In the novel, The House of Mirth Lily’s development as a character is certainly not negligible to the novel, her primary role is as the means through which Wharton reads and writes this culture. Thus, The House of Mirth is not primarily the story of Lily; it is rather Wharton’s representation of her culture through the play of its forces in Lily’s life. Wharton’s recognition of the socio-economic margins in her aesthetic and her travel writing significantly marks The House of Mirth as well. Through Lily, Wharton reveals a debased culture whose crowning production is the creation of women as commodities and which turns the labor of others into frivolous consumption and waste. Yet Lily is not simply a representative product of her society; she is also one of those on the margins who is consumed and destroyed by her society. Lily’s progress throughout the novel is not the fall of a young woman from the center of society to its destitute margins.
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From the very beginning of the novel, Lily is already marginalized by fashionable society, placed there by her lack of money and the attendant vulnerability of her position of dependence. In a sense, there is little difference between the social services that Lily renders Judy Trenor in exchange for Judy’s generosity and Lily’s labors in the milliner’s shop, creating hats for the women of fashionable New York. In both situations she is on the margins, working to feed the insatiable appetite of society. in The House of Mirth Wharton constructs a confident, authoritative voice that reads and interprets the culture of fashionable New York. Wharton goes beyond the purely personal in her reconstruction of her earliest memory, transforming it into a detached, third-person narration with an authorized interpretation. The New York of Edith Wharton’s youth undergoes the same alteration in The House of Mirth, from a mirror of the personal to an artistic revelation of the life of a culture.
In Wharton’s estimation, a morally corrupt society will betray its viciousness most clearly in the plight of those who have been disempowered. The falsity that was entailed in staging the drama of femininity could be seen as an index to the more general hypocrisy and cruelty of monied New York: and thus the problems encountered by the heroine of The House of Mirth in presenting the required performance, Lily Bart,” could become a sufficient and appropriate focus for Wharton’s superb and sweeping satire–a talisman of society’s thoroughgoing corruption. Throughout the novel, a steady pattern of references to theater in general and to the contemporary theater in particular was Wharton’s marker for the method–her signifier. Wharton often encodes the language of these characters to mark, quite explicitly, the tension between simplistic “moral reality” and the intractable complexity of “real life.” At other times, when confronted with reversals, Lily can personate a kind of moral imperiousness well enough, drawing “herself up to the full height of her slender majesty, towering like some dark angel of defiance” (Wharton, p. 66).
In sum, Wharton creates a unique character of Lily influenced by cultural and social traditions of her society.. Understanding the implications of Lily’s frantic quest for a “role” to play–for a socially viable, personally acceptable “narrative”–makes the full import of Wharton’s statement clear. This frivolous society has “destroyed” Lily Bart because it has failed to provide her with any “story” that can be adequate for the construction of an adult identity. That is the “tragic fate” of The House of Mirth–a tragedy not just for Lily Bart, but for many other characters.
Wharton, E. (2000). House of Mirth. Signet Classics.