“She was evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate … [yet her] 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.” –The House of Mirth
About a year into college, I switched majors from Real Estate to English Literature. My “plan” had been to earn a B.B.A. and pursue a career in real estate appraising, a road that two of my uncles had chosen to make a living. It wasn’t very apparent where this choice would lead, but it was a required core American Literature course (and its professor) that sparked my interest in studying literature further. The following fall semester, I had already changed majors, and registered for (what was now) another required course in introductory literary studies. Same professor. Actually, funnily enough, it was the same lecture hall. I think even the exact same classroom.
Towards and as a part of the completion of the class, we were required to choose one of three novels, and apply to it, in essay form, (I will pause to apologize in advance if my blog posts more resemble essays than blogs!), one of the ten “literary theories” we had studied and read about throughout the semester.
This was deep stuff. In the beginning, I really had no idea what the purpose of these theories were meant for. Among the required reading were philosophies and literary theories and movements of the past century, including Marxism, deconstructionism, multi-culturalism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and ideas of “modernity,” formed by legendary “thinkers” such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, and the like. Yeah. All, as a newcomer to literary studies, completely and utterly over my head. Yet I was fascinated.
Among the choice of novels meant to be used for this assignment was Wharton’s The House of Mirth; I had never read it to this point, but chose it solely based on my initial attraction to Wharton’s storytelling in Ethan Frome, in high school, her only work I had read, and enjoyed, to date. I was pleasantly surprised. Again. I didn’t realize it right away, but Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart — her physical beauty, her fragile, inner sense of dignity, her (literally) painful awareness of the world around her — was merely a subconsciously female counterpart of Ethan Frome. Going through the story for the first time, I also identified with how the urban setting of Edwardian Manhattan, both the physical, lavish constructs of Fifth Avenue, and the plutocracy that controlled it (“The Lords of Pittsburgh,” as Edith Wharton referred to the industrial tycoons of her day), played an integral part in the plotting of Lily’s destiny. New York City, in Lily’s time, was still a residual product of the wealthy Dutch ancestry that had purchased, founded, and established the “New Amsterdam” of the 17th Century, and was not exactly the wondrous, modern metropolis of today that leaves countless tourists awe-struck and on sensory overload. New York City was, for brooding, independent souls, like Lily Bart, an asphyxiating prison.
The proverbial light-bulb went on over my head after realizing Wharton’s implication: we are creatures of our environment. This really is no cliche, and was certainly no cliche in Wharton’s time. Even though Lily is born into white privilege and financial “advantage,” she still (again, no spoiler alerts here) ends up, just like anyone else “beneath her,” living in debilitating poverty. She makes that feared descent into failure alone, although there are some in her path, social “outliers,” like Lily’s penniless, dilettante love interest, Selden, and his “dingy” cousin, Gerty Farrish, who attempt to intervene. A literary critic of the time, Edmund Wilson, writes in his critique, “Justice to Edith Wharton,” (1937, the year of Wharton’s death), that she (Wharton) makes a point to craft her novels as “almost [invariable upshots] of a conflict between the individual and the social group.” This is Wharton’s unspoken, but obvious mantra behind her fiction and form, and the inevitable driving force of action (or inaction?) in the lives of her characters, like Ethan, and, as we see here, Lily. It is the defining feature of her tragedy, like the ornate facade and pinnacles of the Woolworth Building, only for Wharton’s characters, it is more like the banal, obtrusive face of an exceedingly unjust social prison.
My mind immediately went to a theory I had enjoyed reading about in our theory textbook: Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon, a term mentioned in his more thought-out, novel-length book “Discipline and Punish.” A panopticon is a circular French bastille (prison) that has, within its center, concentric layers of building structure that contains individual prison cells. These cells are constantly monitored by guards from a sentry tower located in the center of the structure, but cannot be seen by the inmates (hence the effectiveness of monitoring and controlling the behavior of the prisoners). This concept of surveillance immediately reminded me of the New York of Wharton’s time, played out in The House of Mirth, and how the physical buildings that line the dull, cheerless avenues of Lily’s New York are the “sentry towers,” the members of her circle the “sentries”. We see an example of this as Lily’s Aunt Julia, a loveless relative who “tries [Lily] for a year” in an act of pretentious charity after the death of Lily’s parents, constantly watches Lily’s comings and goings from the windows of the drawing room. Everything is scrutinized, and everyone knows everyone else’s business, in a society where “scandal was dreaded more than disease”; only, because of her innate, intuitive sensibilities, Lily Bart does realize this, and understands her need to both satisfy and resist it in order to survive. The only place in this brownstone menagerie that Lily feels “free,” we discover halfway through the novel, is the “other-worldliness” of the Brys’ conservatory, the Brys a new-monied family who host a lavish ball (orchestrated to facilitate their ascent into the upper-class) where Lily is an invitee; it is in this conservatory that Lily shares a kiss with Selden. Wharton implies that the wild foliage of the natural world on display in the conservatory serves as a metaphor for Lily’s natural beauty, similarly on display for, and at the disposal of, a group of people who would rather admire the conceited, materialistic grandiosity of their own achievements.
How does all this lead to Lily’s eventual condemnation from society? Lily knows her limitations, in terms of the people and occurrences dictating her fate, but she does not know her limitations in how to tolerate and deal with them, so she resorts to self-policing tendencies to preserve her fragile spirituality. It is her most rational choice, because, sadly, sound personal choices of any other kind are, for Lily, themselves limited, and few and far between; almost any other choice made available to her to escape or transcend her crises (one, the threat of poverty, the other, the grim humiliation of sacrificing her personal integrity to remain rich by marrying rich), will mean some kind of abject compromise. For Lily, as the reader navigates her gradual, turbulent fall from grace, we begin to realize that she is, proverbially, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. It is not so much the viscous, heinous, unforgiving, grudge-holding social circle that allegorically jails and incarcerates her, but it is Lily that incarcerates herself, and ironically, in so doing, preserves her sense of self-worth, however neurotic she may appear to those close to her. In her eyes, even at the close of the final chapter, staying true to herself, defying the “attrition and corrosion of the soul” that is enabled by her tangled connections with New York’s elite, is what actually frees her in the end, and Lily Bart becomes not just a literary heroine in her own right, but a transcendent testament to, and mythological martyr of, the age-old destructive forces of every American society that preceded Wharton’s time, the society that Wharton herself knew, and every American society since.
What can we learn from Lily Bart? Why was the city of her time such a dreary, confining, and spiritually intoxicating place, when the city as we know it today has become a place of change, education, and reform? Have the confinements of the “class-based” society vanished completely? It can be noted, and has been documented through the American historical record, that this time period, the Edwardian Era, was an age of “transition” between not only the American post-Civil War era, but of an intensely global imperialist ideology (Wharton actually confessed, in 1901, to being a “rabid imperialist,” despite her understanding of the cruel forces of elitism), and the ravages and consequences of the First World War. This was, in both a literary and historical context, a time of excess and arrogance of faith in man’s achievements and wealth, even if it was at the expense of not only sensitive, artistic persons in high society (like Lily), but also the quality of life and “good of the masses,” the 3rd, and even 2nd-class (now, as we call it, middle class) citizens of Wharton’s day. Spirited, adventurous visionaries of any kind, in any social stratum, were discouraged, and even though history has revealed the ignorance of this attitude, we must now go in search of the Lily Barts and Ethan Fromes of our time; that they must no longer be stifled, exiled, or ignored; we must break the molds, the deceptive, self-serving misuses of religion and politics, and find the true, pure meaning of our individual purpose in this world, and — yes, we can still dream — the world to come. The bleakness and harshness of Whartonian fate becomes merely the thing of legend, and although, as Edmund Wilson states, “[Wharton’s] grimness melts rapidly into benignity,” perhaps even obscurity, her message remains clear: that the single greatest incarcerating force, the thing that keeps us from glory and liberation, our greatest enemy, is not society and the confounding disapproval of other people, but the lies we believe about ourselves.
We can now clearly see Lily Bart in her glory. Wharton has uncuffed Lily from her suffering, and released her “Beyond!” the annals of her prose, the limitations of her own storytelling. Lily’s period of incarceration has ended, and Wharton gives her, at the end of the novel, a final, eternal rite of passage, the breath of a single word, the utterance of which, made by Selden, “makes all else clear.”