it, and not the critics on the fence. It’s just the other way with most shows – the audience may be under the illusion, but the actors know that real life is on the other side of the footlights.’ (Wharton 69-70)”
Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is unique among its British counterparts. Wharton’s American “novel of manners” presents a distorted protagonist when compared to contemporaries such as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility; unlike British novels of the age, House of Mirth unfolds in an American setting, where issues such as class have a substantially weaker hold over society than in Europe. Wharton’s protagonist falls victim to a grim, realist destiny so common to American literature. Unlike Sense and Sensibility where the bourgeois lifestyle is overcome, House of Mirth concludes with Lily Bart taking her own life, her dream of marrying into wealth unfulfilled. Lily is a tragic character, one whose condescendence and adoration of the bourgeois lifestyle overpower her sense of happiness as she turns away from her true love, a man named Lawrence Selden whose meager holdings cannot satisfy Lily’s need to marry into New York’s elite circles.
Lily and Selden discuss status and the impetus of wealth during time spent on their own, away from Bertha Dorset. Wharton presents the conversation in the aforementioned context so that it the true intentions, feelings, and opinions of Lily and Selden can emerge. Through her conversation with Selden, Lily indirectly defends her drive to ascend through the ranks of New York’s social coteries. She is not completely forthright, and never states in clear language that she uses society as a means and not an end. Rather, she criticizes those who “find fault with society,” and in doing refrains from condemning the New York caste system in which she partakes. That Lily is understated in her social contentions serves to illustrate her high regard for Selden, despite his relatively low standing and meager lifestyle.
Just as Lily figuratively tiptoes around Bertha due to her high social rank, she also gingerly approaches issues with Selden, a man for whom she has great affection. Lily’s reverence for Selden, however, cannot be for his ability to climb social ranks; he is an enlightened figure, representing a new social age, an irrevocably American stance on egalitarianism. The conversation between Lily and Selden marks the only point in the novel that empowers Lily to communicate her true feelings for Selden and her wishes to be completely aloof of her situation. Richard Chase, author of The American Novel and Its Tradition, writes that American novelists are “not [interested] in social manners but in ‘personalities of transcendent value’, as” communicated through Wharton’s portrayal of the enlightened Selden (Chase 159). The prevailing theme in Lily’s stance is the reflection of Lily’s situation. She is perennially one of the “critics on the fence”, never able to achieve the life of social class that she so desires (Wharton 70). Ironically, she never has a chance to live the detached life Selden leads, and she is forced to wistfully long for an alternative to the situation in which she finds herself.
Selden remains opposite Lily as a representative of the common American people; he is detached from the hustle of high society. The actors he describes in his metaphor for people who understand life is poignant in reflecting the general malaise of certain members of the upper class. The actors represent the bourgeois, the audience the proletariat. Selden’s metaphor aptly describes the class struggle in which Lily finds herself firmly entrenched. Selden’s metaphor effectively portrays the elite as staging a farcical system, one that serves only to distract the rest of the world that is trying desperately to take part in the reality given to them by a small group of people. The actors, or the elite, look wistfully beyond, knowing full well that a “transcendent value” lies outside the stage. Therefore, the actors put two faces forward: one they show to keep up the masquerade for the public (the audience), and another that reflects their true happiness. Chase describes this eclipsing characteristic as a natural tendency of virtue, implicit in the personalities of those who are transcendent of “the amenities and discipline of social intercourse” (Chase 159). This duplicity of character is most embodied by Bertha and her love affair with Ned. Bertha, the archetypal social elitist, maintains the facade of a healthy relationship with her “upper crust” husband. Bertha realizes there is a deeper happiness, that her social relationship and marriage (presumably arranged according to her ascension up the social ladder) is secondary to her true happiness, an affair with Ned. If discovered, her affair would ruin her marriage, something Bertha must surely know. That she is willing to be discovered is a testament to her drive for happiness; in this instant, Bertha is among the enlightened, partially detached from her life in the social chain.
Selden also presents the theme that social constraints are a product of the people; there is no obligation to follow it as he proves to Lily through his existence. His affection for Lily despite the knowledge that she will marry solely for means he cannot provide is a testament to his insistence that the world is bigger than the New York strata. Selden’s metaphor postulates the existence of the bourgeois in the hands of the proletariat; though the bourgeois are perceived to be “in control”, they would not exist were it not for the pandering of the lower classes. It is the lower classes (such as Lily) that promulgate the existence of the social hierarchy. The bourgeois (such as Bertha) do not restrain lower classes any more than they are given license to. Unlike Europe where ancestry dictated social class, American “manners” were “nearly uniform among all Americans,” exemplified by Bertha’s trite condescension, which in many ways mirrors that of Lily’s toward the high life’s critics (Chase 158).
House of Mirth transcends the “novel of manners” label. Chase states that the novel, like its peers cannot “sustain the tone” and that there is “something else more arresting than the observation of manners” (Chase 158). The uniformity of humanity amongst the American publication and the realism behind life’s situations is best exemplified in Lily’s failure as a character. She is almost a tragic character as she takes her life following her inability to secure the life for which she had set out. The antagonist, Bertha, constantly set out to sabotage Lily’s emergence as one of the social elite. Lily never fully realizes her illogical approach to society; her flippant attitude toward those who “find fault with society” as an end is the greatest irony of the conversation. In treating society and class as an end, Lily enslaves herself under the whims of those in the elite. It is the elite, such as Bertha, that ultimately decide her fate. Therefore, the more Lily strove to become a part of the New York social elite, the more deviant Bertha’s subterfuge became. Her attempts to become assimilated backfired, further cementing her lower class status. Had Lily refuted the importance of class and rejected materialism’s wares, she may have recognized that society existed to serve as a means to her end and not vice versa. Lily becomes a victim “at the mercy of [her] environment,” her fate decided not by how she conducted herself but rather by the choices she made (Chase 160). Lily’s failure to enter the most elite New York social circle was not because she was ungainly, unfit. House of Mirth’s most poignant themes surround the similarities between the American bourgeois and the proletariat. Lily failed to achieve all that she set out because of Bertha. Bertha is a factor of the realist environment Wharton weaves throughout the plot; Lily is a victim of the consequences of her actions, not a flaw in her nature.
American realism sets Wharton apart from writers like Austen. Contrary to conventional “manner novels”, Wharton focuses on literary foils such as Selden to accentuate the similarities between the classes and the futility of social strata. To an extent, Wharton shows that it is impossible to change one’s social status. It is more viable to deny the system altogether, as society and its organization ultimately exist to serve the populous. The conversation shared by Lily and Selden exemplifies such a stance; Lily, who spends her adult life trying to break her way into circles of the elite, dies a woman who never realizes her life’s aim. Selden insists that the only people who regard society as all encompassing and all-important are those who remain at the top of social chains, and that even they realize that life is not what society makes of it. The logical entity between the two, Selden proves through his language and use of metaphors the undeniable fact that if the bourgeois seek a transcendent life, then so should the common man.
- Chase, Richard. (1957) The American Novel and Its Tradition. London, G. Bell and Sons, Ltd.
- Wharton, Edith. (1994) The House of Mirth. New York, Oxford U P.