Objectification of Women in The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is an affront to the false social values of fashionable New York society. The heroine is Lily Bart, a woman who is destroyed by the very society that produces her. Lily is well-born but poor. The story traces the decline of Lily as she moves through a series of living residences, from houses to hotel lodgings. Lily lives in a New York society where appearances are all. Women have a decorative function in such an environment, and even her name, Lily, suggests she is a flower of femininity, i.e. an object of decoration as well as of desirability to the male element. We see this is very true once Lily's bloom fades, as it were, a time when she is cast aside by her peers no longer being useful as something to admire on the surface. The theme of the novel in this aspect is that identity based on mere appearance is not enough to sustain the human soul physically or metaphysically. Once she is no longer able to keep the "eye" of her peers, Lily finds herself with no identity and dies. This analysis will discuss the theme of the objectification of women in a male dominated society inherent throughout the novel.
Lily Bart and her mother have been socially "ruined" in a sense because of the economic failures of their father and husband respectfully. However, Lily's mother teaches her that she can still maintain a high social status if she marries well, i.e. a rich man. In fact, Lily's mother is known for making the most out of the least as she is "famous for the unlimited effect she produced on limited means" (Wharton 48). In a society where women are considered valuable only for the appearance they present, it is impossible for those who do not have the means to present well to be accepted into society. As Mrs. Bart tells her daughter, "People can't marry you if they don't see you-and how can they see you in these holes where we're stuck?" (Wharton 53).
The irony of the situation is that most women who are accepted by society and are able to maintain the role of being something worthy to look at are able to do so only because of a husband who supplies them with the necessary funds to achieve it. In other words, in a male dominated society wherein women largely need the financial support of men to be accepted, they have become commodities. Lily recognizes this predicament when she ponders her marriage to Percy Gryce, a position where she would be to him "what his Americana hitherto had been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on" (Wharton 65).
Yet, this very society that demand its women be superficial creatures that merit worth only by appearance is also one which immediately rejects a woman who seems intent on marrying a man with wealth-the one course open to women who wish to be accepted in society. This may be where one of Lily's character qualities prevents her from being able...