Study Guide

The House of Mirth Freedom and Confinement

By Edith Wharton

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Freedom and Confinement

She began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack. Something in his attitude of conscious absorption told her that he was aware of her presence: no one had ever been quite so engrossed in an evening paper! (1.2.8)

Look at the battle tactics involved in even the smallest of interactions in this novel. Lily has to measure and consider every word and action – it's no wonder she feels so trapped.

Even such scant civilities as Lily accorded to Mr. Rosedale would have made Miss Stepney her friend for life; but how could she foresee that such a friend was worth cultivating? How, moreover, can a young woman who has never been ignored measure the pang which this injury inflicts? And, lastly, how could Lily, accustomed to choose between a pressure of engagements, guess that she had mortally offended Miss Stepney by causing her to be excluded from one of Mrs. Peniston's infrequent dinner-parties? (1.11.47)

Wharton makes a decent point; we can't judge Lily for her treatment of Grace because Lily just doesn't know any better. She's not built for this sort of thing (more social determinism).

She had not known again till today that lightness, that glow of freedom; but now it was something more than a blind groping of the blood. The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together. (1.6.7)

It's interesting that Wharton uses this particular metaphor, since social determinism is repeatedly described as a set of "manacles" or "chains." Perhaps Lily's attraction to Selden is as much out of her control as her prescribed role in society.

"That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic."

Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. "Sometimes," she added, "I think it's just flightiness – and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for. And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study." (2.1.32-3)

Sometimes we think Mrs. Fisher understands Lily better than any other character in the novel….

To Selden's exasperated observation she was only too completely alive to them. She was "perfect" to every one: subservient to Bertha's anxious predominance, good-naturedly watchful of Dorset's moods, brightly companionable to Silverton and Dacey. (2.1.43)

Selden is frustrated to recognize that Lily willingly makes herself into a tool for other people to use. She has no independent entity; she only exists through other people's eyes, to perform tasks or play roles. That's why the novel begins with the sight of Lily through Selden's eyes….

Lord Hubert had promised his help, with the readiness on which she could always count: it was his only way of ever reminding her that he had once been ready to do so much more for her. (2.2.30)

Wharton hints at yet another wasted marriage opportunity in Lily's past. It's clear that Lily was conflicted about her future long before we joined her story at the age of 29.

To be of use was what she honestly wanted; and not for her own sake but for the Dorsets'. She had not thought of her own situation at all: she was simply engrossed in trying to put a little order in theirs. (2.3.4)

Lily actually is being selfless here, whereas she was incapable of such philanthropy earlier in Book I (when she donated to Gerty's charity in order to stroke her own ego).

She knew it was not by explanations and counter-charges that she could ever hope to recover her lost standing; but even had she felt the least trust in their efficacy, she would still have been held back by the feeling which had kept her from defending herself to Gerty Farish – a feeling that was half pride and half humiliation. (2.4.37)

Is this a reasonable explanation for Lily's refusal to defend herself? Why not at least explain to someone like Gerty, who would be willing to listen?

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