House of Mirth Essay

Edith Wharton in her introduction to House Of Mirth, reprinted in 1936, writes; ” It seems like going back to the Pharaohs to try to re-enter the New York world in which House Of Mirth originated” (iv). Wharton adds that the New York of the 1890s’ was a “hot house of traditions and conventions…these traditions and conventions were unassailed and tacitly regarded as unassailable” (vi). Wharton was raised in New York and the social values of the society that are depicted in House of Mirth are authentic values of the affluent New Yorker that she socialized with.

Stephen Crane author of The Red Badge of Courage was also from a well-to do background (he was the son of Methodist minister in well-heeled Asbury Park, New Jersey) and if Wharton drew her materials directly from the life she observed first hand, Crane wrote with the perspective of an outsider. The Red Badge of Courage has been referred to as the first American War Novel, set in the Civil War, and Crane had no first hand experience of that war. (Fine 50).

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House of Mirth is then a study of a society wherein Whartons’ central characters belong to an elite society with firm rules of behavior and conduct. Paying close attention to these rules and rituals, Edith Wharton was able to create convincing societies in her novels and stories that were as scathing as they were accurate. Addressing issues of gender, Whartons’ feminine protagonist Lily Bart demonstrates what a waste it is for a woman to have no personal sense of self-worth and no personal goals outside of those attainable through men. “She was so evidently the victim of the civilisation which had produced that, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (8).

Wharton also introduces early into the novel the social notion that women without financial independence but bred to marry well were victims to the duty of matrimonial unions based on concepts of expediency. Lily Bart needed money and rich but dreary Percy Gryce represents an opportunity. Lily must use arts and charm so that “he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.” (27) Lily is a striking demonstration of the valuelessness that women of her class felt when their only form of empowerment was through matrimony. Lily ultimately is socially and economically punished for her inability to marry, although she is frantically trying to legitimise herself in a patriarchal society. (Aguiar 73)

Whilst House of Mirth is preoccupied with the roles the upper social class of New York, and Lily is as stereotypical that class, there are representations of lower classes in Gerty, a social worker. Her character displays good attributes of kindness and generosity, nevertheless her life choices are daubed as drab and austere. Gerty runs a “working girls club” that helps working class girls with their inevitable struggle against the oppression of poverty as wages slaves. There is no authentic middle ground in this novel, no middle class, reflecting perhaps, that in the 1890’s the middle class was still rising and had not impinged on general consciousness.

Strengthening the contrast between class and gender is Lily’s lack of interest or comprehension of any broader significance in the world about her. Lily is aware that menial work is a necessity for some women, but sees only a meanness and ugliness wherein people are trapped within that milieu. Nevertheless, Gerty’s club becomes an ironic motif as towards the end of Lily’s struggle, she briefly learns trade in a millinery workshop and states, “I have joined the working class” (289). Lily has abandoned her trade of marriage and quite literally extended her economic struggle to become a servant of the class she would have married into.

The business of marriage is primarily examined from a feminine perspective although Wharton tactility addresses the values of marriage from a masculine perspective in Lilys’ memories of her parents’ marriage. Her father is reduced to “effaced and silent…. sometimes his daughter heard him denounced for having neglected to forward Mrs Barts’ remittances: but for the most part he was never mentioned or thought of” (32).

When Lilys’ father dies and plunges her and her mother into poverty it is only marriage that can rescue Lily. Whilst there was, no other occupation that Lily considered or thought of training for, the emphasis revolves around marriages of mutual necessity rather than mutual respect. Whilst the sarcasm of the text thrusts sympathy onto the desperate Lily, there is also this, quiet whisper of the male gender. There are economic manacles that bind just as closely for men in marriage. Lily’s father dies because he is “ruined” and his function or usefulness is therefore at an end.

There is another male voice that raises doubt about marriage and that is expressed by Seldon. He in a conversation with Lily explains his idea of personal success: “Freedom. From everything – from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit – that’s what I call success” (73). Seldon articulates the voice of doubt that has been touching Lily’s thoughts. However, Lily is reduced to the unromantic opportunist and Seldon to her potential, intellectual and moral saviour. Lily expresses it thus:

“some women are strong enough to be good by themselves

but I needed the help of your belief in me….I can hardly be

said to have had an independent existence. I was just a screw

or cog in the great machine called life and when I dropped

out of it I found I was no use to anyone” (p336)

Then again, returning to the plot and in keeping with conventional ideas of femininity, tales of Lily’s indebtedness, gambling (games of Bridge) and predilection for cigarettes frighten off her marriage prospect, Percy. Lily is facing penury and her response to this, when all seems lost with Percy, is to ingratiate herself with her friend Judy’s’ husband Gus Trenor, and “make him feel that her appeal had been an uncalculated impulse, provoked by the liking he inspired” (92).

This is part of the irony of the gender battle that Wharton wages so interestingly. The manipulation is hinted at with conventions motifs of feminine fragility, i.e. incompetence in budgeting, and male motifs of power and control, i.e. stock broking. Wharton believes that money is power, rather than perhaps, that power is money. It is a traditional analysis of the 1890’s society of House of Mirth that men had money and all the power, and that they could not be victims of expectations and social connivance. Yet there is not so and the challenge to the demands of matrimonial expectation are raised by Rosedale, a Jew.

There is concurrent theme of anti-Semitism in House of Mirth and this is personified in Rosedale a “Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times” (18) who nevertheless “at a time when most people’s investments are shrinking….was said to have doubled his income” (131). Stereotypical motifs of Jews as moneygrubbers are trotted out, where successful assimilation of races is signalled by their inter-marriage to Anglo-Saxon beauties.

Yet old word Judaism did not countenance this fusion in the New World.1 Wharton introduces the idea of Rosedale desiring Lily Bart as “it was becoming more and more clear to him that Miss Bart herself possessed precisely the complimentary qualities needed to round off his social personality” (132). With this superficial irony, the persistence of racial typecasting pervades and reveals the Jew as coarse and lascivious. Again, the Semite is drawn from the upper class of New York, (not from the immigrant ghettos) and Rosedale is a familiar and comfortable character of social fiction. This portrait of Rosedale shows the persistence of the old Shylock stereotype and the fear of the Jewish oligarchy.

As a generalisation, the currency of women is traded in their marriageability. The class of women for whom marriage no rescue from poverty or wage-slave oppression is represented by Nettie Cran, whom Lily meets through her association with Gertie and her charitable work. Nettie is sent to a sanatorium by Lily, to recover from TB, and towards the end of Lily’s life, they meet up again. Lilys remembers her thus “as one of the discouraged victims of over-work and anaemic parentage, one of the superfluous fragments of life destined to be swept prematurely into that social refuse-heap of which Lily has so recently expressed her dread” (341).

Nettie takes Lily home, and explains the happiness she has found with her husband George, whom she had known all her life. Nettie had become involved with men whom she presumed “was too stylish for me” and when he left her because “work girls aren’t looked after” she became ill (p343). Lily feels a kinship with Nettie and assesses that Netties’ life has a completeness that her own would never have. The connection between them has come about because of their economic situation although Netties’ future is more promising.

Lily’s life ends in suicide, or the accidental over-dose of a sleeping death. The reconciliation of her life hangs with the knowledge of the sleeping draught she has from the chemist. “She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt must increase it….if sleep came at all, it might be a sleep without waking”(p351) . Lily’s failure is marked by the rigid expectations of her social class that admonishes the single girl in want of a husband who accepts help from a married man. The assumption that Lily has been corrupt, and disruptive, the assumption that she was immoral were not condemnations that Lily could survive.

Turning then to Stephen Crane in the The Red Badge of Courage who cuts through any pretensions of a romantic underlay of war for the people at the front. Crane’s subject in The Red Badge of Courage, a young man named Henry Fleming, experiences not the socialite pressure that bound Lily to conventional expectations of gender, but instead finds his masculinity emerging and defined amongst other soldiers in the Civil War. Henry is one of the working classes from whom the cannon fodder is always chosen. As the army begin to fight the good fight with noble presumptions, these ideals are quickly dismantled by the stark and grim reality of violent death that Henry faces.

Enlisting in a search for glory with ideals of ‘witnessing a Greek like struggle’ (7), Henry instead finds himself in a perpetual state of waiting for the regiment to move. With each rumour of marching that subsequently proves to be false, the youth questions his valour. Looking to his peers for assurance, he asks ‘”Think any of the boys’ll run?”‘ (12). Searching for a reflection of his own fears, his sense of masculinity, or masculine identity, is tied up with the issues of bravery and heroism and these are motifs of archetypal male framework.

This becomes further represented as Henry sees his identity merge with expectations of his gender to follow into battle without a demonstration of value of that particular skirmish.: “Becoming the good soldier, he becomes less the individual being; and he emerges in the concluding paragraphs in serene possession of an unauthentic soldier-self, ominously ready to follow his leader….To be a man in Crane’s world is to perceive the human situation as it is, accept it, and remain personally honest in fulfilling the commitments such a perception demands of the individual.” (Ed. Bradley, 335).

The validation of Henry as a man is the battle that the plot extrapolates from over two days. For Henry to become “a man’ he both fears and seeks his badge of courage. The wound inflicted in the fight, accidentally, becomes a motif of manhood rather than the bravery. The red badge is the wound of honour, or rite of passage for men at war. It is a motif that is tangible, to see and be seen, to cause pain and even death and this is symbolic as Henry rationalises his growth to manhood with his experiences. Henry has left the order of the farm for the uncertainly, in a physical or moral parameter, of a war. Henry’s dilemma increases, as the natural world as clashes with the artifice and that becomes a central issue to apocalyptic despairs that threaten to overwhelm Henry and his desire to become a matured man.

As Henry exposes, or is exposed to the horrors of the battle, or the law of the pack in battle, his self taught ideas of heroic male dramatisation continue to undermine his expectations to be manly, or what men are. ‘He saw an officer, who looked like a boy a-horseback’ (85). Men are compared to animals, ” It was not well to drive men into final corners; at those moments they cold develop teeth and claws” (98) and as Henry is praised by his commander he too is likened to an animal. “If I had ten thousand wildcats like you I could tear out the stomach of this war in less’n a week” (100). The men who battle in Cranes novel are wild and untamed, they represent “quiet manhood…of sturdy and strong blood” (120) and in their language and attitudes are identifiable from the simple country /farm backgrounds they come from. The language of the novel represents the social class of the foot soldiers. They speak simply and without pretensions.

Whilst arguably Henry does mature in the two days of battle it is ironic that he flees the battle. He explains it that he, however, flees with “discretion and dignity” (73) and “felt quite competent to return home and make the hearts of people glow with stories of war” (74) . Henry sees himself as man who the women will listen to. They will respect him and be impressed with his bravery and worldliness that has come about through his experience of war. “He imagined the consternation and ejaculations of his mother and the young lady at the seminary as they drank his recitals” (74). There is no ironic tone, and anticipated female adulation is another facet of his status change from boy to man.

In the novel, Henry is most often referred to as “the youth” just as other men are called the ‘tattered soldier” or the “tall soldier’. They are defined by their appearance, and judged as such by their disparities as they influence Henry. The traditional bonds of maleness are opposed by differences. The “loud” soldier, Wilson, whom Henry comes to rely upon stops being “the loud soldier”. He is Wilson as “The e youth took note of a remarkable change in his comrade….he was no more a loud young soldier” (86). The belittling that exists in the exchange between the troops changes with Henry’s maturity as he sees people become more than his expectations. Henrys growth in maturity occurs as he reconciles his masculine perceptions of heroic behaviour with defining moments of weak character and as such the masculine motifs of the novels are stereotypical but not diminished by that.

In conclusion, House of Mirth is a novel of beliefs and attitudes that like the camera snap shots the cultural milieu of the upper class New Yorker. Lily’s failure to mature as an autonomous woman may stem from the patriarchal repression of her class. Whilst Lily is at times insightful and profound, she is also trivial, overly preoccupied with her appearance and loyal to ideals of patriarchal femininity, and she does not mount the challenge to rationality and order that she needs to survive. This is in contrast to Henry Flemming who seeks in the order of nature finds an answer to the threatening havoc. His intellect demands both a rational an emotional plateau to develop himself.

Although very different in most aspects, they have both the rationality of emotional responses to the constraints of circumstance, and take responsibility for their existence and problems. It is no surprise that Lilys escape becomes the traditional feminie one of death ( a change from madness), sick and weakened by her behaviour that for the most part has been misunderstood. Henry however, clearly views himself as someone who has improved and matures through his experiences, although it is not conclusive that either has occurred. If manliness were defined by actions, then deserting in battle, or abandoning the badly injured ‘tattered man’ would seem to be Henry’s undoing. The Red Badge of Courage is a rite of passage from boy to man as much as an account of men at war.

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