Edith Wharton's The House Of Mirth As Satirical Commentary On Society

2123 words - 8 pages

     Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth creates a subtle, ironic, and superbly crafted picture of the social operation of turn-of-the-century New York. In her harsh expression of community, she succeeds in portraying a world of calculation operating under the pretenses of politeness. The characters become competitors in the highly complex game of social positioning with an amorphous body of socially formed laws. Through her presentation of Lily Barton's ongoing struggles to "recover her footing-each time on a slightly lower level" in this game of skill, Wharton forces her audience to question this social order (272). Lily's fate gives way to a satirical commentary on how a social order governed by convention, sanctions, beliefs, and customs can crush its individual members by mutating into a force greater than its collection of participants.


Wharton's bleak portrayal of this environment reveals an exchange system in which transactions are made only to further one's personal interest. Shaping this perception are the relations between men and women; as Lily explains to Selden, women must enter into "partnerships" (14) to strategically enhance their standing in the social regime. Lily must use her beauty and charm to allure a mate with the monetary power which to solidify her place in the upper circle. Compatibility beyond the advantages of the match in the social scheme is of little import, explaining Lily attempts at alluring Percy Gryce "to do the honor of boring her for life" (29). With similar motivations, Simon Rosedale offers Lily complete financial backing in exchange for the social savoir-fare to enter New York high society. Lily recognizes Rosedale's "small, stock-taking eyes, which [make] her feel herself no more than some super-fine human merchandise," confirming her awareness that marriage is a mere business transaction.


The emotionally barren marriages which emerge from these motivations, confirm the notion that relationships truly are a pretense. Lily observes "long stretch[es] of vacuity" between the Trenors as they sit at opposite ends of the diner table at Bellomont. Gus' financial backing is the spark which provides the current for Judy's "glaring good looks, of a jeweler's window lit by electricity" (59). Further tarnishing the picture of conjugal bliss is the continuance of the Dorset's relationship despite Bertha's philandering. Wharton shadows the true nature of their marriage; immediately after Gus discovers the truth about Bertha and Ned Silverman, the Dorsets are seen "presenting their customary faces to the world[;] she was engrossed in establishing her relation with an intensely new gown, he shrinking with dyspeptic dream from the multiplied solicitations of the menu" (223). She needs his financial resources just as he recquires her presence to continue their unmitigated status of social prestige. Wharton includes the consequences of failure to fulfill conventional contractual roles in this...

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