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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
The economic position of women at the turn of the century is the central concern of The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton structures her novel around the career of Lily Bart, a woman who is raised to use her beauty for economic gain, but who has an impulsive reticence to carry through with what this transaction actually requires of her--the exchange of sex for luxury. Wharton described the subject of her novel as the superficial New York society. She wrote that it was a difficult subject for a novel since it had such little depth. The solution was show the society in relation to one of its members. She wrote, "a frivolous society can acquire significance through what its frivolity destroys"--in this case, Lily Bart. Lily Bart is an excellent character for bringing out both the emptiness of the society and the damage it does to its members. She identifies with the money values of the society and is willing to work hard to acquire a secure place in it, but she is also aware that it is often ugly in its showy superficiality and that it is casually cruel for the sake of self-protection.
At the time the novel is set, women had very little means of earning a living. Working class women have always worked, but middle and upper class women have served the economy in more symbolic ways as symbols of status to show off their husbands’ wealth and as social organizers. In both capacities, women are obviously subservient to men. They must be married in order to play these roles in the unofficial economy. In this sense, marriage is compulsory. For a wealthy woman like Evie Van Osburgh, getting married is a matter of waiting until the right man comes along. For a poor woman like Lily Bart, who has money only through grudging and sporadic family allowances, getting married is a matter of serious pursuit. The failure to do so means living a life of dependency on capricious family members or living on her small income as Gerty Farish does in very straightened conditions.
Since Lily Bart has been raised to believe that she has no choice, that she cannot live like Gerty Farish, she is desperate by the time she is twenty-nine, as she is at the novel’s opening, to find any moneyed husband, no matter whether she likes him or finds him a horrible bore. By the time she is thirty-one at the novel’s close and her reputation has been harmed by Berth Dorset, a society woman playing around at adultery out of boredom, she is desperate to marry a man whom she finds repulsive. Only once does Lily think of what her life will be like after marriage to Simon Rosedale, and then she pushes the thought of what sex will be like out of her mind.
However, Wharton is clearly operating on an awareness of the critique of nineteenth century middle and upper class marriage as a form of prostitution. Of the many who have made this parallel, two would certainly have been on Wharton’s literary book shelf. They are Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and John Stuart Mill, who wrote almost a century later what is almost a paraphrase of Wollstonecraft’s work. Both writers descried the lack of economic self-sufficiency of woman and the ineptitude of the patriarchy for taking care of all the needs of all the women. When fell outside the protections of the patriarchy-- when their fathers died, their brothers wouldn’t take them in, their husbands beat them or left them--they were left with no means to make a living. This economic dependency forced women to marry whether they wanted to or not and that is, metaphorically speaking, prostitution.
When Edith Wharton writes The House of Mirth around the machinations a young woman must go through in order to land a husband, she clearly has this critique of patriarchal marriage in mind. In fact, she structures the entire novel around this idea. The climax of the novel occurs when Gus Trenor tries to rape Lily Bart. In his mind, he gave her money and she should give him her sexual attention. When she doesn’t, he gets pushier and pushier until he corners her in his townhouse. The last two potential marriage partners put before Lily are George Dorset, a man much her senior and quite deadly in his dullness, and Simon Rosedale, a man who talks about his future wife as a piece of merchandise which will increase his profit margin.
Wharton doesn’t stop in her critique by showing the sorry deal women get under patriarchy. Men are also reduced in their humanity to nothing more than money producers. Lily Bart remembers her father as a tired man, who spent all his time trying to make enough money to keep the family inside the right social circle. When he no longer served his role as provider, Lily’s mother dropped him emotionally and he died soon afterwards. Even Gus Trenor is one of the tired providers. He complains to Lily of how hard her has to work to keep Bellomont and Mrs. Trenor going. Husbands seem to be an inconvenient appendage to society women. Mrs. Trenor likes to have Carrie Fisher around to keep her boring husband occupied. Mrs. Dorset does the same. In fact, Mrs. Dorset’s hobby of extramarital affairs necessitates her essentially hiring help to keep her husband preoccupied and out of the way of suspicion. It’s no wonder that Lawrence Selden keeps such a distance from the ties of marriage. With Selden, though, the reader hears of a different kind of marriage, one for love instead of money. Selden remembers his parents as loving each other even as they spent beyond their means. When he occasionally thinks of marrying Lily Bart, it is with this ideal in mind.
The central social problem of the novel, then, is the meanness of a social system that forces women to marry for economic livelihood and condemns them with poverty when they fail to do so. Edith Wharton has a second and related target for social critique in The House of Mirth. It is the connection between the new and the old rich of New York society. In stark contrast to the first critique, in this second critique, Wharton is a conservative. She clearly values the days when the boundaries between old and new rich were so securely set in place that no one questioned their permeability. Wharton became aware of the world of the new rich when she was courted by a young man named Harry Steven. Edith’s family were completely against the match and the courtship was eventually broken off. The figures in the novel who represent the outsiders, what were called the "dancing people" during Edith Wharton’s day, are close to caricatures.
The first of them is Mrs. Wellington Bry, who spends a fortune to attract the attention of the older families. She employs Carrie Fisher, a woman of the old set who is low on funds, to teach her how to act like someone who has always had money. The old families come to her functions, but only grudgingly, and then complain about things being done wrongly. As Carrie Fisher complains to Lily, Mrs. Bry always spoils her chances to be included when she begins to act queenly. Her husband, a gruff businessman, is better accepted since he remains himself wherever he is.
Next, there is the Gormers, set at a greater distance from the goal of inclusion. Mattie Gormer is given a bit more individuality in her portrait by virtue of the fact that she and her husband get bored with trying to fit in and decide to do things their own way. However, it is clear that Wharton finds the manners of this kind of person slightly alarming. It is with the third circle, that occupied by Norma Hatch, that Wharton’s sense that the new rich are inferior to the old rich is most clearly revealed. Mrs. Hatch has no schedule, she makes no social distinctions, and it is even she who gives Lily the prescription for the chloral that eventually kills her. It’s telling that the new rich are almost exclusively represented by women. The one man in this set is Simon Rosedale, whose anti-Semitic portraiture rivals that of Charles Dickens’ Fagan in Oliver Twist.
While Wharton clearly condemns the meanness of people like the Trenors and the Dorsets for destroying Lily Bart out of social convenience, she does so without attacking the basic social organization of that society. She doesn’t question the worth of the traditions of New York’s old rich; she instead bemoans their loss in a time when its boundaries are being threatened. It is perhaps for this reason that Wharton’s critique of patriarchy loses its force by the end of the novel when Wharton moves from a style of realism to one of sentimental fiction. Lily Bart becomes a tragic heroine, lost and alone. The novelist seems to have had trouble though with the usual happy ending of the sentimental plot. Though some of her readers wrote desperate letters to her begging her to have Lily and Lawrence marry, it is clear from the beginning of the novel that this is a marriage that could never have worked.