Study Guide

The House of Mirth Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Edith Wharton

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Water Imagery

When reading House of Mirth, keep an eye out for words like "flood," "water," "drown," "submerge," "sink," "float," and "ocean." You'll find a slew of references to drowning and floods and the like, starting with this passage right here:

[Lily] knew that she hated dinginess as much as her mother had hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it, dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch. (1.3.73)

Think of the image of drowning in a great flood of water as a sort of despair. In Lily's "Character Analysis," we talk about her transformation throughout the course of the novel from a material girl to a moral woman. This passage – from Part I, Chapter Three of the novel – gives us a glimpse into Lily's character back when she's still relatively shallow and amoral. In her mind, the greatest despair – the feeling of drowning – has to do with poverty. To Lily, the flood of water is "dinginess."

Now look at this passage, at the moment of Lily's moral apotheosis (after Gus Trenor propositions her):

Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the moral shame was one with the physical dread. […] His touch was a shock to her drowning consciousness. (1.13.67)

Lily is despairing once again, and once again that despair is described as drowning in a flood of violent waters. Except, this time, it has nothing to do with money. Lily is feeling a flood of shame and immorality, not of "dinginess." Why? Because she's learned to recognize immorality when she sees it. Earlier in the novel, "undisturbed by scruples," morality wasn't on Lily's radar. This scene, at the end of Book I, constitutes a moral awakening. It's a big moment for Lily and the turning point for her transformation.

Interestingly, Lily isn't the only one spending some quality time with the novel's most intense imagery. When Gerty Farish realizes that Selden is in love with Lily, not her, it goes a little something like this:

It was all as meaningless as the boom of waves in a drowning head, and she felt, as the drowning may feel, that to sink would be nothing beside the pain of struggling to keep up. (1.14.25)

And, shortly after, we have:

Alone with her cousin's kiss, Gerty stared upon her thoughts. He had kissed her before – but not with another woman on his lips. If he had spared her that she could have drowned quietly, welcoming the dark flood as it submerged her. But now the flood was shot through with glory, and it was harder to drown at sunrise than in darkness. (1.14.59)

When Lily comes by, distraught and frantic later that night, "She [lays] both hands on Gerty's shoulders, with a smile that [is] like sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage" (1.14.92). That's a lot of ocean imagery in about ten pages of text. What's going on? It looks like, for Gerty, this drowning imagery is a question of willful submission as opposed to violent struggle. Should she give in to the flood (that is, give up all hope of having Lawrence for herself) or fight against it (battle Lily for the man-turf)? Because Gerty chooses to help Lily and give up Selden in the process, it's as though she chooses to drown. When Lily comes by "like a sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage," it's because Gerty gave up, sank beneath the waves, and is now the flotsam and jetsam floating around in the aftermath of the storm.

How does Selden's character make use this water imagery? Check this out, from the same stormy Part I, Chapter Fourteen:

Well, he had strength for both – it was her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety. (1.14.44)

Remember that Selden wishes to take Lily "beyond – beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition and corrosion of the soul." This process of dragging her up and away is, in his mind, akin to making their way out of a muddy bog. Just like Lily, the imagery is very much tied to morality.

Now, let's jump to the end of the novel, right before Lily's death.

That was the feeling which possessed her now – the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.

Remember, Lily has conquered a moral crisis already. Immorality attacked her like a rush of waves, but Selden and she managed to pull themselves up and out of the water. Now, a different kind of flood hits Lily, this time in the form of her on-going identity crisis. Lily believes herself a "cog without a machine" since she's dropped out of society. In the "Character Analyses" we talk about social determinism, the idea that Lily is suited for society and incapable of living outside it. Because of this, Lily feels useless and rootless as a working class gal. Her "tentacles of self" have no footing; she's in a flood of her own uselessness.

The very last occurrence of water imagery comes in the final chapter, when Selden finds Lily dead: "The bitter waters of life surged high about him, their sterile taste was on his lips" (2.14.32). Selden may have pulled Lily out of the "morass" (or bog) of immorality, but he couldn't save her from what he considers "the bitter waters of life." Factors like social determinism or the gilded cage of society mean that Lily is never really free – or in this case, never safely on dry land.


Lily Bart is so beautiful, it's as though she came from another world – an ancient Greek world, actually, if you want to get more specific. House of Mirth is peppered with references to ancient Greek mythology, usually with Lily as some gorgeous centerpiece. Take a look:

The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline – as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality. (1.1.119)

That BEYOND! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus's task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda's chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. (1.14.44)

Um…what? The sylvan dryad stuff makes sense, but who is Perseus? Time for a little Greek Mythology Break. Andromeda was a beautiful young Greek woman. Unfortunately, her mother wouldn't stop blabbing about how beautiful Andromeda was, and the gods got angry. To appease them, Andromeda's parents decided to sacrifice their daughter to a sea monster. Andromeda was tied to a rock, but, before the monster could take a tasty bite, the young hero Perseus showed up, saved her, took her away, and married her. Selden likens Lily to Andromeda, a woman being sacrificed for her beauty, and himself to Perseus, the rescuer man. Also, there's some great sea-imagery here, which by now you should know all about.

Speaking of sea imagery, take a look at our next Greek mythology reference, taken from Gerty's perspective after she realizes that Lawrence is in love with Lily:

The mortal maid on the shore is helpless against the siren who loves her prey: such victims are floated back dead from their adventure. (1.14.98)

The sirens were Greek monsters, half-women and half-bird, which lived on a secluded island. They had beautiful voices and used to sing to lure sailors off their course and towards certain death. Gerty imagines that Selden is one such sailor, Lily is the evil, beautiful siren, and Gerty herself is a "moral maid" waiting back home for her sailor to return. In other words, she vilifies Lily for stealing her man, and pays homage to her rival's mythical beauty while doing so.

The Furies

Yes, more mythology. Here's the back-story: the furies were mythical creatures in ancient Greece who embodied vengeance. Basically, if you did something wrong, these scary, winged creatures would hunt after you for the rest of your life. The go-to ancient text here is a tragic play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, called Eumenides. In it, a man named Orestes is relentlessly pursued by the furies as punishment. "Eumenides" means "friendly ones" and was a euphemism used to refer to the furies.

What does this have to do with House of Mirth? Take a look:

[Lily] had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the Eumenides, and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour's repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain . . . (1.13.78)

This is Lily's reaction after she flees Trenor's house late at night and finds herself compromised and in despair. Later that night, she says: "Oh, Gerty, the furies…you know the noise of their wings – alone, at night, in the dark? But you don't know – there is nothing to make the dark dreadful to you" (1.14.78). Lily clearly identifies herself with Orestes, but what are the furies to her? What is it that she feels relentlessly pursuing her throughout the course of the novel? To answer this, let's look at some more references to the furies.

[The next morning:] In the solitude of her own room she was brought back to a sharp contemplation of facts. Her daylight view of them necessarily differed from the cloudy vision of the night. The winged furies were now prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea. But her fears seemed the uglier, thus shorn of their vagueness; and besides, she had to act, not rave. For the first time she forced herself to reckon up the exact amount of her debt to Trenor. (1.15.12)

[After Mrs. Peniston refuses to help with her debt:] Lily went up to her own room and bolted the door. She was trembling with fear and anger – the rush of the furies' wings was in her ears. She walked up and down the room with blind irregular steps. The last door of escape was closed – she felt herself shut in with her dishonour. (1.15.48)

Lily has identified the furies as the sense of obligation she feels to pay Trenor back his nine thousand dollars. That's why the sound of the wings abates when she has hope of getting the money from her aunt, and comes back with a fury when Mrs. Peniston refuses to help. Running away from New York to Europe means Lily is actually taking the same course of action that Orestes did – trying to flee the furies. Does it work? That would be a "no." Lily returns to New York to find that, sadly, her debt didn't magically disappear while she was gone. She assumes the obligation to pay it back once more, but we don't hear about the furies again until close to the end of the novel, when Selden offers Lily a quick-fix out of debt:

She was quite sure that [Selden] would come and see her again, and almost sure that, if he did, she could bring him to the point of offering to marry her on the terms she had previously rejected. Would she still reject them if they were offered? More and more, with every fresh mischance befalling her, did the pursuing furies seem to take the shape of Bertha Dorset; and close at hand, safely locked among her papers, lay the means of ending their pursuit. The temptation, which her scorn of Rosedale had once enabled her to reject, now insistently returned upon her; and how much strength was left her to oppose it? (2.10.96)

Now that Lily has grown into a moral woman concerned with scruples instead of cash, the furies no longer take the shape of her financial concern; they take the shape of a moral one. She's no longer concerned about having to pay back her debt; she's concerned that she will cop out, use the letters, and marry Rosedale for the quick-fix. As Lily's perceptions and attitude have changed, so have changed the novel's symbols and the ideas they represent.

The Abyss (Or Chasm, take your pick)

Lily seems to spend an unhealthy amount of time poised on the edge of some type of cliff, ready to fall down into some sort of metaphorical abyss. The first mention of said chasm arises when Lily debates whether or not to purchase the blackmail letters from the charwoman:

If she weighed all these things it was unconsciously: she was aware only of feeling that Selden would wish the letters rescued, and that therefore she must obtain possession of them. Beyond that her mind did not travel. She had, indeed, a quick vision of returning the packet to Bertha Dorset, and of the opportunities the restitution offered; but this thought lit up abysses from which she shrank back ashamed.

It's should be no surprise to you by now that, like everything else in House of Mirth, this abyss has something to do with morality. Lily feels that the gaping darkness below her is the darkness of moral destitution. Now, let's look at Abyss #2, when Selden encounters Lily in Monte Carlo before the Dorset scandal has taken place:

[Lily] was on the edge of something – that was the impression left with him. He seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her.

Lily is indeed about to take a fall – a fall which will be moral in the eyes of those around her (who believe she has engaged in an affair with George Dorset), social, and also financial. Much of Book II is composed of Lily's great fall from grace, from a member of the social elite to a destitute member of the working class. But we can't wrap this discussion up yet; the idea of the abyss comes back into play right at the end of the novel, when Lily muses on her encounter with Nettie Struther:

The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It was a meager enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird's nest built on the edge of a cliff – a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.

Nettie is on the edge of the abyss of poverty and insignificance. (Remember how Lily is just as concerned with isolation and meaninglessness as she is with finances in the moments before her death?) Yet Nettie is safe, Lily concludes, because she has both permanence and love in her home and in her husband. Poverty doesn't threaten Nettie the way it does Lily. For our heroine, though, the abyss still yawns before her and, by the end of the novel, seems to represent all that has plagued Lily throughout the novel: poverty, moral ruin, and even death, as we see in this last passage:

The very slowness and hesitancy of the effect increased its fascination: it was delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness.

Unconsciousness might mean sleep, but it also refers to death. Which one Lily is seeking at this point is, as always, up to you to decide.

War and Battle

In this novel, dating isn't just a game – it's war. The demure Miss Bart thinks of Percy as her "prey" and "organize[s] a method of attack" while on the train to Bellomont (1.2.8). Her beauty is described as a "weapon" (1.3.57). And check out this passage, re: the Brys' entry into the social elite:

To attack society collectively, when one's means of approach are limited to a few acquaintances, is like advancing into a strange country with an insufficient number of scouts; but such rash tactics have sometimes led to brilliant victories. (1.12.7)

It's not all tea parties and expensive upholstery. This is serious stuff. Consequently, however, the causalities of such social warfare are similarly grave. Lily becomes a tactical "sacrifice" to the Dorsets' marriage; it's clear that Bertha Dorset uses her as a pawn in her own scheming games. Sounds like more objectification, and more social Darwinism (survival of the socially fittest, right?).

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...