Naturalism in The House of Mirth
Challenging the strict deterministic confines of literary naturalism, which hold that "the human being is merely one phenomenon in a universe of material phenomena" (Gerard 418), Edith Wharton creates in The House of Mirth a novel which irrefutably presents the human creature as being subject to a naturalistic fate but which conveys a looming sense of hope that one may triumph over environment and circumstance if one possesses a certain strength of will or a simple faith in human possibility.
Because of Wharton's slight deviation from naturalistic conventions, a literary debate exists among critics as to the validity of viewing The House of Mirth as a novel which embodies naturalism. Some arguments contend that naturalism does not play a vital role in the novel because of the fact that such a significant internal conflict belies itself within the divided being of Lily Bart and because Wharton focuses so intensely on this conflict, a discord which seems opposed to the naturalistic idea of inevitability (Gerard, 4 1 0). Indeed, Wharton's works are not as critically concerned with naturalistic themes as are the works of London, Drieser, or Zola.
However, it is clear that undertones of naturalism, and stronger overtones in many situations, are present throughout The House of Mirth. Wharton creates characters who are victims of their environment, controlled by animal-like instinct. Evidence of this is found from the very first page, when Lawrence Selden succumbs to an "impulse of curiosity" (6), to the very last page, when Selden realizes that Lily had "reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings (255-56). By creating a protagonist whose every characteristic and action is determined by environmental conditioning, and who becomes the victim of circumstance, "swept like a stray, uprooted growth down the current of the years" (248), Wharton undeniably creates a naturalistic theme within The House of Mirth.
Making this theme uniquely hers, however, is Wharton's creation of two characters who are "exceptions to the seemingly ubiquitous law of social determinism" (Gerard 410). These characters, Nettie Struther and Lawrence Selden, one triumphing over her environment through sheer will, the other transcending it through faith in human possibility, create a small tear in the formidable fabric of strict naturalism, thus engendering a hope for the triumph of the human spirit.
Edith Wharton develops Lady Bart as a character who is a product of her environment, preyed upon by circumstance and fate. Lily's name, referring to a highly ornamental flower, immediately creates the image of a delicate creature who is grown in the rich soils of society and who, if uprooted from this societal soil, would wither and perish. Lily, as any living organism, is not simply a static figure in her environment. Instead, she is a true naturalistic...