Dying to Survive : an Analysis of Edith Wharton's the House of Mirth

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Dying to Survive

Edith Wharton, a novelist from the early 1900's, wrote several stories and novels about old New York. She was raised in old New York and observed this society in transition as new money was being infused into the old society. She was interested in the morals of this group of people. She touches on this in her novel The House of Mirth. She shows the extremes the rich can go to maintain their social position. Lily Bart, the main character, is sacrificed to this society. In Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance, she comments on her novel The House of Mirth, "The answer was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart"(940). Lily does not have a chance. She violates the mores of New York's elite. In reality, she is no more than an object to be admired and bartered for. BECAUSE SOCIETY HAS DETERMINED THAT LILY IN EDITH WHARTON'S NOVEL THE HOUSE OF MIRTH IS NO MORE THAN A COMMODITY ON THE MARRIAGE MARKET FOR A WEALTHY HUSBAND, HER DESIRE FOR MORAL INTEGRITY AND EMOTIONAL CONNECTION WITH OTHERS ULTIMATELY LEADS TO HER DEATH.

Edith Wharton understood from personal experience Lily's plight. She was from a society that prized beauty, "In that simple society there was an almost pagan worship of physical beauty, and the first question asked about any youthful newcomer on the social scene was invariably: ‘Is she pretty?' or: ‘Is he handsome?'"(A Backward Glance 818). She also experienced at the age of three that feeling of being an ornament, "because she had on her new bonnet, which was so beautiful (and so becoming) that for the first time she woke to importance of dress, and of her self as a subject for adornment..." (A Backward Glance 777 - 778). Her goal early in life was to be "the best-dressed woman in New York" like her mother (A Backward Glance 796). Likewise, Lily knows the need for a women to adorn herself, "If I were shabby no one would have me: 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 a part of it"(The House of Mirth 12). Wharton knew what it was like for women and uses Lily to point out how women are commodified.

Edith Wharton faced loneliness and an inability to deal with feelings. She grew up with a mother that would not let her express her feeling, but stressed that she be "nice." According to Cynthia Wolfe, "It is not in the least surprising that the adolescent Edith Wharton suffered painfully under the cruel, repressive attitudes that society took toward young girls of her time; however, it is surprising that she offered so little in the way of rebellion or resistance (as her mother evidently had, for instance) and that instead, she responded by becoming such a perfect paragon of what would have been called ‘niceness'"(37 - 38). This struggle to be "nice" led to a suppression of normal emotions and an inability to develop intimate relationships. It eventually led to twelve years of neurasthenia where she was nauseated and exhausted. It was during this time she returned to a childhood love of writing. It would be through creative writing that she would be able to heal herself. According to Wolfe, "Having begun, she did not stop, and in the midst of all this pain, an author was born. The path to health was discontinuous, but always the saving strength lay in her talent for creating. She summoned up worlds of fiction that articulated the feelings and conflicts that had been so unprofitably pushed aside; and as she worked with those fictional worlds—shaping them, giving them order, making decisions about them—she slowly learned to master her problems"(54). Lily Bart faces loneliness as Wharton did. She has a lot of acquaintances but no real friends. She says to Selden early in the...
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