Portrayal Of The Social Class In Edith Wharton’s Novel The House Of mirth
Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth offers an intricate and fluid analysis of social class. House of Mirth details a story about Lily Bart; a young woman who falls from trying to reach the top of the social spectrum to the working class. Lily discovers herself to be in a cruel and critical society that often oppresses the lower classes.
Lily’s story showcases the perils of descending social class as well as the social barriers separating the wealthy from the poor. Poverty becomes both a metaphorical and literal symbol that causes Lily’s downfall. Marx’s structure of social class is explored in a context beyond just labor and property, but through the lenses of social prowess, power, influence, access and proper tates to be fill accepted into the “social elite.”
In the House of Mirth, the characters range from all levels of society, ranging from the working class to the extremely wealthy. Wealth, however, is not the only factor in defining the character’s social class. The largest divide between classes comes in the form of social competency. For example, such a character would be Simon Rosedale, a wealthy Jewish man that tries to become one of the social elite.
However, despite attending social settings and parties hosted by the upper class, he is excluded because of his lack of social skills. While Rosedale has no monetary debt, he has little to no social credit to leverage, which is important because credit gives you power and leverage over other people. To combat this shortcoming, Rosedale considers marrying Lily to boost his social status and ascend to the upper class.
However, when Lily accepts his previous marriage proposal he laughs it off because she is unable to help him anymore due to her social decline. Rosedale goes on to explain how he’s “more in love with you [Lily] than ever, but if I married you now I’d queer myself for good and all, and everything I’ve worked for all these years would be wasted” (269). In Rosedale and Lily’s final enocutern, Rosedale offers to help Lily one more time by trying to persuade her to blackmail bertha in an attempt to regain her social status. Even though, Rosedale begins to develop real feelings for Lily, his final proposal was still an attempt to elevate his own social standing. Wharton points out the self- serving interests of the upper class through her own experience having been born and raised in an affluent family.
However, selfish interests are not confined to the wealthy. The House of Mirth focuses on Lily’s pursuit of a suitable husband. However, Lily’s purpose for finding a husband was for their wealth and social status. Lily donates money to Nettie Struther, but only to boost Lily’s own ego and to feel good about herself. (329). Grace Stephney gossiped about Lily’s gambling habitats to Mrs. Peniston to ensure her as the inheritor of Mr.s Penniston’s wealth rather than Lily. While both Grace and Lily are Mrs. Penniston’s nieces, their agenda portrays the selfishness that exists in society.
A huge part of social class that is exemplified in the House of Mirth is power that comes from being wealthy. Both the “old money” and “new money” of the upper class are able to repeatedly exert their power over overs. For example, Gus Trenor was able to make sexual advances at Lily because he helped her financially. In addition, the difference in inheritance values between Grace Stepney and Lily shows how Mrs. Peniston was able to assert her conservative beliefs upon individuals of the working class and the disdain she had towards Lily’s gambling habit, (233).
The affluent individuals in society are able to exert power and influence over those who are less unfortunate. Thus, the wealthy’s words hold more weight than the poor. Bertha Dorset is able to remove Lily from the yacht because the construction of her reality has more weight than someone of a lower class. She is able to hide her affair and exert power because she is wealthy, (277).
Another quality possessed by the upper class is impeccable taste in material goods. At the party, Trenor pointed out that the cigars tasted like soap and soup and champagne were not the correct temperatures (146). Trenr notices these minor unimportant details because these details are important to him because he comes from wealth. To move up in society, you must maintain an image that is aesthetic at all times. This is the reason why Lily gets so many dresses made. Lily’s name even serves as a metaphor for how one’s image must be preserved because lilies need a specific environment to grow.
In addition, the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism is seen frequently in The House. Karl Marx’s definition of commodity fetishism “is the perception of the social relationships not among people but among money and commodities on the market. Individuals such as Mrs. Peniston need and want new committees such as dresses. This is because the dresses serve as material evidence of wealth and power. The ownership of such commodities serves as a tool to further rise in society. Lily explains to her aunt the “expense a girl is put to nowadays, (180). Lily wants to look wealthy more than anything because her mother tried to preserve the status quo following the family’s financial ruins. Commodity fetishism is what drives people’s appearances, thus influencing piered wealth and rank in the social ladder.
Last, The House of Mirth shows the differences to how problems are solved among different social classes. The binary of poverty and death, emerges several times in the novel, such as Lily’s parents’ financial ruin or when she brought sleep medication. In the beginning of the novel Wharton states that Lily’s “whole-being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required” (27). Lily needed everyting around her to be afluent and wealthy ebcause she edded that as a person to survive. However, in the end Lily’s finanicia ruin caused her death.
While we don’t know for sure why she died, it can be arugued that Lily felt that suicide proved to be her only escape. If Lily had not fallen into finanical rin she wouldn’t have considered suicide as an option. Social class and wealth forces many characters into dire situations but life still goes on. Marx would likely disagree and say that class conflict drives society and individual lives,. However, it would be the other way around. For example, Nettie is content with her life and her baby but Lily was not content having to live poor. Lily’s rive towards the upper class is what ultimately lead to her demise.
In conclusion, there are many more aspects of social class than just wealth. To be a memeber of the upper classs, one must have social prowss, influence and power to succed. In the House of Mirth, Wharton uses the aituations that Lily’s in, to show how afluencee leads to inflence. Lily’s tragic death can be results from her decision to chase social standing as well as social classs itself. Ultimately, Lily fails to use her beauty and social prowess to ascend to the uppder class, showing that one must need more to become burgeosise.
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