Egoism And Hypocrisy In The House Of Mirth
Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth depicts New York society as an undesirable model of behaviors. Social fortunes are determined by social reputation. Like so many other members from the upper class, people need to follow the rules of the game and takes part in deceit and exploit to secure their social standing. Lily is forced to confront the moral dilemma of her actions; she has to decide whether she needs to sacrifice her principles in favor of the social codes of high society, or whether she will give up her ambitions for social power to defend her integrity.
In the high society which Lily lives, people do not hesitate to protect themselves through lies and deception. As a result, egoism becomes the major moral agency; people believe it is always moral to promote one’s right or interest; self-serving, and self-motivating are the only valid value that encourages manipulation to obtain the power and money.
The House of Mirth chronicled the social life of its central character; Lily Bart, a beautiful single young woman who at age twenty-nine, must surpass her competitors and find a wealthy husband so she can maintain her place in the upper class. To become part of this world, Lily need to participate in social supremacy to obtain the power of money she desires. Lily’s mother is a critical character in her development, who was nothing shy of obsessed with money. Mrs. Bart raises Lily with a sense of entitlement to wealth and always had a constant fear of living like a ‘pig’ — someone who living a lesser lifestyle with worn down clothing and consumed by ‘dinginess’ (Wharton 29).
The desire for social prestige dominates Mrs. Bart’s feeling when she saw the social success of her rivals compares with her failure, and she is willing to sacrifice her daughter. She believes that Lily’s beauty can return the family to prosperity, and her attitude toward beauty and money become the guiding criteria of worth profoundly influence Lily’s value.
Other members of Lily’s family are also victims of this cultural obsession, and they live in a ‘crowded selfish world.’ After her parents’ death, the question of who will become Lily’s guardian threatens the family until Lily is taken in by her aunt, Mrs. Peniston. The only reason that Mrs. Peniston takes Lily in is that other family members shame her into it — she lives alone and cannot devise a legitimate excuse not to take charge of Lily.
Throughout the story, Mrs. Peniston is not involved in Lily’s personal life, Lily’s relation with her aunt was “as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs’ (130). She is care less about helping her niece than scolding her, blaming Lily for the rumors that exist about her. Mrs. Peniston decision is dictated by an anxious concern for social approval and reputation, and she does not even try to ascertain the truth of the rumors about Lily. She chooses to have faith in gossip, and afraid Lily will shame the family, which ultimately pushes her to disinherit and forsake Lily.
In Lily’s effort to marry a rich man, she is ready to fake her true self and pretends to be someone she is not. She tries to seduce Percy Gryce, by portraying to be a conservative woman who never smoked or gambled and attends church regularly. Her ambition to entice Percy Gryce into marriage indicated the degree to which she assimilates her social world by successfully securing the attention of this wealthy and obtuse bachelor.
Therefore, for Lily, hypocrisy is a crucial step to her social success; she needs to pretend to be someone she is not to grab the attention of others. In Lily’s social game, believing the ultimate goal: money and power, is a noble ambition and ultimate happiness, and marriage is only for social gain not for love. The novel depicts Lily’s intention to marry a rich man as ‘she would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset…. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. There were old scores she could pay off…’ (45).
In short, Lily perceives society as an end, not as an opportunity for nobler and higher possibilities of life. She only pursues the mimetic value rather than spiritual value. In James W. Gargano’s article ‘The House of Mirth: Social Futility and Faith,’ he labels the social life which Lily schemes for success as ‘money assures privilege, but privilege, too cheaply construed, dissipates into an expense of spirit and a waste of shame’ (Gargano 139). He uses the term ‘expense of spirit’ and ‘a waste of shame’ from Shakespeare to indicates that the pursuit of money is a way of squandering spirit while leading to shame.
A significant part of the novel’s plot centers on an intense struggle between Lily Bart and Bertha Dorset. Lily experienced such hypocrisy herself when her friend Bertha invented and spread a lie accusing Lily of trying to seduce Bertha’s husband, George, to detract public attention and coverup the adultery that she committed. This attitude reflects the general idea that truth matters less than public appearance. In the conversation between Lily and her friend Gerty, ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s is 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 opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her’ (195).
In this case, even though most people know that Bertha is lying and that Lily is innocent, Bertha still ruled the situation, and her accusation condemns Lily to social isolation and ruins Lily’s reputation and social life, all because Bertha has a higher social and financial standing than Lily has. This scene reveals Bertha’s character, very utterly self-engrossed and irresponsible, and she has no hesitations sacrificing other people to please or protect herself.
Throughout the story, Lily Bart has the most contradictory relation to her social network and moral principles. In the story’s perceptive Lily as ‘she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing the seed, but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic’ (163). This is foreshadowing Lily’s attempts to upgrade her standing with her ambition and her snobbery to prevent ‘dinginess.’ On the other hand, she sometimes despises some of her desires, and give up a rare opportunity to establish her position in society.
Although Lily accepts her social world, she still retains the moral values that keep her from harming people intentionally. Lily’s moral obligation enables her to perceive the outcome of her action. At the end of the novel, when she has the opportunity to blackmail Bertha to resume her social standing and reputation, Lily decides to abstain from immoral behavior and to subdue her desire for revenge. As a result, she burns Bertha’s letter and reflects on her actions:
In fending off the offer he was so plainly ready to renew, had she not sacrificed to one of those abstract notions of honour that might be called the conventionalities of the moral life? What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial? …Bertha Dorset, to save herself, had not scrupled to ruin her by an open falsehood; why should she hesitate to make private use of the facts that chance had put in her way? After all, half the opprobrium of such an act lies in the name attached to it. Call it blackmail, and it becomes unthinkable; but explain that it injures no one, and that the rights regained by it were unjustly forfeited, and he must be a formalist indeed who can find no plea in its defence. (259)
For Lily, blackmail remains blackmail no matter how one looks at it or how justifiable circumstances might make it, and it is unethical behavior. She will not engage in such immoral and hypocritical acts for the sole purpose of social advancement, even though her honest, and right conduct may cause her to lose everything.
The decision that Lily makes is a moment of moral enlightenment where she realizes the social hypocrisies in this oppressive society. Lily saves herself from materialistic values by her enduring sense of honor and integrity, separating herself from a society ‘where generosity of feeling and moral restraint have tacitly become two incomprehensible follies of the remote and forgotten past’ (Ouzgane 8).
Also, Lily exhibits strong moral obligation to repay her debts. When she found out that she is deeply indebted to Gus Trenor, Lily still bears responsibility and is convinced that she needs to pay him back, even though she lacks the means to do so. In the last chapter of the novel, she loses everything and working hard as a working-class, she remains committed to her principles and addresses a check to pay back her debit. This demonstrates Lily’s ability to retain the traditional value by keeping her away from avoidance of responsibility.
Just before her death, Lily realizes, there is something more than living in material life, and there is something more miserable than living like ‘pig’: “and as she looked back, she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life. Her parents too had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts. She herself had grown up without anyone spot of earth is dearer to her than another” (274).
According to Marilyn McEntyre, ‘Lily’s suicide is a testimony to the cost of living life trivially, pursuing false happiness, and habituating oneself to numbing material comforts.’ The House of Mirth assets that there is no life possesses spiritual vitality until a belief motivates it in its significance. She finally understands that life has too much injustice. Some people devote all their still unfulfilled, because people are eager to get an ‘enviable’ social image and live in vanity. Such desires subvert the principle of moral life and reduce the interaction between people and make people become self-interest.
Just like Lily mention in the novel, she discovers that there had never been a time when she had any real relation to life, similar to her parent, Mrs. Peniston, Bertha, even herself. People are blinded by immediate interests, and all the hypocritical behavior is because vanity, ‘fashionable society, though it might give one temporary eminence, does not include a spiritual home’ (Ouzgane 13).
The pursuit of power and money became a desire to surpass all competitors to gain social recognition finally led to egoism and hypocrisy. Materialistic rivalry destroys human reason, and the members in the house of mirth are distorting perception into— snobbery, prejudice, and social competition. The House of Mirth demonstrates a collision between a fixed scale of the social place and an evolving measure of moral value by depicting this crowded selfish world.
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