Time and time again in House of Mirth, society is presented as a "gilded cage." In New York at the tail end of the Victorian era, the members of the social elite find themselves confined by their own self-imposed rules. Women must marry for money, men must bring home the bacon, single girls aren't allowed to get too close to married men, women who expect to marry shouldn't be smoking or playing cards for money, etc., etc. The novel explores the notion of social determinism – its characters are born into specific social roles, expected to play their parts, and unsuited to any other sort of life. A socialite wife of a rich man is incapable of being a mechanic the same way a fish is incapable of living on dry land. This sort of Darwinian restriction is just another form of overwhelming confinement.
Questions About Freedom and Confinement
How do Lily and Selden's respective definitions of success correlate with the lives they each seem to be choosing?
Lily claims that Selden remembers the way out of the gilded cage, yet Wharton describes him as being tied down by the same deterministic manacles as the other characters. How free is Selden, really?
Which character suffers the most at the hands of social "manacles" in House of Mirth? Which character suffers the least?
Are Lily and Selden the only characters so acutely aware of their duties and distresses in the social sphere? Do characters like Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset have similar concerns, or are they blissfully happy in their societal roles?
Chew on This
Social manacles can not be broken in House of Mirth.
House of Mirth argues that deterministic social manacles can in fact be broken.