Thesis: House of Mirth

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House of Mirth: A social and character-Driven tragedy

The tragic end of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth has its roots in both the character of the central protagonist Lily Bart and also the society that creates her. Lily has been reared since birth to marry a wealthy man. Because she comes from a socially prominent family without financial resources she must marry a man for the sake of his position and fortune, not for love. However, romantic ideology suggests that a good lady marries for love and does not think of money. Torn between these two ideas, Lily rejects her wealthy suitors, and falls into poverty, drug addiction and eventually suicide. She has been taught to do nothing, other than act as an ornament. Lily is both a victim and also orchestrates her own destruction.

Lily's status as a victim is evident most obviously in the way she is treated by Bertha and George Dorset. As an unmarried, twenty-nine-year-old orphan she has a fragile place in society, so the Dorsets use her as a cover for their own infidelities. Eventually, Bertha, who is having an affair with Ned Silverton, blames Lily for propositioning George. People believe Bertha not because she is a trustworthy person, but because she has more power and influence than Lily. Society is unjust, Wharton implies, because people like Bertha can ruin peoples' reputations for their own selfish needs. The people who judge Lily harshly only care about clothing, gambling, and frivolous pleasures even though they feel they are superior to Lily and to the lower classes.

The fact that Lily has to marry at all is shown to be unjust: it makes her vulnerable, and a victim of others. Because she is a woman in a society that sees the ultimate female purpose in life to be marriage, she has not been taught to do anything. She knows nothing about managing money, which results in her collecting huge debts and becoming embarrassingly indebted to a married man, Gus Trenor, whom she thinks is investing on her behalf but is really giving her money, as if she is his 'kept' woman. Paying back this debt becomes one of Lily's most important motivations in the novel. At the end of the novel she even fails to make a living making hats -- compared to other lower-class women, her skills are poor. She cannot make beauty, she can only be beautiful, and the novel suggests that Lily is not really lovely: rather her appearance is a triumph of artifice:

Selden was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness: in the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair -- was it ever so slightly brightened by art? -- and the thick planting of her straight black lashes. Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape? (Wharton 6)

Once that artifice is stripped away, there is very little of Lily left. Lily is not aware of this, which is one of the reasons she rejects so many suitors, thinking that they are beneath her. She is eternally in the pursuit of romance and money, as the dominant ideology of the day says she should have both. She is also continually trying to escape what she calls a 'dingy' or crass, lower-middle class lifestyle, one of her mother's greatest horrors. But Lily's beauty only lies on surface -- Lily does not see this at first, but her class and beauty are products of society, and once they are stripped away, she has nothing, just as when the social veneers of others in society are stripped away, there is only ugliness. Eventually, she will become one of the "dull ugly people" who must make the type of finery she wears at the beginning of the book. Lily comes to understand that she has little in the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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