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A Lacanian Analysis Of Edith Wharton's "House Of Mirth"

3168 words - 13 pages

Law and Desire in "The House of Mirth"In Edith Wharton's novel, The House of Mirth, the main protagonist, Lily Bart oscillates between dreams of marriage and equally strong desires for independence and freedom. Despite her training on the social codes of conduct and etiquette, which was ingrained into her daily existence by her mother, Lily exhibits frequent moments of recklessness that threaten her opportunities in the marriage market. Why does a well-trained, economically motivated, twenty-nine year old virgin risk her chances for a financial and social safe-haven? With the aid of Jacques Lacan's theories in the formation of subjectivity in the psyche, an analysis of Lily Bart's history and background should help answer this question.In Lacan's analysis, there are three orders in the psyche that are crucial and equally important to the formation of subjectivity, they are the "Imaginary," the "Symbolic," and the "Real" (1281). In order to understand why Lily Bart continually sabotages her efforts to achieve what she frequently refers to as an escape from "the dinginess of her present life," (34) an examination of the "Imaginary" order must first be made. According to Lacan:The human self . . . comes into being through a fundamentally aesthetic recognition. Through an external medium (a mirror) the child's fragmented body is made whole:the newly fashioned specular 'I' precedes the social 'I.' The Imaginary originatesin the human being's fascination with form (1281).In the case of Lily Bart, the form that she is most fascinated with is her own. Lily's constant mirror gazing initiates the process of constructing a center for herself or her ego. As Terry Eagleton explains, "This self, as the mirror situation suggests, is essentially narcissistic: we arrive at a sense of an 'I' by finding that 'I' reflected back to ourselves by some objects or person in the world" (143). In Lily's case, it is not surprising that her first "misrecognition" of her image has been supplied by her mother. Her mother looks upon Lily's beauty as a commodity or means to a profitable end. Mrs. Bart:studied . . . Lily's beauty with a kind of passion, as though it were some weaponshe had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved. (34)Inevitably, Lily also sees herself as a commodity. Her fragmented ego is formed on the basis of her significance as an object whose value is determined by the power of its marketability. As Lacan explains, "the ego is just this narcissistic process whereby we bolster up a fictive sense of unitary selfhood by finding something in the world with which we can identify" (Eagleton 143). Lily's sense of identity is directly tied to the objectification of her beauty. She is willing...

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