Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth serves as a strict model of etiquette for high society in the Gilded Age. It teaches one the intricate art of keeping up appearances and assimilating into the fickle leisure class. At the same time, the novel’s underlying purpose is to subtly critique this social order. Lily Bart’s perpetual, although often reluctant quest for financial stability and mass approval is a vehicle for demonstrating the numerous absurdities and constant pretensions of a class that revolved around money and opinion.
Lily Bart embodies the enormous tension between old and new money that was so prevalent during the 1880’s. Since birth, she was fated to be in the middle of these strata. Her father came from established wealth while her mother’s goal was to climb in society. Wharton’s criticism of both sides stems from these two conflicting family positions.
On the one hand Wharton delivers a critique of this society but is also attracted to it- she judges Lily’s character but makes her very attractive. It is difficult not to sympathize with Lily, who was brain-washed into being an avaricious climber by her mother.
The predatorily, gold-digging mentality of Lily’s mother is evident when Wharton writes, “She remembered how her mother, after they had lost their money, used to say to her with a kind of fierce vindictiveness: “But you’ll get it back- you’ll get it all back, with your face.” This portrays the shallowness of that society, where women were taught that their looks were a main commodity that was traded for financial stability.
Wharton shows the high price of maintaining a comfortable social position and the behind-the scenes of accumulating it in her description of Lily’s father. She writes, “Even to the eyes of infancy, Mrs. Hudson Bart had appeared young; but Lily could not recall the time when her father had not been bald and slightly stooping, with streaks of grey in his hair, and a tired walk. It was a shock to her to learn afterward that he was but two years older than her mother.” Wharton hints at the toll of the constant anxiety of falling from luxury, “Lily could not recall the time when there had been money enough, and in some vague way her father seemed always to blame for the deficiency.”
She offers a hidden opinion that obsessing about money leaves one no time to enjoy life, “It seemed to tire him to rest…” Ultimately, Mr. Bart died when he went bankrupt, which symbolizes high society’s materialistic view that a man is only useful and valued if he has a fat wallet. Individuals lived by the idea that happiness could be bought, while unwittingly causing their own demise. Wharton also implies that high society’s symbols of luxury can often be harmful when Lily becomes addicted to tea.
Wharton critiques society’s willingness to go to any extent for the sake of appearing prominent, “Lily was naturally proud of...