From Edith Wharton’s introduction of ‘The House of Mirth’, we are able to view the purposes of this story, of which there are several. Edith Wharton shares her views about the type of society and when in which the story took place – how Lily is shaped by her society and how she is unable to get out of it, the gender issues present in the early twentieth century, and indirectly, Wharton’s own criticisms about this social world. Even at the beginning of the story, Wharton already provides us with an insight into a world of aristocracy, and also the world in which she herself lived in, through the main characters, Lily Bart and Selden.
She depicts Lily Bart as a wealthy, upper-class woman, with ‘… country houses that disputed her presence … ‘. Wharton also presented us with the idea that the rich do not work, and are instead idle: Lily’s ‘late nights and indefatigable dancing’, and both her and Selden’s going out for tea on a busy Monday afternoon, when everyone else (the middle and lower classes) is rushing about their routine lives, being busy and getting to work. Wharton herself is from an aristocratic society.
She describes this world with what seems like fascination, maybe even admiration, yet at the same time, she seems to be mocking and criticizing this aristocracy. Wharton shows Lily as a spoilt brat and dependant person: Lily has two hours to spend, yet she doesn’t know what to do with her time and she is very much lost in the absence of her maid or any of the things that she is familiar with. She gives the impression of that of a child – very confused, with a ‘desultory air’, rousing speculation, not knowing what she has to do – suggesting her sheltered life and how much she has been cared for.
In between, Wharton adds appropriate imagery to enhance Lily and Selden’s supposed wealth: ‘little jeweled watch among her laces’, Selden’s ‘gloves and sticks … , a small library, … a wall of books’, suggesting the benefit of having received an education. Wharton has also presented the inequality of gender. Men were then considered to be superior to women. Wharton succeeded in doing this by making Selden seem heroic, and Lily, put into the position of the damsel in distress, and though their use of chivalric language: ‘how nice of you to come to my rescue! ; and Selden flirting back, ‘to do so is my mission in life’. Apart from that, Wharton showed how men looked at women, and how they treated them more like objects than people.
They tended to dehumanize them and see them as without personalities and identities: ‘As a spectator, he (Selden) had always enjoyed Lily Bart’, ‘was it possible that she belonged to the same race? ‘, ‘how highly specialized she was’ – he looked at her as something non-living and as if she were mechanized. The qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external’ – this is an ironic statement, where in the previous quote he makes her seem differentiated and special, and now, this suggests that he thinks that women are all the same but what distinguishes Lily from other women, or even generally, women from each other, are their looks and their beauty. We can also tell that Selden regards Lily as an object where she has beauty, although it will not last, by referring to her beauty as a ‘fine glaze’.
Again this is good imagery, as one would imagine glaze to be worn off easily. And underneath that glaze – Lily’s external beauty – lies ‘vulgar clay’, suggesting that Lily, without her physical appearance, would be rather ugly and rough on the inside. The words stringed together ‘a fine glaze of beauty applied to vulgar clay’ indicates that Selden thinks of Lily as a vase, something pretty, but with no real use in life.
He feels that ‘a great many dull and ugly people must have been sacrificed to produce her’, contributing to the fact that he regards her as a manufactured object. This is again supported by him thinking that even though Lily, ‘the material, was fire, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape’. This metaphor is extremely important as it confirms both Selden’s and Wharton’s opinions. Lily is seen only as a substance – the material; ‘circumstance’ and ‘futile shape’ refer to her society modeling her into the useless person she is now.
She only has decorative value. Wharton gave us the idea that the rich are very much always wrapped up in their own lives. The main characters are Lily and Selden and the story always focuses on and revolves around them. Wharton has made it such that the working class society remains faceless and nameless; they form the background scene of the story and are casually mentioned as the ‘suburban traveller’, the ‘holiday-makers’ and so on. They play no significant role in the story and Lily and Selden do not acknowledge them at all.
If one were to imagine this story on a video tape being fast-forwarded, the throng of people would be moving in and out of the scene in the background, an insignificant blur in the storyline, while Lily and Selden would be in the central foreground, large and more alive and being watched more closely by the viewer. At the end, Wharton introduces the character Gertrude Farish. The purpose was to compare and contrast the boundaries between the upper and lower classes, the rich and the poor, and those women who succeeded and failed socially.
Gerty Farish is everything that Lily is not, and also someone who Lily looks down upon. Gerty is a woman, yet she has independence and lives in her own flat – a notion very unheard of even during those times. In their society, Gerty is clearly a failure, both socially and sexually. She is an unmarried lady; she is disgraced by the fact that she has a maid who does both the washing and cooking, something that Lily – being wealthy, and who feels that a maid should do a maid’s job and a cook, a cook’s – is unaccustomed to and sneers at.
This shows the differences between those with positions high up on the social ladder and those at the bottom. However Wharton has presented Lily with a contradictory view. Lily looks down upon women who do not have money, who have the independence and freedom to do whatever they want, who are ‘ugly and unmarriageable’. However, at the same time, we sense admiration in Lily for these women as she herself feels that it is a priviledge to have independence and to own a flat, and ‘what a miserable thing it is to be a woman! ‘. Wharton again presents us with an ironic issue.
Lily feels that it is degrading for a woman to remain unmarried at a certain age. However, she herself is already twenty-nine years old. It was abnormal for women, during the early twentieth century, to remain unmarried, yet Lily was. She is this showing a rebellious streak in her along with that bit of independence that she craves. Edith Wharton has written this first chapter with conviction about the issues present in the earlier part of the twentieth century. She has portrayed the characters to play the roles that were evident during this time period, between class and gender, the issues and the contradictions.