Study Guide

The House of Mirth Women and Femininity

By Edith Wharton

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Women and Femininity

"What's become of Dillworth?" he asked.

"Oh, his mother was frightened – she was afraid I should have all the family jewels reset. And she wanted me to promise that I wouldn't do over the drawing-room."

"The very thing you are marrying for!"

"Exactly. So she packed him off to India." (1.1.77-9)

Women are always generally control, while men are usually passive in House of Mirth.

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident. (1.2.8)

For this reason, Lily is better able to manipulate men than women.

Miss Bart stared in affected reproval. "I thought you were so fond of Bertha."

"Oh, I am – it's much safer to be fond of dangerous people. (1.4.42-3)

This, too, is one of Lily's mistakes in House of Mirth – not tactically choosing her friends. For a woman who is supposedly cut out for this stuff, Lily never seems to play her societal cards right.

Lily pushed aside her finished work with a dry smile. "You're very kind, Judy: I'll lock up my cigarettes and wear that last year's dress you sent me this morning. And if you are really interested in my career, perhaps you'll be kind enough not to ask me to play bridge again this evening."

"Bridge? Does he mind bridge, too? Oh, Lily, what an awful life you'll lead! But of course I won't – why didn't you give me a hint last night? There's nothing I wouldn't do, you poor duck, to see you happy!" (1.4.59-60)

Lily's ability to manipulate does in fact cross the gender line.

Though Evie Van Osburgh's engagement was still officially a secret, it was one of which the innumerable intimate friends of the family were already possessed; and the trainful of returning guests buzzed with allusions and anticipations. Lily was acutely aware of her own part in this drama of innuendo: she knew the exact quality of the amusement the situation evoked. […] Lily knew well enough how to bear herself in difficult situations. […] But she was beginning to feel the strain of the attitude; the reaction was more rapid, and she lapsed to a deeper self-disgust. (1.9.3)

If Lily could re-live that Sunday afternoon at Bellomont, would she really do anything differently?

Mrs. Peniston rose abruptly, and, advancing to the ormolu clock surmounted by a helmeted Minerva, which throned on the chimney-piece between two malachite vases, passed her lace handkerchief between the helmet and its visor. (1.9.11)

We talk about mythological references in House of Mirth in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," and here is yet another. In this case, Mrs. Peniston is being associated with the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. She does indeed play the part of an older/wiser character to Lily's relative naiveté.

All her concern had hitherto been for young Silverton, not only because, in such affairs, the woman's instinct is to side with the man, but because his case made a peculiar appeal to her sympathies. He was so desperately in earnest, poor youth, and his earnestness was of so different a quality from Bertha's, though hers too was desperate enough. The difference was that Bertha was in earnest only about herself, while he was in earnest about her. (2.2.64)

This is the second time Wharton has suggested that women don't like other women – that they tend to side with men instead of their own gender. Do the actions of the characters in House of Mirth support this theory?

She drew herself up to the full height of her slender majesty, towering like some dark angel of defiance above the troubled Gerty. (2.4.28)

What an odd term to describe Lily, particularly in contrast to the squeaky-clean, virginal Gerty Farish. Lily has become much harder and determined than her helpless self in Book I.

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