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.
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...
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