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 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 broader significance, for the plot structure of The House of Mirth may be likened to a descending stairwell that represents Lily’s decline, which is effected by a series of social descents. She is abandoned by the Trenors, who occupy the highest rung of the social ladder, because her principles are at odds with their amorality. Landing...
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with the Dorsets, who occupy a slightly lower social rung, Lily is alienated by Bertha’s ruthlessness and finally abandoned by them as well. Her social decline continues in her association with the Brys and Simon Rosedale, the embodiment of the new rich. Revolted by their rampant greed, Lily takes up with the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking Gormons, who occupy an even lower social level. Lily is cast out from this circle as a consequence of Bertha’s insinuations about her reputation, and she herself cannot tolerate the improprieties of Norma Hatch, a wealthy, indolent divorcée. Lily’s final refusal to accept money from Gus Trenor seals her fate and plunges her into real poverty—a realm in which she is ill-equipped to survive because of her refined tastes, vacillating nature, and lack of moral training.
Wharton’s attack on false values in The House of Mirth is yet another trait of the naturalistic novel. As she shows in the life of Lily, inhabitants of the house of mirth are doomed by their virtues and rewarded by their vices. Had Lily lacked her moral impulse she would have become a successful New York socialite. Had she, on the other hand, received strong moral training at home, she could have adapted to life outside the ornamental realm of high society, where personal relations cannot survive. Lily’s inability to survive in either world symbolizes the price paid for the pursuit of the American materialistic dream, which debases and destroys what is best in the individual.