Theme: When we let society’s expectations of our appearances and social standings influence our lives, we find ourselves becoming disconnected with our own desires, the people, and environment around us and as a result, don’t express our true feelings which ultimately leads to an empty life with unfulfilled desires that we may or may not ever realize.
The setting in this story, The House of Mirth, is more than just New York City. The setting is used to not only make the story more interesting, but to represent the ideas in which Edith Wharton is trying to explain. In chapter 6, Lily and Selden go out into the garden to have a nice talk. In contrast to the elitist New York City setting where the gossip runs high, the garden is simply an “open ledge of rock above which the beeches rose steeply between mossy boulders.” In this simple garden, Lily feels “a sense of buoyancy which seemed to lift and swing her above the sun-suffused world at her feet,” especially when she asks Selden to marry her. There is nothing to influence her, and nothing to tell her what is right and what is wrong. Even though the negotiations never came through, Lily and Selden “stood silent for a while, smiling at each other like adventurous children who have climbed to a forbidden height from which they discover a new world.” Expressing feelings and true emotion is how we discover who we are and what we want, and without doing so, can lead to an ultimately confusing life in which we never find a solution.
Another example of how the setting in this novel plays an important role in helping us deeper understand the novel is when Lily goes to the Girls Club, where it had “first brought her in contact with the dramatic contrasts of life.” Up until that point, Lily had “lived with the abstract conception of poverty” and never thought of the “victims of this fate otherwise than in the mass.” “This discovery gave Lily one of those sudden shocks of pity that sometimes decentralize a life.” What we see here is Lily in a setting where she is unaccustomed to being in. Her false concepts of poverty and how the other half lives goes to show how disconnected she was with the life around her. This moment of realization for Lily can also be used to show how she could end up, if she doesn’t open her eyes to the truth that surrounds her.
The last example of how setting is used in this novel to give us a better understanding is when Lily is on the train ride with Selden. Throughout the entire story, Lily struggles with two sides of herself. She doesn’t know where she fits in and there is a constant conflict to find what she wants. However, on this train ride, Selden notes that “ he felt that she had at last arrived at an understanding with herself, had made a pact with her rebellious impulses and achieved a uniform system of self-government, under which all vagrant tendencies were either held captive or forced into the service of the state.” Lily has been “poised on the brink of a chasm,” fighting between the conflicting ideals of what she thinks she should do and what the people around her thinks she should do. This conflict has followed her for her entire life, shaping her thoughts and actions, and never letting Lily break away from the oppressive situation to form her own thoughts.
The structure of the House of Mirth is very traditional. It follows the simple story structure of having a conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The conflict is Lily’s struggle to ignore the expectations of the people around her. The rising actions are what happens when Lily sees temptations, such as blackmail to get her to a higher class, or the moments where she is faced with raw emotion, like the talks with Selden. The climax of the story would have to be when Trenor tries to rape Lily. The falling actions consist of Lily’s failure to understand and grasp the meaning of the world around her....
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