Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth serves as a strict model of etiquette for high society in the Gilded Age. It teaches one the intricate art of keeping up appearances and assimilating into the fickle leisure class. At the same time, the novel’s underlying purpose is to subtly critique this social order. Lily Bart’s perpetual, although often reluctant quest for financial stability and mass approval is a vehicle for demonstrating the numerous absurdities and constant pretensions of a class that revolved around money and opinion.
Lily Bart embodies the enormous tension between old and new money that was so prevalent during the 1880’s. Since birth, she was fated to be in the middle of these strata. Her father came from established wealth while her mother’s goal was to climb in society. Wharton’s criticism of both sides stems from these two conflicting family positions.
On the one hand Wharton delivers a critique of this society but is also attracted to it- she judges Lily’s character but makes her very attractive. It is difficult not to sympathize with Lily, who was brain-washed into being an avaricious climber by her mother.
The predatorily, gold-digging mentality of Lily’s mother is evident when Wharton writes, “She remembered how her mother, after they had lost their money, used to say to her with a kind of fierce vindictiveness: “But you’ll get it back- you’ll get it all back, with your face.” This portrays the shallowness of that society, where women were taught that their looks were a main commodity that was traded for financial stability.
Wharton shows the high price of maintaining a comfortable social position and the behind-the scenes...
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...rying hard not to look like they are showing off, they are doing just that. On the contrary, new-moneyed speculators like Rosedale were not as subtle, and worked on making eye-catching expenditures.
Money and sex- the two things that were so taboo to speak of come together when Gus Trenor corners Lily in his study. His assault represents the momentary shattering of etiquette and social norm. Wharton’s aim was to expose the pretensions of this society, with a leader of the most established, “popular” family acting in a brutish manner that was so unacceptable.
Ultimately, The House of Mirth is a subtle critique of the leisure class and the shallowness that constitutes it. It equates the constant struggle to achieve and maintain a secure social position to enslavement, and demonstrates that during the Gilded Age, leisure was in truth constant work.
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- Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth serves as a strict model of etiquette for high society in the Gilded Age. It teaches one the intricate art of keeping up appearances and assimilating into the fickle leisure class. At the same time, the novel’s underlying purpose is to subtly critique this social order. Lily Bart’s perpetual, although often reluctant quest for financial stability and mass approval is a vehicle for demonstrating the numerous absurdities and constant pretensions of a class that revolved around money and opinion.... [tags: Edith Wharton House Mirth Essays]
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