Lily's dilemma

Lily's dilemma

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Lily's dilemma opposing principles in The house of mirth
Lelekis, Debbie
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[Tampa, Fla.]
University of South Florida
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Subjects / Keywords:
Edith Wharton
American literature
the novel
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- Masters -- USF
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent) ( marcgt )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


ABSTRACT: The focus of this study is Lily Bart and how she maneuvers in the cold, competitive world of upper class New York. To create a framework for my investigation, I draw upon naturalistic readings of the story which portray Lily as an outsider or "other" in her society. Lily's ethical principles lead to her destruction. Her marriage problem is just an example of her rejection of the life that her society expects her to lead. As she becomes more aware of a different philosophy of life--characterized by Selden's "republic of the spirit"--she finds it impossible to abide by the rules and customs of her society. Ultimately she is unable to live in either world successfully. My research suggests that Lily's moral integrity prevents her from marrying only for money, but she is unable to see other choices available to her that will satisfy her need for luxury and wealth.In my study of Lily I examine the reasons why she could not reconcile the two opposing principles that lead to her downfall. My work analyzes Lily's inner struggles between her values and her ambition.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2004.
Includes bibliographical references.
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by Debbie Lelekis.

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Lily's dilemma
h [electronic resource] :
opposing principles in The house of mirth /
by Debbie Lelekis.
[Tampa, Fla.] :
University of South Florida,
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2004.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 34 pages.
ABSTRACT: The focus of this study is Lily Bart and how she maneuvers in the cold, competitive world of upper class New York. To create a framework for my investigation, I draw upon naturalistic readings of the story which portray Lily as an outsider or "other" in her society. Lily's ethical principles lead to her destruction. Her marriage problem is just an example of her rejection of the life that her society expects her to lead. As she becomes more aware of a different philosophy of life--characterized by Selden's "republic of the spirit"--she finds it impossible to abide by the rules and customs of her society. Ultimately she is unable to live in either world successfully. My research suggests that Lily's moral integrity prevents her from marrying only for money, but she is unable to see other choices available to her that will satisfy her need for luxury and wealth.In my study of Lily I examine the reasons why she could not reconcile the two opposing principles that lead to her downfall. My work analyzes Lily's inner struggles between her values and her ambition.
Adviser: Everton, Michael.
Edith Wharton.
American literature.
the novel.
Dissertations, Academic
x English
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856


LilyÂ’s Dilemma: Opposing Principles in The House of Mirth by Debbie Lelekis A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Michael Everton, Ph.D. Maryhelen Harmon, Ph.D. William E. Morris, Ph.D. Date of Approval: November 16, 2004 Keywords: Edith Wharton, American literature, the novel, naturalism, realism Copyright 2004, Debbie Lelekis


i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Naturalism and The House of Mirth 3 Lily as Victim 10 SocietyÂ’s Perception of Lily 18 Conclusion 24 Works Cited 30


ii Lily’s Dilemma: Opposing Principles in The House of Mirth Debbie Lelekis ABSTRACT The focus of this study is Lily Bart and how she maneuvers in the cold, competitive world of upper class New York. To create a framework for my investigation, I draw upon naturalistic readings of the story which por tray Lily as an outsider or “other” in her society. Lily’s ethical principl es lead to her destruction. Her marriage problem is just an example of her rejection of th e life that her society expects her to lead. As she becomes more aware of a different philosophy of life --characterized by Selden's “republic of the spirit”--she finds it impossible to abide by the rules and customs of her society. Ultimately she is unable to live in either wo rld successfully. My research suggests that Lily’s moral integrity prevents her from ma rrying only for money, but she is unable to see other choices available to he r that will satisfy her need for luxury and wealth. In my study of Lily I examine the reasons why she could not reconcile the two opposing principles that lead to her downfall. My work analyzes Lily’s inner struggles between her values and her ambition.


1Lily’s Dilemma: Opposing Principles in The House of Mirth “I have tried hard—but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole?” (296) Not enough significance has been placed on the role of naturalism in The House of Mirth (1905). Edith Wharton’s work was largely ignored in early studies of naturalism. The critic Donald Pi zer brought attention to the novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence (1920) in the past decade, but hi s work is often criticized for being too traditional. As this thesis argue s, understanding naturalism is essential to a critical analysis of Lily. From the beginning of the novel, Lily feel s conflicted about the role that her society has written for her. She wants to re bel against this position and seems to sabotage herself sometimes by doing things that are not approved of by her soci ety. Lily wants to live by the morality of Selden’s “republic of the spirit” which would allow her to have personal freedom and marry a man that she truly loves. During her meetings with Selden, she displays the inner tension sh e feels between who she should be (a high society wife) and who she could be (a “fr ee” woman like Gerty). When Lily is with Selden she catches glimpses of who she might have been if she was raised differently. However, Lily is morally conflicted becau se she loves luxury and wealth, but she despises the way she must achieve it th rough marriage to anyone with enough money.


2Her upbringing and training have taught her that she must work towards the goal of marrying a wealthy man and performing the so cial activities that are expected of a woman in her station in soci ety. My work identifies the central dilemma of the novel between LilyÂ’s morals and her goal, which directly oppose each other. In the first section of my thesis, I es tablish a definition of naturalism, which serves as basis for my reading of the nove l. Throughout the second and third sections, my main focus is on Lily Bart as a victim and product of her society. I analyze how LilyÂ’s upbringing and conditioning causes her to f eel that she could not make choices that go against her society. Her training was for the purpose of becoming a wife and after she is ostracized from her society she has no skill s to help her survive. As a product of her heredity and environment, she is useless for a ny other way of life, yet she is too fragile to survive in the harsh world of the upper class where people ar e driven by their lust for power and money.


3 Naturalism and The House of Mirth The world of wealth and opulence in The House of Mirth may seem far removed from the gritty, commonplace settings of most naturalistic novels, but below its gilded surface of high fashion and manners lies a da rk environment ruled by money, greed, and lust for power. Many readings of the novel ca st Lily Bart as a wo man who is controlled by the outside forces of society, while others argue that there is a compromised form of naturalism that undermines the idea that the forces are to tally inescapable.1 Despite the subtle differences among critics, the natura listic readings of th e novel point out the underlying forces that at least partially determine Lily’s fate in her upper-class society. What is naturalism? In Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1984), Donald Pizer describes naturali sm as the expression of the age's perception of the restricti ons created by a person’s “bio logical past” and “social present.”2 There is a “tension between actuality and hope” in naturalis tic novels; this is apparent in the story of Lily ’s conflict between her goal of wealth and her own morals.3 However, despite Pizer’s seemingly clear explanation, the study of naturalism is sufficiently problematic to require a common definition that will serve as the foundation for this reading. Traditionall y, naturalism is viewed as an extension of realism in the sense that both strive to present everyda y life truthfully and objectively. Pizer characterizes this traditional view of natura lism as “realism infused with a pessimistic determinism” (9). This traditional view of naturalism is limited, though. It simplifies


4and complicates the movement at the same time. By relating the two terms, certain components of naturalism become more acces sible, but as a whole, the comparison makes the definition too rigid. In general, naturalistic novels examine the controlling forces of heredity and environment and the functions that chance a nd freedom perform in a character’s attempt to endure in a modern, urba n, capitalistic setting. In Twisted from the Ordinary (2003), Mary Papke resists trying to define the term but instead explains what sets naturalism apart from other forms of literature.4 Naturalist texts break down boundaries and challenge the unquestioned values that humans base their lives on. This scrutiny of the controlling forces in society is essential to na turalism. Naturalistic novels delve into dark worlds that are often violen t and immoral and contain conf licts that make the reader uncomfortable. Two core tensions are found in this genre. One tension occurs between the poor, common characters and the heroic and passionate qualities they possess. Characters from the lowest levels of societ y experience powerful emotions. The other tension is in the theme, which involves the c onflict between the cont rolling deterministic forces of society and the optimistic hope of humankind. Pizer calls these contrasts a mixture of “controlling force” and “indi vidual worth” (28). Although it seems contradictory, the goal of these superficially pe ssimistic novels is actu ally to call on the romantic hope inherent in the reader that will not tolerate such a world of pain and indifference. As Papke asserts, naturalism summons the reader to reject the forces working against us and redefine the rules of the game.


5If a naturalistic charac ter is one who is “conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct or chance” (Pi zer 13), then Lily is certainly naturalistic; she is a poor, orphaned, single woman, who finds it difficult to succeed in a world ruled by wealth, family ties, and marriage. She is trained by her mother to use her beauty to get what she wants and she is taught that sh e needs wealth and marriage to have a happy life. This training is reinforced by her upper-class society, which values money and luxury and scorns anything di ngy or common. Lily feels en snared by the bonds of her society. Naturalistic characters are bound by absolute rules of conduct that dictate the way they must act, and this controlling fo rce destroys their ab ility to see beyond the social matrix of their world. The routines and customs that society imposes on them make it difficult for them to break free. To Lily the world appears to be a malevol ent force actively working against her. Due to her upbringing and condi tioning, she feels that she can not make choices that go against her society. In “The Naturalism of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ” (1995), Pizer describes Lily as someone who is “f ully aware of her condition as one bound by her social matrix” (242). Early in life, her father’s troubles with money cause “grey interludes of economy and brilliant reactions of expense” (27). These situations of economic extremes cause Lily to see both sides of the social spectrum. She finds that she cannot bear to be poor and dingy. Her posi tive view of the universe was radically changed when her family was financially ru ined shortly after he r “dazzling debut” at nineteen. She suffered again when her parent s died, leaving her an orphan at the mercy


6of her unsympathetic aunt. Despite her effo rts to please her aunt and the others around her, she finds herself unmarried at twenty-nine. Lily turns to people like Gerty and Nett ie for help as she starts her downward social spiral. Although these women are not fr om the upper-class circle that Lily usually associated with, they find success within their own spheres. Nettie, in particular, is problematic for some critics who find her situ ation contradictory to the naturalistic theme of the novel. This is partially why Pizer ar gues for a compromised form of naturalism in the novel.5 Although he admits that Lily’s fate is “shaped by the capitalistic exchange values of her society or by its patriarchal power structure” (242), he also sees another character in the story who is not a victim to these forces.6 Nettie Struther overcomes serious illness and betrayal. When Lily meet s her again near the end of the novel, Nettie is happily married and has a baby. Lily is ve ry aware of the difference between Nettie’s situation and hers. She unders tands that “It had taken two to build the nest; the man’s faith as well as the woman’s courage” (307) According to Pizer Nettie’s success at rebuilding her life is connected to her abi lity to find a man who was willing to link his fate with hers. In Nettie’s case, she is able to have a second chance through her marriage, but she still remains in her social class. She is not able to escape to a higher class, but she does maintain her position and she is able to ha ve a happy life with he r husband and child. Lily, on the other hand, is not only unable to maintain her place on the fringe of the upper class society, but she plummets to the bottom of the social ladder. Pizer argues that she lacks two things that gave Ne ttie the ability to su cceed in life (Pizer, “N aturalism” 244).


7Nettie possesses a strong will to overcome her hardships, but Lily does not. Most important to Pizer’s argument is the fact that Lily does not ha ve a man to help her remake her life the way she would like. However, Pi zer’s argument raises more issues than it resolves. The presumption that Lily might have a better chance of success if she linked her life to a man’s is another aspect of the social barriers that Lily faced. A different way of looking at Nettie’s e xperience is to view her as Wharton’s representation of an ideal that is not possible for Lily. Lily sees her as someone who has “reached the truth of existence” (307). As Wai-Chee Dimock points out in “Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ” (1994), it is never fully explained how Nettie is able to succeed. Finding a husband w ho was willing to trust her can be seen as just an act of good luck. Wharton does not cl osely examine Nettie’s ability to escape the snares and pitfalls of society th at others are not able to avoi d. Dimock suggests that this lack of depth is most likely due to the fact that Nettie is the personification of Wharton’s ideal rather than an actual representative of th e working class. In order to function as the romantic “redemptive figure” that Wharton want ed her to be she has to be separate from the social realm (Dimock 389). Wharton portrays her as a character with the determination and endurance to transcend the established cont rolling social forces, but she does not explain the secret to Nettie’s vi ctory. Ultimately, the ideal of Nettie is eroded when she conveys her dream that her daughter will be like Lily when she grows up. Rather than reading Nettie’s experience as a triumph over the forces that crushed other characters like Lily, it is more likely that Nettie is Wharton’s attempt to provide a positive alternative to the upperclass society she was criticizing.


8The inclusion of scenes that do not neatly fit the traditional view of naturalism does not weaken the reader’s unde rstanding of Lily as a naturali stic character. The form of naturalism that Wharton employs allows fo r distinction in the re sponses and reactions of characters who come from different soci al classes. Pizer compares Wharton to Theodore Dreiser in their shared interest of showing the “pow erful effect of environment and heredity on various specific kinds of temperament and experience” (245) Rather than presenting all human beings suffering from the social forces in the same ways, both writers make distinctions about the way that pe ople from different cl asses are affected. At some levels of society, the social forces s eem more easy to escape, and as Pizer points out, people like Nettie “not only survive but ev en triumph” (245). However, at the top of the social classes, women like Lily must battle against more complex forces over which they have little or no control. They beco me victims who are imprisoned and eventually destroyed by their environment. By showi ng that some characters like Lily are victims but others, such as Nettie can escape, Wh arton adds a different dimension to the naturalistic principle of social and environmental conditioning.7 Another “alternative form of belief and value” that Pizer examines is the final scene in the book between Selden and the dead Lily; that fi nal connection between them is viewed as a “transcendent faith, [which] holds that some values exist despite their seeming defeat in life” (Pizer, “Naturalism” 243). As Lily drifts off to sleep under the influence of the chloral, she th inks about Selden and feels th at there is some word that she must say to him that will “make life cl ear between them” (310). The overdose of chloral represents her powerlessness to preva il over a fate that was already determined by


9social forces. Lily’s thoughts of love fo r Selden signify a “transcendent” faith in humanity and a belief in values that ar e “unachievable by some or even all of humankind” (Pizer, “Naturalism” 245). When Selden visits her deathbed he recognizes that love did exist between them despite th e fact that the “conditions of life” were working against them; as he kneels beside he r a word passes between them that makes it all clear. Although it was never uttered in real life, the “word” of love passes between them. This moment is a transcendence of human love over death a nd the social forces that destroyed Lily. This reading supports a m odified form of naturalism that requires the reader to “have faith in a truth despite it s lack of concrete su pporting evidence and its frequent denial or defeat by life it self” (Pizer, “Naturalism” 246). The examples of Nettie’s escape and Selden and Lily’s transcendent love do not negate the basic principles of naturalism. Wharton still shows her characters as being socially conditioned. However, Wharton’s use of naturalism is slightly different from that of her contemporaries. Wharton’s portray al of Lily illustrates the tensions that a typical naturalistic character faces due to her circumstances. Lily is clearly a naturalistic character who is conditioned and trapped by th e environment of wea lth and by the end of the novel it seems that the only way she is able to truly es cape is through death.


10 Lily as Victim Lily is not equipped with the necessary ski lls to survive in he r environment. She regularly becomes the victim and everything she does seems to turn against her, especially when she tries to work within the “rules” of her society. The social system is so defective that no woman can survive it unharmed unless she has her own economic power (Wagner-Martin 50). Every woman is vi ctimized by the controlling forces of the society. Lily is powerless in her society becau se she is constantly required to react rather than act.8 She is always on the defensive and mu st guard her reputa tion. Linda WagnerMartin identifies Lily as the outsider or “maverick loner” who will be destroyed by the social constructs she rejects. She tries to be the maverick and act for herself, but she frequently submits to the standards and prin ciples of her society. Within her social structure, her function is to respond to the codes and customs that form and support the recognized power base. The real story that supersedes the marri age subtext is Lily’s rejection of the traditional female role that the women around her perform.9 She is an “unconventional” woman who takes a risk whenever she attempts to act for herself. The other women in the novel do not recognize or ca re that they are being contro lled by social forces. Lily has no female advisors to turn to so she confides in Selden. As a male he is part of the “mainstream ideology” that does not pertain to marginal characters like Lily (Wagner-


11Martin 54). Selden talks to Lily about a fr eedom that she cannot have individually. As Selden’s wife she could have experienced his “republic of the spirit” but on her own she is not capable of such independence. The fi rst scene in Selden’s apartment establishes her powerlessness. He shapes Lily’s story a nd by doing so he takes away her authority. When Lily is with Selden she feels like she is able to “escape from routine” and it feels “natural” to her because it makes her happy but later she must cover it up when she is spotted by Rosedale (14). By having tea in Selden’s apartment, she drifts from her routine of a marriageable lady and she has to “p ay so dearly” for this escape (14). The truth is she cannot escape from the restrict ions of her society, and keeping up this appearance and playing the game is getting old to Lily. She feels trapped and sees that there is no real way out. As Wagner-Marti n suggests, Lily is unlike the typical protagonist and it is her failure in the “s ocial game” that actually makes her heroic.10 She lacks the financial stability to compete and she is too moral to prosper in the social role assigned to her. Many readers assume that Lily is a “free agent” who has the power to make her own decisions, but Wharton shows time after ti me that Lily is essentially powerless in her society (Wagner-Martin 52). The only feeble po wer she wields is due to her beauty and this can only get her so far. Lily’s stat us of limited freedom makes her a “marginal” character who is restricted in her choices and actions.11 Lily has a “double consciousness”12 that permits her to be aware of th e main culture even though she is a marginal character. Living in two worlds requi res the marginal character to find balance. For example, Lily recognizes that Selden is capable of goi ng against conven tional society


12and living out his “republic of the spirit” but she knows that she lack s the financial power and freedom to do so (Wagner-Martin 53). In or der for a marginal character, especially a woman, to reach this independence she will need support. Lily’s real problem is her status as an unconventional woman—an “other”. She wants more than the superficia l things that wealth allows She loves the luxury that wealth brings but she wants to live life by he r own standards. This was not a possibility for a marginal character—a woma n with no voice or power. At the turn of the nineteenth century, a woman like Lily was seen as “unf eminine, inappropriate, and unseemly” and her death was inevitable if she didn’t play by society’s rules (Wagner-Martin 57). Regardless of what she did, L ily’s end would have been disappointing because of her marginal status in society. She saw hersel f as a “useless” person with no “independent existence”; she tells Selden that she is lik e a cog in the machine of life and when she dropped out she is of no use (296). Lily tr ies but is ultimately unsuccessful as an independent woman. When she tries to use the social game to her advantage, she fails and her scheme backfires on her. At the beginning of the novel, Lily relentlessly tries to fit in with her friends and keep up with the demands of he r upper-class society. Sh e is encouraged by her friends to gamble at parties. She must ob lige in order to remain in the favor of those who help and support her with “dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenish her insufficient wardrobe” (25). As luck would have it, Lily loses a considerable sum of money during the games at Bellomont. She thin ks about how unfair it is that she should lose money when women like Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor win but do not need the


13money. She admits that she has “never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave he r out of its calculati ons” (26). When Lily tries to use Mr. Trenor to regain some of her losses through investments, the scheme explodes on her. Lily underestimates Trenor and the price she wi ll be forced to pay for his help. Naively she thinks that “to a clever gi rl, it would be easy to hold hi m by his vanity, and so keep the obligation on his side” ( 81). Her innocence and lack of knowledge about men and money make her unaware of her dangerous pos ition. She becomes a victim of Trenor’s lewd plans. Lily’s understanding of the system of exch ange used in her society is different than Trenor’s concept. She enters the financial arrangement with Trenor with the idea that she will be expected to repay the money that he invested for her. Dimock identifies Trenor’s demand for sex as a means of exch ange; Trenor uses the “language of the marketplace” to assert his be lief that certain payments are owed to him for the investments he made on Lily’s behalf (Dimoc k 375). Lily’s comprehension of expected forms of payment differs from Trenor’s. While men like Trenor and Simon Rosedale participate within this system of marketpl ace exchange, Lily functions as “merchandise” that is marketed in order to attract the highest buyer.13 She is a victim of this system of exchange but she also attempts to subvert it at times. For example, she successfully markets herself to Percy Gryce at the begi nning of the novel, but purposely sabotages her victory. In the social marketplace, money is not necessarily the only form of exchange. An invitation to a dinner party or trip on a yacht are often wo rth more. Dimock calls this


14the “commodification of social intercour se” which essentially “reduc[es] human experience to abstract equiva lents for exchange” (376-377).14 Although the power in the story most often belongs to the men, women like Bertha Dorset also control the system of exchange at times, as on the yacht. When Lily is torn between accepting Rosedale’s marriage proposal and the invitation to cruise with the Dorsets she unwisely chooses to flee from her problems and leave the countr y. Lily must pay a steep price for her passage. She falls back into her old habits of trying to fit in with her group of high society friends and agrees to keep Mr. Dorset busy while his wife ha s an affair with Ned Silverton. Lily’s experience on the yacht signifies th e breaking point in the tension between who she thinks she wants to be as a rich, upper-class wife and who she thinks she could have been with Selden. When Selden runs into her in Monte Carlo, he observes a difference in her and notes that “she was on th e edge of something . he seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her” ( 183). Lily thinks that by ignoring her problems and changing her location they will all go away. She views the trip as “not merely a postponement, but a solution of her troubles. Moral complications existed for her only in the environment that had produced them…[T]hey lost thei r reality when they changed their background” (186). In realit y, Lily’s problems follow her wherever she goes. By changing locations she just delays her inevitable downfall. Her attempt to run away from her troubles rebounds on her when the Dorset affair scandal is turned against her. The ultimate price Lily must pay is he r reputation. She become s a victim of Bertha


15Dorset’s manipulations and is kicked off the sh ip, and to a larger extent, ostracized from their society as a whole. As Dimock suggests, the people who really benefit from this system of exchange are those who break the rules. Although Lily wants to rebel against the system, she plays by the rules and pays her debts. People like Bertha Dorset get what they want without paying for anything at all. Ironically, by sett ling her debt to Trenor with the money she obtains from her aunt, Lily revolts against the system through her conformity to it. Trenor did not anticipate that she would re pay him with money. By paying him back the precise monetary amount, Lily defies the power of the system of exchange (Dimock 383). Although Lily’s choice to only use mone y as a currency for exchange is consistent with her moral prin ciples, her act of re bellion does not gain her any rewards in the social system. In her world those who succeed know how to work the system in order to take more than they offer in return (D imock 385). She refuses to do business with Rosedale because she knows that she will have no money left after paying her debt to Trenor. She also rejects Rose dale’s suggestion to use reveng e as a currency of exchange with Bertha. Lily chooses not to use the le tters to make Bertha pay because Selden’s reputation would have to be part of the deal When she burns the letters, Lily makes a silent protest against the ethics of exchange (Dimock 386). Lily’s acts of defiance are not a threat to the system t hough; she remains the only one who truly “pays” and sadly Selden does not even value her sacrifice. Li ly’s morality is no match for the exchange system that turns everything into a commodity.


16 As Selden observes early in the novel, L ily “was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced he r, that the links of her br acelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (6). From an early age she was taught that she must follow the rules of society, which dictate that she must always be well dressed, attend parties, participate in the activities of her group, travel, and above all else marry. Her mother instilled the belief in her th at she had no other choices. She was not encouraged to develop any other skills in lif e other than being a beautiful object. However, she slowly begins to question her role as a passive victim of society. Wharton us es the event of Jack Stepney’s wedding to make an important realizat ion clear to Lily. First, it is apparent that Percy Gryce is no longer a possibility in her marriage pl an since it is announced that he is engaged to another woman. Next, Gus Trenor makes her financial relationship with him known to all through his l oud discussion of her investment s. Finally, Trenor pushes her to socialize with Rosedale and she makes a scene when she slights him. These situations make Lily realize the loss of he r marital possibilities (W agner-Martin 26). She is no longer confident that her plan of being married within the year is possible. Lily is nave about her concept of the marriageable woman. She participates in the tableaux vivants at the Brys’s party thinking only of the romantic aspect of her display of beauty. She fails to see herself as a sexual commodity that men will willingly purchase rather than marry. The negative impact her error in judgement has on her reputation is not clear to Lily. The men in the story control the perception of her reputation. The reader knows that Lily is hone st, but her society’s vi ew of her is colored by Trenor’s boastings about the investment s, Rosedale’s accusations of lying, and


17Percy’s exposure of her gambling (Wagner-Mar tin 28). As Wagner-Martin suggests, the connection between economics and Lily’s powerlessness is even echoed in her last name—Bart (29). Lily’s life is controlled by the powerful men in her society, and to a larger extent, by the system of exchange.


18 Society’s Perception of Lily Appearances and beauty play a significan t role in the novel. As Ruth Bernard Yeazell suggests in “The Conspicuous Wasting of Lily Bart,” everyone in the novel is a “looker-on” and appearances count the most (36). At all le vels of society, people are watching Lily. The most significant of these observers is Lawrence Selden. As the novel opens, he studies Lily at the train station. Selden not es that she draws attention even in a crowd. Wai-Chee Dimock identifies Selden as a spect ator of life; he is business-minded in his attraction to Lily. He sees value in Lily as a collectible object.15 Unfortunately, Selden does not have the money to invest to marry Lily so he remains a spectator. However, Selden does not invest in Lily just because he thinks he has nothing to offer. He is more worried about what he has to lose. During th eir discussion at Bellomont, Lily asks him if he wants to marry her. He laughs and repl ies, “No, I don’t want to—but perhaps I should if you did!” (69). This is an example of how Selden only wishes to love Lily if he is certain that she will love him back. In the language of exchange, he will not take a risk with his emotions. As Dimock points out, Se lden calculates his love like a balance sheet with expenditures and projected returns (381). Ultimately, Lily is not a reliable enough investment; he lacks confidence in he r after her dealings with Trenor. Selden remains a spectator through much of the novel, but at the end he decides to try to invest in Lily. He is too late, but he feels no sense of responsibility for Lily’s


19demise. He only has the feeling of a lost oppor tunity for the speculato r in him. Selden’s “republic of the spirit” is nothing more th an a copy of the social marketplace. His republic does not allow him or Lily to have pe rsonal freedom. If he had lived his life according to the concept that he described to Lily at Bellomont, Selden would have asked Lily to marry him. Instead, he can be seen as a “negative hero” who participates in the social system of exchange that destroys L ily (Dimock 382). He is stingy and unwilling to move forward in his relationshi p with Lily because he does not want to risk the cost of failure. Selden is like the other nonpayers, Mrs. Peniston and Bertha Do rset, who want to take without giving anything in return. Se lden doesn’t challenge the rules of the marketplace like Lily does. He is not willing to pay for wh at he wants. Lily does not give in and marry someone rich, and she pays the consequences of her actions. Selden is not willing to invest in Lily and risk paying the consequen ces if it does not turn out the way he wants. The nonpayers are the powerful ones who establish the rate of exchange. Bertha Dorset escapes paying by forcing others to pay the price instead. Mrs. Peniston doesn’t feel obligated to help Lily beyond the minimal financial support of room and board and infrequent money for clothing. Selden refuses to invest in Lily at all because the deal is too risky. Even people who are not part of her soci al circle shape the way that Lily is portrayed. Women like Nettie Struther and th e girls who work at Mme. Regina’s follow Lily’s life when she is part of the rich and famous class. They read about her in the papers and marvel over the descriptions of her beautiful dresses. However, once she


20becomes a worker like them she is no longer fasc inating. Lily learns that they are “awed only by success” and now that she is a fallen st ar they have little interest in her (275). Blanche Gelfant discusses how a woman character can be both a consumer and consumed in a naturalistic novel.16 Lily is driven by her desire for the satisfaction of her needs and this is a determining force in the novel. Determinism portrays humans as animals who are subject to inescapable drives that are experienced as desire (Gelfant 179). This longing is a strong force in the nove l and Lily is controlled by her need for wealth and luxury. She is also an object of desire, a “socially constructed artifact.”17 In the tableaux vivants scene she is literally a representation of art through her portrayal of the character in the painting. Yeazell calls this Lily’s “most triumphant performance” because she displays her “superior refinement ” and presents a portra it of her true self through the character that she depicts (27-28). There is a tension between the binary of individualism versus determinism and the interaction of gender in the treatment of Lily’s beauty.18 This tension is a component of the naturalistic forces at work in the novel. Many of the men are charmed by her “cuteness,” which Charles Harmon identifies as a “normalized yet resentment-laden quality of ‘powerful he lplessness.’” In the tableaux vivants scene, Lily’s performance is similar to Carrie’s experience as an actress in Sister Carrie Through their performances, both women create an inversion of gender roles. The powerful men who watch them briefly leave behind the “anxie ties associated with freewheeling capitalistic endeavor” and take on emotions that are normally c onnected to powerless women (Harmon 132). The reversal of gender roles caused by Lily’s performance explains why some of the men


21were impressed with Lily’s portrayal of th e painting and others were not. Those who were not pleased with her did not appreciat e the power that her performance took away from them. Harmon argues that men of Lily’s time granted power to women in “gestures of masochistic wallowing whose very extr avagance saved them fr om having a lasting effect upon the everyday practices of gender relations” (133). Lily’s display of power was fleeting a nd it garnered her much criticism from some of the powerful men in her society. Her beauty has a quality of “cuteness” that is attractive to the men. Daniel Harris asserts that labeling so meone as cute is an “act of sadism” because the admirer unconsciously tr ies to “maim, humble, and embarrass the thing he seeks to idolize” (Harmon 133). The powerful men (and women) in Lily’s society are brutal and cruel to her. They admire her beauty but they want to control her and force her to fit into the role that so ciety demands of her as a married woman. This concept of cuteness al so deals with the desire fo r power of the woman who is labeled. Like the actress in Sister Carrie Lily is able to portray the character in the painting during the tableaux vivants but also retain a sense of her own identity. As Selden, Gerty, and the other guests observe, Lily’s choice of character was “so like her own that she could embody the person represen ted without ceasing to be herself” (129). They are able to see the “real” Lily for a moment. Amy Blair argues that Lily not only imitates the painting, but also takes it over thr ough her ability to make the character so similar to herself.19 Through her display of beauty, Lily mani pulates the audience and temporarily seizes power. At that moment she is both free and determined. Through the inversion of


22gender roles that is created by her performance, her audience also sees themselves as both powerful and powerless. Even though some of the guests are impressed with what they see (some men comment on Lily’s “outline” which they had never noticed before in her usual dress), Trenor is angry at the attention she receives af ter her performance. Also, Jack Stepney criticizes her performance as “a girl standing there as if she was up at auction” and remarks that gossip was written about her in Town Talk (151). Clearly, the powerful men in her social circle do not like the uncomfortable feeling of Lily’s power.20 There is no tolerance in their society for th e “young woman who clai ms the privileges of marriage without assuming its obligations” (152). Lily suffers again from the scrutinizing glare of her upper class society in Monte Carlo. Much like the tableaux scenes in New York, the Monte Carlo setting has an aspect of performance. However, the outcome of this performance proves to be much more damaging. Through Bertha Dorset’s manipul ations Lily appears to be the star of a scandal. Bertha makes Lily look lik e the villain in front of everyone. Lily tries to create a prominent, satis fying place for herself in society through commodification.21 She vacillates between fee lings of “consumerist elation”22 and a desire to break free from the restraints of he r society. Sometimes Lily is interested in being a part of the “hierarchi es of wealth and prestige,” bu t she also wants to be an individual who cannot totally be defined by her place in any “naturalized social ranking.”23 The latter sounds close to Selden’s “re public of the spirit.” Selden desires to live his life with a “personal freedom …from everything—fro m money, from poverty,


23from ease and anxiety, from all material accident s” (64). This is what Lily really wants too, but her gender prevents her from bei ng successful in this pursuit. At the end of the novel, Lily is reduced to nothing. She has no job, no money, no fine clothing, and she has no real allies anymore. She has no exchange value, and this is a treacherous position in a market economy. E ssentially, Lily loses th e essence of herself when she no longer has her money or good reputation. In the social economy, consumption has a negative connotation; it im plies wasting or using up something until there is nothing left (Gelfant 183). Cap italism and the culture of consumption are entangled, as Lily believes that acquiring weal th will allow her to be the person that she wants to be. This desire is culturally conditioned and it turns L ily into a consuming woman who “generates a vortex of forces that flow inexorably toward consumption and death” (Gelfant 192). As a result of society’s perception and de termination of Lily, she is both socially banished and financially cut off. The memb ers of her society are constantly observing and making their own conclusions about her. Regardless of the innocence she displays, Lily is judged and cast out.


24 Conclusion This analysis has focused on the naturalistic forces that play a role in Lily’s inner battle between her values and her ambition. Throughout the novel, Lily struggles to maneuver within the spheres created by the cu lture of the upper class, which fuse the “interior” feminine world with the “commerc ial” masculine world (Anesko 89). Lily is conflicted because her ideal of personal fr eedom does not coincide with her goal of wealth. Her morals do not allow her to obtain her goal by marrying anyone who is wealthy. In the clash between her morals a nd her goal, Lily ofte n gets caught between the two spheres of her society. Amy Kaplan ar gues that “the novel maps a social terrain where these realms become increasingly interc onnected not only th rough the relations of work and marriage but through the mediation of spectatorship” (89). The observers in the novel, such as Selden, Bertha Dorset, Mrs. Peniston, and many of the powerful men in the society, exert force on the object of thei r gaze; Lily must make herself the desirable center of attention and gain the approval and support of her society in order to survive (Anesko 89). Ultimately, Lily is not capable of living in either world successfully.


25 Notes 1 Larry Rubin surveys a variety of criti cism on the naturalistic readings of The House of Mirth in “Aspects of Naturalism in Four Novels by Edith Wharton” (1957). He presents opposing sides from Blake Nevius who sees Lily as a product and victim of her heredity and environment and Elizabeth Monroe and Robert Morse Lovett who view Lily as partially to blame for her downfall because of her mistakes in judgment and moral attitude. Rubin concludes that Lily is molded by the determining forces of heredity and environment and ultimately crushed by her amoral and indifferent society. 2 In Realism and Naturalism in Nineteen th-Century Amer ican Literature Donald Pizer discusses the basic tendencies of nineteenth-century American literature which combined the ideas of freedom and the emergence of a new awareness about the limitations that social and hereditary forces inflict on humans. 3 Pizer juxtaposes these two forces of what he calls outer and inner realities: determinism (“impersonal evolutionary law”) on one side and faith or hope on the other side. He clarifies, however, that these two views ar e not simply pitted against each other, but “complement,” or balance each other to form a type of literature that is “awkwardly complex rather than comfortably obvious” (xiii). 4 Mary Papke’s Twisted from the Ordinary presents the current trends in the study of naturalism. She includes essays that propose new interpretations of naturalistic texts, ranging from the intersection of sentimentalis m and naturalism, to readings that employ


26 the lens of economic, gender, and class theor y, to the clash between art and consumption. Additionally, she offers a look at contempor ary works that cont ain the thread of naturalism through investigati ons like Donald Pizer’s es say “Is American Literary Naturalism Dead? A Furt her Inquiry” (2002). 5 In “The Naturalism of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ” Donald Pizer argues that there is a distinction between the form of naturalism practiced by Wharton and her contemporaries such as Norris, Crane, and Drei ser. He acknowledges Lily is often seen as a product of her heredity and environment. The main goal of the article, however, is to reconcile the naturalistic view of Lily as a victim of her so ciety and two examples in the novel that Pizer sees as undermining the idea that the forces are totally inescapable. He challenges the argument that naturalism is chiefly about social determinism. 6 In Pizer’s reading of the novel, Wharton juxtaposes the deterministic th eme with two alternative forms of belief and value. The fi rst alternative situation presents the concept of human will and strength that allows a char acter like Nettie to escape the same social forces that Lily is unable to control. Pizer contrasts the two women to assert that Nettie’s powerful will and her ability to find a man that was willing to take a chance with her gave her an advantage over Lily and allowed her to rebuild her life (Pizer, “Naturalism” 24344). 7 Pizer acknowledges the similarities between Wharton’s form of naturalism and that of her contemporaries through her use of social determinism, but he stresses the differences by pointing out instances in the novel that co mplicate and redefine the naturalistic mode (Pizer, “Naturalism” 244-45).


27 8 When Gerty asks Lily to tell her stor y she gives a “non-story,” according to WagnerMartin. Lily was not an actor in charge of living the action of her narrative. Because she lacks power, she can only respond or react to the codes set up by those who have the power (22-23). 9 Lily is sometimes compared to Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). Both women desire to live their lives according to their own terms and rules (Wagner-Martin 54). 10 In what Wagner-Martin calls “traditional nove ls” the protagonist is usually brave and capable of making their own decisions. Lily wavers between her desire to break free from the social games of her high society friends and her need to marry a rich man to gain wealth and luxury. Lily doesn’t always do what the read er expects her to do. She is more complex than the other beautiful elite women in her social circle. 11 Ellen Moers’s Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976) is cited by Wagner-Martin for this concept of characters of secondary status. She de scribes these characters as having restrictions on “trave l, education, marriage choi ces, and adulthood.” (WagnerMartin 53). 12 This term describing Lily’s state of mind comes from Rachel DuPlessis’s Writing Beyond the Ending (1985). 13 Lily is aware of her relation to the market place to a certain extent. In her conquest of Percy Bryce she talks of his “purchase” of he r and compares herself to his collection of Americana, both of which he would be proud to spend money on. Lily’s mother also saw


28 her in terms of economics. She tries to enc ourage her daughter to us e the “asset” of her beauty to marry into wealth. 14 Dimock applies this term not only to women, as it is commonly used in gender studies, but to all social dealings which are turned into or treated as an article of trade or commerce (376-377). 15 Dimock asserts that Selden is a “speculato r” who plays two sides: the spectator and the investor. He entertains hims elf while he “looks on” at Lil y. He becomes the investor when he is sure he has something to gain. As an investor he wants to obtain Lily as his wife, his beautiful object (379-80). 16 Although Blanche Gelfant’s “What More Ca n Carrie Want? Naturalistic Ways of Consuming Women” (1995) focuses on Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), the concepts apply to Lily, who also func tions as a naturalistic character. 17 Gelfant uses this term to describe obj ects that consist of “impossible dreams of happiness” (179). This applies to Lily si nce she is desired by many men; by marrying she would achieve the wealth she want s but she would not be free and happy. 18 In “Cuteness and Capitalism in Sister Carrie ” (2000), Charles Harmon introduces this idea as a “critical crux” with in the gender system of Sister Carrie (126). 19 In “Misreading The House of Mirth ” (2004), Amy Blair points out that in the tableaux vivants scene there is an “endless regression of interpenetrating images: Lily as Mrs. Lloyd, Mrs. Lloyd as dryad, Lily as so cialite, Lily as herself” (157). 20 This outcome is contrary to the reaction that Harmon desc ribes as a result of Carrie’s performance. In her case, the inversion of gender roles allowed the male-dominated


29 capitalist society to reflect through art on the contradictions of their social system (Harmon 136). However, I do not think th e majority of the audience at Lily’s performance was willing to give up any sense of power to her. As a result, many of them were very critical of her display. 21 Kaplan describes Carrie in this way; in the world of commodities Carrie struggles to make a place for herself that is “bot h prestigious and pleasurable” (145). 22 This term is borrowed from Harmon who uses it to describe Carrie’s mood (130). 23 Harmon employs these terms to discuss Hurstwood’s customers in Sister Carrie who, like Lily, are concerned with thei r own worth and identity (131).


30 Works Cited Anesko, Michael. “Recent Critical Approaches.” The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London Ed. Donald Pizer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 77-94. Blair, Amy L. “Misreading The House of Mirth .” American Literature 76 (Mar. 2004): 149-175. Dimock, Wai-Chee. “Debasi ng Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth .” Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth: Complete Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical Histor y, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives Ed. Shari Benstock. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994. 375-90. DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narra tive Strategies of TwentiethCentury Women Writers Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. Gelfant, Blanche H. “What More Can Carri e Want? Naturalistic Ways of Consuming Women.” The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London Ed. Donald Pizer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 178210. Harmon, Charles. “Cuteness and Capitalism in Sister Carrie .” American Literary Realism 32 (Winter 2000): 125-139.


31Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers Garden City: Doubleday, 1976. Papke, Mary, ed. Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2003. Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984. ---. “The Naturalism of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth .” Twentieth Century Literature 41 (1995): 241-248. Rubin, Larry. “Aspects of Naturalism in Four Novels by Edith Wharton.” Twentieth Century Literature 2 (1957): 182-92. Wagner-Martin, Linda. The House of Mirth: A Novel of Admonition Boston: Twayne, 1990. Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth 1905. New York: Bantam, 1984. Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “The Conspicuous Wasting of Lily Bart.” New Essays on The House of Mirth Ed. Deborah Esch. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 15-41.


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