In the first scene of Wharton’s masterpiece The House of Mirth, Laurence Selden queries Lily Bart, “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?” Lily replies with a sigh, “I suppose so. What else is there?” This brief, simple exchange underscores one of the most crucial truths to the tragedy of Lily Bart. As the characters who populate Lily’s world accurately understand, a young woman’s sole calling at the turn of the century was to marry, and in Lily’s case, to marry well. In this era the country was firmly entrenched in “the cult of true womanhood,” which called for a woman to devote herself to her family and her home. On the whole, Americans had little use for an unmarried woman nor did they see reason why she should enjoy any measure of that which is so important to Laurence Selden (Lily’s male counterpart): “personal freedom.” Note that the only major female character who deviates from this pattern is Gerty Farish, for whom Lily feels pity.
In Lily Bart, however, Wharton creates a woman with sensibilities far more modern than those of her environment. Lily refuses to wholly submit to society’s gender roles, and is unable to marry a man who is beneath her simply to fulfill her expected purpose. Such incendiary behavior does not go unpunished, and Lily is ejected from society. However, she has been trained for no other direction in life than to ensnare a husband, and Lily comes to believe she has no options. She frankly tells Selden on the last day of her life, “I am a very useless person. . . . 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.” Rather than model herself after other women she knows, perhaps Gerty Farish or even Nettie Struther, Lily chooses to give herself up to a deep sleep—which notably is the only place where she allows herself to give in to the “the soft approach of passiveness”—that becomes her final sleep.
Unlike traditional protagonists, Lily lacks the power to create her own life. She is not unusual in this respect, for Wharton clearly shows the reader a society in which women only hold power through the men they marry. Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset are both paradigms in society, but their power derives from their husbands’ wealth, not through any intrinsic value of their own. As the authorial voice notes, “Bertha Dorset’s social credit was based on an impregnable bank-account.” In addition to grasping power through financial prowess, power for women may be obtained through personal connection. This method is epitomized through the character of Mattie Gormer, an arriviste to old New York who nevertheless is able to ascend the social ladder through her friendship with Bertha.
For Lily, an orphan with little money of her own, marriage remains the sole means to obtain a firm place in New York society and become powerful in her own right. The only tool at her disposal is her uncommon beauty, whose value was exalted by her mother Mrs. Bart, a woman who, after her husband’s financial ruin, regarded Lily’s beauty as “the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian.” Thus, while still in her formative years, Lily became a prisoner of her own body. Further, when Mrs. Bart looked at Lily’s beauty she also saw a force of destruction, “some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance” against the society that did not accord her enough respect because of her lack of great wealth. Although Lily also recognized her unique physical attraction, she “liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.” Unfortunately, Mrs. Bart’s belief system reflected that of the world around her; since her debut at the age of eighteen, Lily had several chances to wed wealth, but as she reveals to Selden, a marriage such as her mother envisioned is, at its very core, “disagreeable.”...
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In the past decade, feminist critics have done much to restore Edith Wharton to her proper rank among American novelists and to shed light on many aspects of her work previous critics had overlooked. Scholars such as Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Elizabeth Ammons, Judith Fetterley, and recently Wai-Chee Dimock have changed the understanding of Wharton’s work through their perceptive analyses, focusing particularly on Wharton’s insights into the social structures of the early part of this century and the ways in which these structures influenced and limited women’s lives.
Yet the work of these feminist critics also raises issues of the limitations, or perhaps blindspots, of current feminist literary criticism, issues which go beyond their application to Wharton and her work. For instance, most feminist critics seem to imply that Wharton, though never one to ally herself with the feminist movements of her day, was a kind of inherent feminist, someone who both fought for and attained her rightful place as a novelist in a period when the novel was dominated by male authors and when upper-class women were taught, as Wharton was, to be more ornamental than intellectual. Moreover, these critics point out, Wharton protested the treatment of women through her portrayals of women caught in the inescapable bonds of social constructs. These points are fundamentally correct; Wharton was and did all these things. Yet in focusing only on these aspects of her life and career feminist critics overlook the Edith Wharton who, despite her mature anger over the random education her parents gave her, wrote that
I have lingered over these details [describing the cooking she enjoyed as a child and young woman] because they formed a part—a most important and honourable part—of that ancient curriculum of house-keeping which . . . was so soon to be swept aside by the “monstrous regiment” of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen and the linen room, and to substitute the acquiring of University degrees for the more complex art of civilized living . . . I mourn more than ever the extinction of the household arts. Cold storage, deplorable as it is, has done less harm to the home than the Higher Education.
One point where feminist criticism seems particularly weak is in its treatment of the men in Wharton’s fiction. This is particularly true in criticism of The House of Mirth, probably the bestknown as well as the most astutely criticized of Wharton’s novels. Judith Fetterley has claimed that in Wharton’s novels, social waste is female; when one uses this as the guiding principle in reading The House of Mirth, the novel becomes the story of a young woman’s destruction by a social system that maintains that upper-class women are meant to be ornamental, even while it forces them to prostitute themselves on the marriage market. A woman like Lily, Fetterley argues, has to accept her status as “a piece of property available for purchase by the highest bidder.” Elizabeth Ammons joins Fetterley in arguing that power in the novel is patriarchal, pointing out that men are the makers of money in the novel and, thus, as the novel focuses on the economics of marriage, the source of all power. These points are important and undeniably true and help to explain the social structure in which Lily moves.
But a re-examination of Wharton’s fiction in general, and of The House of Mirth, in particular, demonstrates that the social structures of Wharton’s fictional world cause male waste as much as female. As Dimock has noted, “the actual wielders of power in the book are often not men but women,” indeed, women like Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor are hardly subservient to their husbands, despite their economic dependence on them; both of these women seem to have more freedom and power than their spouses. At no point does Wharton suggest that they warrant pity nor that they are victims of the system in the way Lily is. Lily herself is eager to grasp the money that could make her as great a social force as either of her friends, as is implied by her successive evaluations of the personal and economic attractions of men as different as Percy Gryce, Sim Rosedale, and Lawrence Selden. Women in this novel spend at least as much time assessing men as men do evaluating women. Despite the weakness of Wharton’s males—a weakness that has become almost proverbial among Wharton critics—Wharton presents her male characters as meriting as much (or perhaps almost as much) sympathy as her female characters.
Three of the men most important to this novel, Gus Trenor, George Dorset, and Lawrence Selden, have been pretty much dismissed as a brute, a spineless coward, and a coward who should have known better, who should, in fact, have come to Lily’s “rescue.” Yet to re-examine these characters within the social context that Wharton so carefully establishes is to see that they cannot be judged quite so simply. Gus Trenor, despite his attempt to rape Lily as a way of making her “pay up” for the money he has given her, verges on the pathetic at moments. Not only is he ugly in a society which, as Wharton says in her autobiography, had “an almost pagan worship of physical beauty,” but he is aware that his wife uses him as a pawn in the socio-economic system. Indeed, Judy Trenor values him only for his wealth while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the costs of running a household or building a ballroom. Although Gus’ violence in demanding that Lily “pay up” is in no way excusable, it is perhaps understandable in the context of a social system that views him primarily as a workhorse.
George Dorset may be Wharton’s most pointed example of a man diminished by the social system. Early in the novel Judy Trenor remarks to Lily that the dyspeptic George “is not as dismal as you think. If Bertha [his wife] didn’t worry him he would be quite different.” As the novel develops Wharton reveals the uneven nature of the Dorsets’ marriage: Bertha, “out of a job” when her affair with Selden ends, takes up with Ned Silverton, while George becomes increasingly dismayed. Rather than accusing Bertha of unfaithfulness and demanding her fidelity or, alternately, divorcing her, George allows Bertha to blackmail him into silence. At the same time he begs Lily to help him, telling her that she is the only one who can “save” him. When Lily refuses even to acknowledge that she could help George, he sinks into apathy. That Lily feels she cannot help George makes a double point: that the system of marriage wastes male potential as it does female, and that the Dorset marriage, although it continues, is a failure from every point of view except that of Bertha, who happily goes on spending George’s income. Moreover, Lily’s inability to “save” Dorset also has important implications for Lily’s own need to be “saved.”
While George Dorset and Gus Trenor have received their share of critical scorn, Lawrence Selden has received the brunt of critical wrath. Claiming that Lily is solely “victim” within the system, many critics have argued that Lawrence Selden, despite his relative moral attractions, is to be condemned for his failure to “save” Lily. Though not necessarily someone who would identify himself as a feminist, R. W. B. Lewis established the normative view of Selden in his biography of Wharton. Selden, Lewis argues, “is the one human being who might have supplied” a “viable alternative life for Lily.” Lewis continues, “Selden himself, as she [Wharton] told Sara Norton, was ‘a negative hero,’ a sterile and subtly...
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