Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth creates a subtle, ironic, and superbly crafted picture of the social operation of turn-of-the-century New York. In her harsh expression of community, she succeeds in portraying a world of calculation operating under the pretenses of politeness. The characters become competitors in the highly complex game of social positioning with an amorphous body of socially formed laws. Through her presentation of Lily Barton's ongoing struggles to "recover her footing-each time on a slightly lower level" in this game of skill, Wharton forces her audience to question this social order (272). Lily's fate gives way to a satirical commentary on how a social order governed by convention, sanctions, beliefs, and customs can crush its individual members by mutating into a force greater than its collection of participants.
Wharton's bleak portrayal of this environment reveals an exchange system in which transactions are made only to further one's personal interest. Shaping this perception are the relations between men and women; as Lily explains to Selden, women must enter into "partnerships" (14) to strategically enhance their standing in the social regime. Lily must use her beauty and charm to allure a mate with the monetary power which to solidify her place in the upper circle. Compatibility beyond the advantages of the match in the social scheme is of little import, explaining Lily attempts at alluring Percy Gryce "to do the honor of boring her for life" (29). With similar motivations, Simon Rosedale offers Lily complete financial backing in exchange for the social savoir-fare to enter New York high society. Lily recognizes Rosedale's "small, stock-taking eyes, which [make] her feel herself ...
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...man visiting a bachelor's residence (9). The problem of evaluating Lily through the framework of her decisions is the fact that, until the end, Lily still clings to material comforts provided by this world. One can even conjecture that her life was ended by her failure to be able to survive in a world in which economic wealth is been replaced by spiritual wealth.
Works Cited and Consulted:
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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