Challenging the strict deterministic confines of literary naturalism, which hold that "the human being is merely one phenomenon in a universe of material phenomena" (Gerard 418), Edith Wharton creates in The House of Mirth a novel which irrefutably presents the human creature as being subject to a naturalistic fate but which conveys a looming sense of hope that one may triumph over environment and circumstance if one possesses a certain strength of will or a simple faith in human possibility.
Because of Wharton's slight deviation from naturalistic conventions, a literary debate exists among critics as to the validity of viewing The House of Mirth as a novel which embodies naturalism. Some arguments contend that naturalism does not play a vital role in the novel because of the fact that such a significant internal conflict belies itself within the divided being of Lily Bart and because Wharton focuses so intensely on this conflict, a discord which seems opposed to the naturalistic idea of inevitability (Gerard, 4 1 0). Indeed, Wharton's works are not as critically concerned with naturalistic themes as are the works of London, Drieser, or Zola.
However, it is clear that undertones of naturalism, and stronger overtones in many situations, are present throughout The House of Mirth. Wharton creates characters who are victims of their environment, controlled by animal-like instinct. Evidence of this is found from the very first page, when Lawrence Selden succumbs to an "impulse of curiosity" (6), to the very last page, when Selden realizes that Lily had "reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings (255-56). By creating a protagon...
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...sting that the human creature also gains strength and derives meaning from its hope, desire, and faith, thus engendering the triumph of the human spirit.
Benstock, Shari. Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth. Complete, Authoritative Text with Biog. & Hist. Contexts, Crit. Hist., & Essays from Five Contemp. Crit. Perspectives. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
Gerard, Bonnie Lynn. "From Tea to Chloral: Raising the Dead Lily Bart." Twentieth Century Literature 44.4 (1998): 409-27.
Orr, Elaine N. "Contractual Law, Relational Whisper: A Reading of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth." Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 52.1 (1991): 53-70.
Pizer, Donald. "The Naturalism of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth." Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 41.2 (1995): 241-48.
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