Term Paper: House of Mirth, by Edith

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[. . .] In the beginning, she thinks to herself, "No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty" (Wharton 27), yet as the novel progresses and she sinks lower and lower into poverty, she does little to help herself. She seems almost determined to drag herself down. "That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a dave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic'" (Wharton 185).

Even when she attempts a career, she fails miserably, and cannot hang on to it. Rather than sympathetic, Wharton makes Lily pathetic - but she also points to society as a factor in Lily's ultimate downfall. For example, these people, who some would call "friends," do not help Lily as she begins her descent into poverty, in fact, they look down their noses at her.

An occasional caustic allusion [...] showed Lily that she was in disfavour with that portion of society which, while contributing least to its amusement, has assumed the right to decide what forms that amusement shall take" (Wharton 128).

Lily spends some time feeling sorry for herself, regretting her mistakes, and convincing herself she is worthless. "I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else" (Wharton 300). In the end, she is no longer afraid of poverty, she is deathly afraid of not knowing herself, and she really does not. "It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper empoverishment -- of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance" (Wharton 310). Lily was raised to do nothing, in a society that looked as women as ornaments. Only the poorest women worked for a living. Real "ladies" would never know a day of work. Because of society, Lily is totally unprepared to take care of herself. How could she possibly succeed at poverty? Society has given her no tools. The only tools she has are her looks and her ability to snag a man. She is not even that bright, so she does not have many wits to use in her behalf. Lily is doomed by her own thinking, but she is also doomed at birth by a society that shuns women as anything but appendages on the arms of their successful husbands.

Gus Trenor is as responsible for Lily's death as she herself is. The epitome of the fast talker, he convinces her she can make a lot of money in the stock market, (read become a "success"). However, he is the only one who makes money, and he leaves her in poverty. Is Lily greedy, or a victim? Again, she is a victim of society. She admits she has no understanding of the stock market, and puts her faith in Trenor, clearly a mistake in judgment. Lily has no training or experience, and no one to guide her, and so she fails. Society has made sure she cannot win, but making sure she has no training and no understanding of anything but how to run a house and catch a man.

To read her [Wharton] is to destroy one's illusions, to learn much of the artificiality, the meannesses and weaknesses of life" (Underwood 368-369). This book is also a testament to the American businessman, who of course, knows exactly what he wants, and "gets as much as he can out of life," at the expense of course, of the working people who supply the labor to make him a success. Ultimately, Lily was the "working people," and the only person she made a success was Trenor.

Everything else, even Selden's love, came too late for her. She is a tragic figure, but the real tragedy lies in a society that allowed her story to happen at all.

Works Cited

http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=14448934"Underwood, John Curtis. Literature and Insurgency: Ten Studies in Racial Evolution: Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, David Graham Phillips, Stewart Edward White, Winston Churchill, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Robert W. Chambers. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1974.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Ed. Martha Banta. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. [END OF PREVIEW]

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