Self-Acceptance and Identity in The House of Mirth
My thoughts when it comes to the subject of ‘Is House of Mirth feminist?’ is that this is ultimately the wrong question to ask because when you’re looking at anything and asking ‘Is ______ feminist?’, you are asking the wrong question. This is the wrong question because nothing will ever truly manage to pass that hurdle. Nothing will ever be pure enough to be 100-percent feminist. This is because the stuff that does manage to conform to an ideology completely, from beginning to end, and contains no elements that would be considered problematic or contradictory to an ideology is called propaganda. It exists solely to espouse ideology and to be pure an ideology. Storytelling is inherently messy and conflict-driven or at least the Anglo forms of storytelling are rooted in conflict. That need for conflict in our narratives is in direct contradiction of ideological purity. So if you ask, ‘Does House of Mirth have feminist themes? Does it have some feminist values? Does it reflect perspectives that feminists would like to see more of?’, the answer is without a doubt yes. But if you ask, ‘Is House of Mirth feminist?’, the answer is going to be no simply because it can’t be. With this in mind, the question has an inherent answer, meaning that asking it only serves to waste time and distract from more interesting elements of the text.
Lily Bart is a terrible person. She’s a single-minded buffoon characterized by hypocrisy, gluttony, and greed. She’s not only ignorant and lazy but proud of her ignorance and defensive of her laziness. So how do I think I can get away with talking about her in a positive way when I spent an entire reading journal talking about how much of an empowered character she is? Well, it’s all about tone. House of Mirth is a satirical comedy. The entire point of satire is to stand something up and mock it in an attempt at shaming society into reform. In the case of House of Mirth, the satire becomes a bit more confusing due to who it’s about: the old-money aristocracy. In essence, Lily is a critical look at the female persona in the culture and media of late 19th Century aristocracy, showing off the double standard in gender roles and low expectations of women in high society. Because the story is critical of a high society that we, New Jersey high schoolers, have never been a part of, it’s harder for us to get the satire because we don’t only have to read the–rather dense–text but also put ourselves into the shoes of a 19th Century aristocrat. After all, Wharton wrote both House of Mirth and Age of Innocence to members of the high society she, herself, was a part of for so long. In other words, when we look at Lily Bart from the perspective of a 19th Century aristocrat, we’re supposed to think, ‘Oh, jeez, are we really this greedy? This self-absorbed? This broken?’ Lily mocks working people, and we’re supposed to feel bad about our abuses of the workers. Lily treats her each of her failings as individual catastrophes, and we’re supposed to feel bad about our own exaggeration. Lily covets and abuses power, and we’re supposed to feel bad about our own power-mongering. The only problem is that Homer is trapped in a tangled web of recursive influence. The first part of the problem is one that all satire faces, which is that no matter how ridiculous you make your satire, someone is going to agree with what you say and not what you mean. The classic example of this problem is with Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, an early-18 Century satire on the racism, naivety, and excesses of the aristocracy that proposed that the poor Irish people could sell their children as food to the British. Some people took it seriously. And that’s the inherent problem with satire; everything’s just one big inside joke. If you don’t know it’s satire, then you’re going to miss the point.
The final 10 episodes of Evangelion and, due to how these episodes reframed the early narrative, the rest of the show are a story about depression and the critical role of self-acceptance in identity in the toxic nature of obsession and fixation. Through the show, the writers often demonstrate in harsh and abrasive ways that no one can really rely on others for their self-identity, not friends, colleagues, authority figures, the goverment, your employer, or even lovers and family. None of them are a replacement for self-worth because at the end of the day, other people have their own things to worry about. Shinji’s life is an unending cascade of failures that drive home this point. The one thing Shinji most wants in his life is validation of who he is as a person. However, one-by-one, these things are taken away from him. No matter how hard he tries to impress his father, his father remains distant. His friendships and work relationships often let him down if he’s not outright robbed of them. His job betrays him, and the status that he gets from being important ultimately makes him a target and becomes a liability. In the end, Shinji is stripped of everything.
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