Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton|
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THE HOUSE OF MIRTH: LITERARY ANALYSIS
It is Lily’s inability to sell her soul completely that keeps her from being
totally determined by her upbringing. Wharton creates in Lily Bart a complex
character, one whom the reader does not admire and does not condemn, but
one whom the reader can understand and sympathize with.
He doesn’t have a great many scenes in the novel, but he plays a large role in the moral landscape of the novel. He could be seen as the star-crossed lover of Lily Bart, but he doesn’t fit that romantic role very well. Wharton’s commitment to realism prevents her from painting him as a romantic hero, or even as an entirely good figure. Lawrence Selden is in roughly the same economic shape as Lily Bart, but he enjoys the privileges of a man in his time. He has earning potential as a lawyer and therefore has no pressing need to marry for money. Men in his society are also not expected to be decorative as women are and therefore don’t have to spend so much money on clothes. He can live very comfortably in his apartment and he can be invited to all the same parties and social functions that Lily is invited to, but he is not under the same pressure to be charming, beautiful and entertaining.
His position on the margins of the inner circle of old rich in New York allows him a vantage point for critique while maintaining his status as an insider. In this position, he is similar to Lily, who is also an relative outsider by virtue of her lack of income. He recognizes that Lily’s job is to find a rich husband and that her method of getting one is flattery, beauty, and deceit. He doesn’t seem to judge this method at the beginning of the novel, but instead says he enjoys the spectacle. He tells Lily he likes to watch her operate, that she is a sort of artist at her job. However, he does come to judge her. It seems that even in his earlier admiration, there was some criticism of Lily’s choice to prostitute herself in the search for luxury.
Lawrence Selden has an idea that there is a small group of people who are similar in their commitment to living their lives freely and deliberately. He calls this the "republic of the spirit." He intimates that Lily would not be admitted to this republic since she sacrifice freedom for luxury; she submits to boring, stupid, small-minded people in order to gain luxury. He says rich people can seldom get into the republic and married people can seldom get into it. In this idea, Selden doesn’t take into account the privilege he enjoys as a man. Lily tries to explain it to him, but he does not seem to take her seriously. Selden does in fact stand out from the other people in the social circle of old New York rich. Lily notices it at the dinner party at the Trenors’. He is sharper and more deliberate in his choices than the other people at the table. In some sense, Lawrence Selden is in the novel as an ideologue--a person who stands for an idea--and he functions as such to show a side of Lily that her other friends do not bring out.
Like Lily Bart, Lawrence Selden’s nature has two contrary elements. On the
one hand, he is fiercely committed to the idea of freedom from entanglements
and on the other hand, he is attracted to the idea of living life as his
parents did--people whom he admired for their allegiance to the beautiful.
When he considers marrying Lily Bart, he thinks of his mother. He imagines
for those moments that Lily will be like his mother, content with a few
exquisite things and a life of good company and conversation. He seems
to be ready to marry Lily Bart only when he thinks she needs him. He considers
marrying her the first time when Gerty Farish tells him to help Lily.
Yet, when he sees Lily emerge from Gus Trenor’s townhouse and thinks she
has been having sex with him, Lawrence drops her abruptly. When he hears
that Lily is in trouble in Monte Carlo, he again wants to come to the
rescue. The final time he wants to marry her, the desire is also based
on the knight in shining armor romanticism of saving the damsel in distress.
He’s too late, though. Lily has accidentally killed herself. At the Trenor’s
weekend party, when the two of them took a walk together and discussed
life, Lily told him he would only approach her if he knew she would refuse
him. It seems that in the end, when he felt he was ready to marry her,
the same situation applied.
She is a woman who is closely connected to the old wealthy families and is occasionally invited out of a sense of charity to their functions. She is Lawrence Selden without the income from his law practice and she is Lily Bart without her willingness to jump through loops to keep getting invited to social events and without Lily’s beauty. Gerty Farish is often treated as a sort of caricature in the novel. Edith Wharton saves her from such a fate at the climax of the novel when her self-effacing good-heartedness fails her and she falls for Lawrence Selden. When she realizes he doesn’t love her back, but is instead in love with Lily Bart, she begins to hate Lily. The scene of Gerty Farish taking Lily Bart in and comforting her while she is harboring such intensely negative feelings about her is rich in pathos.
It is through Gerty Farish that Edith Wharton shows the broader societal issue
of women’s economic dependence and their social inferiority. She does
charity work, having established an organization called the Girls’ Club.
It is set up to help women of the working class when they have fallen
outside the realm of societal protection. In a woman like Nettie Struthers,
the reader gets an idea of what these women’s lives were like. Nettie
Struthers worked in an office, was seduced by a superior, dropped by him,
and left stranded alone. When she became sick, she had no resources for
recovering. Gerty Farish’s organization saved her life, and, ironically,
Lily Bart’s contribution was the means of doing so. Edith Wharton, thus
shows that the problems Lily Bart is having in upper class New York society
are paralleled in the working class.
She represents a successful Lily Bart. She recognizes all that she must do
to make a living and she does so with a great deal of finesse as well
as bemusement. She plays a minor role in the novel, but is quite important
to the larger concerns of the novel. She shows one more position of women
in the society. She is a divorced woman who must earn her living. She
does so by helping people of new wealth into the social circles of those
with old wealth. The life is a tenuous one, full of dangers of lost security
and momentary periods of economic sufficiency. She advises Lily and tries
to give her jobs. She doesn’t understand Lily’s reticence, always at the
moment before success, to play the games of society. She seems genuinely
surprised at Lily’s reluctance to destroy the Dorsets’ marriage in order
to marry Mr. Dorset or to marry Simon Rosedale. Wharton adds an element
to her character when she shows her in a quiet--and economically self-sufficient
moment--living with her daughter. Lily wonders whether Carrie Fisher wouldn’t
spend all her time with her daughter living quietly like this, if she
had the means to do so.
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. 09 May 2017