Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is an affront to the false social values of fashionable New York society. The heroine is Lily Bart, a woman who is destroyed by the very society that produces her. Lily is well-born but poor. The story traces the decline of Lily as she moves through a series of living residences, from houses to hotel lodgings. Lily lives in a New York society where appearances are all. Women have a decorative function in such an environment, and even her name, Lily, suggests she is a flower of femininity, i.e. an object of decoration as well as of desirability to the male element. We see this is very true once Lily's bloom fades, as it were, a time when she is cast aside by her peers no longer being useful as something to admire on the surface. The theme of the novel in this aspect is that identity based on mere appearance is not enough to sustain the human soul physically or metaphysically. Once she is no longer able to keep the "eye" of her peers, Lily finds herself with no identity and dies. This analysis will discuss the theme of the objectification of women in a male dominated society inherent throughout the novel.
Lily Bart and her mother have been socially "ruined" in a sense because of the economic failures of their father and husband respectfully. However, Lily's mother teaches her that she can still maintain a high social status if she marries well, i.e. a rich man. In fact, Lily's mother is known for making the most out of the least as she is "famous for the unlimited effect she produced on limited means" (Wharton 48). In a society where women are considered valuable only for the appearance they present, it is impossible f...
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...vel could possibly be that women are commodified from the cradle to the grave and that never in a male dominated society will they ever be fully appreciated as separate entities with whole identities equal and separate from males.
Restuccia, F. L. "The Name of the Lily: Edith Wharton's Feminism(s)." The House of Mirth: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Benstock, S. (ed.). New York, Bedford Books, 1994, 404-418.
Robinson, L. S. "The Traffic in Women: A Cultural Critique of The House of Mirth." The House of Mirth: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Benstock, S. (ed.). New York, Bedford Books, 1994, 340-58.
Wharton, E. The House of Mirth. New York, Bedford Books, 1994.
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