Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth dramatizes the decline and death of Lily Bart, a young woman who is doomed by her own virtue in a materialistic society that either debases or destroys its members. Viewed from this point of view, the novel can be considered an example of American naturalism, a term applied to literature to indicate the author’s reliance on a governing determinism in which the protagonist’s life is dictated by hereditary or environmental forces. Caught up in a matrix of forces, naturalistic protagonists cannot be held responsible for their actions because they possess little or no freedom of will. Consequently, the naturalistic novel manifests an ethical orientation that is neither moral nor immoral but amoral. This is but one of the features that distinguish naturalism from realism; others include a focus on the lower classes, an attack on false values, a reformist agenda, imagery that is animalistic or mechanistic, and a plot of decline that leads to catastrophic closure for the protagonist through a deterministic sequence of causes and effects.

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In The House of Mirth, Lily’s nature is characterized by a duality that is the result of irreconcilable hereditary traits. From her mother, she inherits a calculating impulse and her attractive appearance, which she uses to maintain her social status. From her father, Lily inherits a contradictory impulse to revolt, an aesthetic sensitivity, and the desire to write poetry. However, her father is forced to abandon his artistic inclinations to support his wife’s lavish spending habits. Lily also inherits her father’s scruples, idealism, and sentimentality—all virtues without survival value in the moral wasteland of the nouveau riche. The moral imperatives that perish in her father for lack of reinforcement are resurrected in Lily as a monument to his memory and to her own ruin. What leads to her doom above all else is Lily’s fatal vacillation between the moral and the material. She revolts against the materialistic values of her mansion-dwelling friends but lacks the moral training to adapt to life outside that milieu. Lacking the ability to survive either inside or outside her society, Lily inevitably must die.

In her imagery, Wharton reinforces the determinism at work in the novel. As the title suggests, the dominant metaphor Wharton deploys is that of the house, which serves as a springboard for her attack on false values. The “house of mirth” becomes an emblem for the moral wasteland contained within the pleasure palaces of the old and newly rich. Those who live in these mansions are materially wealthy but spiritually bankrupt. Love is the only luxury they cannot afford, and it has been replaced by a mere love of objects.

Wharton sets up the contrast between the Trenors’ drawing room and Nellie Struther’s kitchen. Unlike the pleasure palaces of Lily’s wealthy friends, Nellie’s kitchen is physically small but spiritually vast. Here the family and love are more important than material possessions. The spiritual contentment is contrasted with Lily’s restlessness and with the void within her. The attraction Lily feels for that spiritual world is indicated by the nest on the cliff and the baby that Lily cradles in her lap, even as her ascent of the stairs leading to Nellie’s kitchen underscores her moral incline.

The metaphor of the stairwell has...

(The entire section contains 866 words.)

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