Term Paper: Fate Society and Determinism

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Fate, Society & Determinism.

In comparing the two heroines in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Lily and Emma, one cannot help but wonder if these two grandiose protagonists have anything in common. The background of their stories is certainly not the same, their drives and inner most desires are fired by divergent impulses, their struggles take on different shapes, their deaths have contrasting meanings.

The social milieu in which Lily Bart is presented in The House of Mirth is an image of an entire society in transaction, it is an image of the old New York, of the veritable bourgeois, inevitably mingling with the new one, that of the "invaders," of the Civil War millionaires, of the industrial exploiters who are gradually buying their way into the high society, producing, thus, a change into the older social values -- a change which deeply affects the life of the heroine.

From the very beginning of the novel, we are let into knowing the exact age of Lily Bart, namely twenty-nine, which one would consider to be quite advanced for a Miss still. Orphan and living under her widowed aunt's cheerless shelter, Mrs. Peniston, Lily can see only one way out of the misfortune that her parents' financial ruin has led her into: making a suitable marriage for money. To this end, she keeps in the company of women of wealth, who, although at the beginning all seem to take her in, to be her friends and help her accomplish her goal, in the end, are the very same ones to turn their back on her and let her fall in her own misery.

Nor is her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, very sympathetic with Lily and her way of life, either. Though, everyone expects Lily to inherit Mrs. Peniston's fotune, when the old lady dies, she leaves her niece a mere ten thousand dollars, barely enough for Lily to cover her debt to Gus Trenor, who tricks her into making her believe he makes investments in the stock market for her, which hopelessly compromises Lily into accepting great sums of money from him. Mrs. Peniston's will is a clear expression of her disapproval of both Lily's social habits -- the endless parties she takes part into, her gambling at bridge -- and Lily's breaking the social code of conduct for unmarried women -- the seemingly appearance of her being involved with a married man, again, Gus Trenor, of whose unwanted amorous advances she is exposed to.

By breaking a few social codes, Lily Bart attracts the enmity of her so-called friends, particularly Mrs. Bertha Dorset who, jealous of Lily's outstanding beauty and her sex-appeal to men, is the one to push Lily down the social ladder -- the beginning of her tragic fall and ultimate end. If, at the beginning of the novel, Lily is a regular and esteemed guest within the highest circles of society, towards the end, she is completely and harshly displaced from that milieu, to which she was ambiguously attached, but without fully belonging to.

Lily Bart misses out several opportunities to make a so-called suitable marriage and, thus, to finally attain that stability that a certain social status confers. We could say that Lily does not have a real fatal flaw, however, she does seem to have a dangerous weakness: the inability to resist a certain kind of temptation, which is not by all means erotic, but material. This is quite clear in her attitude towards Rosedale and his marriage proposal, when she, seeing no other way of regaining her social status, goes as far as bringing herself to want to marry him, although she dislikes him.

Thus, it is quite a paradox how her unsteadiness of purpose, her contradictory attitude -- her urge toward and repugnance to -- makes her slide away from all the material opportunities that come her way. Talking about Lily's instability of her own pursuits, Mrs. Fisher remarks:

That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off an a picnic...Sometimes...I think it's just flightiness -- and sometimes I think it's because she despises the things she's trying for. " (Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, 197)

She regards her refusal to make the final compromise as a failure of an impulse. She passes up on Percy Gryce, a well-rooted millionaire, by putting him aside for the sake of a brief pleasure in the company Lawrence Selden, the one whom Lily seems to be most compatible with, but who cannot even be considered a "suitor," for he is not a wealthy man by the standards of their society. However, it is in her rendezvous with Selden that the voice of Lily's authentic self is heard in preference to the commands of social discipline.

Throughout the novel, we see Lily Bart fall from the highest social status to the lowest one, but we also witness a personal and emotional growth in her. We see Lily's contradictory aspirations seeking fulfillment in two contradictory worlds, that of the matter and that of the spirit. She inwardly rebels against her condition as a woman in the high society she herself aspires to, however, she allows herself to admit it only the presence of Selden, who she feels connected to. When she visits his apartment for the first time, in a moment of truthful lucidity, she admits with sympathetic regret what a miserable thing it is to be a woman, to be limited to marriage as your sole vocation in life, to have to live up to the social and moral standards imposed to you by society.

Eventually, her life indeed proves miserable, and the social pressures lead to Lily's complete destruction, and to her accidental death by taking too many sleeping pills, which greatly resembles a suicide.

The story of Emma Bovary seems at first glance to be very different. She lives in a quiet, provincial town in France, and she eventually marries a village doctor. She marries him willingly enough, in the same aspiration for marriage, any kind of marriage, just like in Lily's case. However, still like Lily she soon discovers that she does not fit in that world, and her discontent begins to grow. The actual point where the crisis begins is the ball at Vaubyessard, where she first meets with the world of luxury and romance that she desires. She then has two adulterous affairs, with Rodolphe and Leon, both of which disappoint her terribly. In the course of her affairs she overspends her husband's money, making so many debts that she has no way to repay. She commits suicide by taking an overdose of opium.

Already we can see that the social and economical backgrounds of the two heroines are very different: Emma Bovary lives in nineteenth century France, in a little, modest provincial town, while Lily Bart lives in the same century, but in New York, during what has been called "the gilded age," an age of opulence in America, which was the land of prosperity. The American scene was, nevertheless, one full of contrasts in this sense, and people ranged from the poorest to the richest:

During the "Gilded Age," every man was a potential Andrew Carnegie, and Americans who achieved wealth celebrated it as never before. In New York, the opera, the theatre, and lavish parties consumed the ruling class' leisure hours. Sherry's Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a dinner party to honor her dog who arrived sporting a $15,000 diamond collar. "

The "Gilded Age" was certainly an age of excess and contrasts, which differs widely from the dull provincial life in which Emma Bovary is immersed. Moreover, aristocracy in Europe was definitely older and more established than the American one, and not so glamorous in its display of riches.

Still, in spite of these differences in background, it is the very background that appears to link the stories of the two characters, as Wharton implies in The House of Mirth:

No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. But the luxury of others was not what she wanted. A few years ago it had sufficed her: she had taken her daily meed of pleasure without caring who provided it. Now she was beginning to chafe at the obligations it imposed, to feel herself a mere pensioner on the splendor which had once seemed to belong to her. There were even moments when she was conscious of having to pay her way." (Wharton, 25)

Thus, the background is, for both Emma and Lily, the high society that they both aspire to. But this is not the most… [END OF PREVIEW]

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