Study Guide

The House of Mirth Society and Class

By Edith Wharton

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Society and Class

She was smaller and thinner than Lily Bart, with a restless pliability of pose, as if she could have been crumpled up and run through a ring, like the sinuous draperies she affected. Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes, of which the visionary gaze contrasted curiously with her self-assertive tone and gestures; so that, as one of her friends observed, she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room. (1.2.38)

Being a woman automatically gives you some control in this novel; the men, on the other hand, have to work harder for social power.

Lily was therefore able to observe Mrs. Dorset also, and by carrying her glance a few feet farther, to set up a rapid comparison between Lawrence Selden and Mr. Gryce. It was that comparison which was her undoing. (1.5.10)

Her undoing, or her salvation? By what rubric are we to judge Lily's decision of Selden over Gryce?

She had always hated her room at Mrs. Peniston's – its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers. (1.13.78)

Lines like this one reveal Lily's true desire – to be independent. But as the second half of the novel confirms, she is physically incapable of leading the life she desires.

But now his love was her only hope, and as she sat alone with her wretchedness the thought of confiding in him became as seductive as the river's flow to the suicide. The first plunge would be terrible – but afterward, what blessedness might come! (1.15.49-50)

Even after her moral apotheosis, Lily still treats Selden as a tool, not as a human being. She doesn't deserve him – yet.

And I ain't talking to you as if you were – I presume I know the kind of talk that's expected under those circumstances. I'm confoundedly gone on you – that's about the size of it – and I'm just giving you a plain business statement of the consequences. (1.15.64)

Wharton uses variations in speech to distinguish between the socially elite and the outsiders. Rosedale isn't as eloquent or proper as a man like George Dorset or Lawrence Selden.

He would get on well enough if she'd let him alone; they like his slang and his brag and his blunders. But Louisa spoils it all by trying to repress him and put herself forward. If she'd be natural herself – fat and vulgar and bouncing – it would be all right; but as soon as she meets anybody smart she tries to be slender and queenly. She tried it with the Duchess of Beltshire and Lady Skiddaw, and they fled. I've done my best to make her see her mistake – I've said to her again and again: 'Just let yourself go, Louisa'; but she keeps up the humbug even with me – I believe she keeps on being queenly in her own room, with the door shut. (2.1.31)

For many, a ticket into society means conformity, deception, and self-delusion. What about for Lily Bart?

Mrs. Dorset smiled on her reproachfully. "Lecture you – I? Heaven forbid! I was merely trying to give you a friendly hint. But it's usually the other way round, isn't it? I'm expected to take hints, not to give them: I've positively lived on them all these last months."

"Hints – from me to you?" Lily repeated.

"Oh, negative ones merely – what not to be and to do and to see. And I think I've taken them to admiration. (2.2.89-91)

Bertha is referring to the fact that Lily hasn't included her in events with important people like the Duchess. Lily has been living off the Dorsets' money and distracting George Dorset as necessary, but once again her pride has gotten in the way of her safety and comfort.

"The whole truth?" Miss Bart laughed. "What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her." (2.4.23)

This is exactly what Judy Trenor tried to tell Lily in the beginning of the novel – that's it's safer to be fond of dangerous people. Lily learned this lesson the hard way, but at least she understands it by this point in the story. Still, Lily doesn't act on this lesson – she doesn't apply it to her own life and choices.

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