Discuss in detail how Edith Wharton uses character study, setting and symbolism to create effect in structuring the novel “The House of Mirth”. Identify and analyse the narrative and language techniques Wharton uses to bring the life of Miss Lily Bart effectively to her readers. Evaluate the effectiveness of the employment of setting and symbols and of narrative and language techniques to provide your judgement of the success of the novel. The novel “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton uses characters, setting and symbolism to bring the character of Lily Bart to life.
These techniques are also used to convey how Lily, the protagonist, survives in an upper class society and dealing with the rich, while searching for a husband. Lily Bart is a 29-year-old attractive woman. Despite her beauty, social and family ties, she is not married. She usually attends extravagant parties thrown by Judy Trenor which is attended by the majority of New York’s upper-class. This is where Lily develops financial issues because she is a gambling addict and events like these usually involve playing bridge for money.
Throughout the story Lily looks for a wealthy husband, hoping to relieve her financial burden and secure her place in the high class society. However, she finds a few potential husbands, but ends up denying them because she believes she can find a better man. During her search, her relationship with Lawrence Selden turns into love, but he is not wealthy enough for her. Gus Trenor lends her some money in turn for her to spend time with him, but she avoids being alone with him.
Lily now had to find a way to pay Trenor back but fails in getting a loan from her aunt who she was staying with, Mrs Peniston, because she is appalled at Lily’s gambling debts. Later, Bertha Dorset invites Lily on a cruise to the Mediterranean with her and her husband, George, but it is soon discovered that Bertha invited Lily to distract George while she ran off with Ned Silverton. However, when Lily socialises with royalty, Bertha becomes jealous and starts a rumour that Lily and George are having an affair.
This rumour leads to Lily being given the cold shoulder from many of her friends. Upon returning to America, Lily learns that her aunt died, leaving her with $10,000 – money that she could not have until a year later. As she waits for the money, she takes up jobs as a secretary to Norma Hatch and a hat maker, before moving into a boarding house. She starts taking sleeping pills to escape reality, that she is lonely. When the cheque finally arrives, she writes a cheque to Gus Trenor and the bank, and then overdoses on sleeping pills.
Selden shows up the next day to profess his love to her, only to find she is dead, with the cheques on her desk. Wharton uses narrative and language to bring effect to the character of Lily Bart. Things such as Lily’s facial expressions, her smiles and blushes, provide clues to Lily’s feelings. The narrative shows the gossiping between Judy Trenor and Lily provide an insight into what it is like in the families of those in the society. Many of the women involved have been through at least one divorce, with Mrs Trenor saying, “Five divorces and six sets of children” of one of the families.
This is a foreshadowing of what is to come in the novel – that Lily will fail in her attempts at finding happiness through money and that she will not succeed with love. The use of symbolism occurs in chapter four, where the circle of women at the tea table represent the social circle she wants to be part of “They represented the future she had chosen, and she was content with it, but in no haste to anticipate its joys. ” She had not chosen to join them yet, however, waiting until her supposed marriage to Percy Gryce took place before she could take her rightful spot among the women.
Unfortunately for Lily, Gryce is engaged to Evie van Osburgh, meaning she can never join the circle of women unless she finds a rich husband. This gives an insight into how Lily sees fitting in so important because her perception of herself is based on her social status. This is why she is committed to finding a rich man to marry even if she does not love him. Money is also a symbol in the novel as it represents freedom from her obligations. Lily is often shown having mood swings, especially where money is involved.
She feels both free and enslaved by it – free when she has money, but burdened by debt when she has none. The tableaux in which Lily poses for is a symbol of someone Lily wishes she were. People admire her as if she were a beautiful work of art, clad in her finest dress and looking her best, showing wealth and social status. However, this portrayal of her is false as she is not always beautiful and is not admired by everyone in the society and that the tableaux is only of someone Lily wishes she was. This also shows that Lily’s concerns of how people see her etermine the way she acts. Foreshadowing occurs when Lily realizes that “Selden’s love could not be her ultimate refuge”. In the end, Lily’s ultimate refuge was indeed not Selden’s love but her own death. Further into the novel, Lily is seen suffering and no longer cares about appearances but tries to survive with her financial issues continuing to weigh her down. When Lily is holding a newborn baby of a young woman she previously helped, it represents how she had finally grown up and is seen as a mother figure.
It shows that Lily would have been a good mother with a natural caretaker instinct, had it not been for her death. The use of symbolism, narrative and language techniques as well as setting adds effect to what Edith Wharton tries to portray in The House of Mirth. Gambling is important in this novel as it is becomes one of two reasons why Lily searches for a rich husband – to relieve her financial burden and to fit in to the high society. Lily’s gambling addiction also leads her to getting involved with the stock market which is another way to sink deeper into financial burden.
Lily is also obsessed with maintaining appearances, especially since she is often associated with the upper class, rich people. Wharton also uses nature to convey the emotions felt by her characters. When Lily and Selden take a pleasant walk together, the weather is described as “perfect” and Lily also admits the weather mirrors her feelings “Lily had no real intimacy with nature, but she had a passion for the appropriate and could be keenly sensitive to a scene which was the fitting background of her own sensations. Also, towards the end of the novel when Lily is on her way to Selden’s, it is pouring and the sky is grey, reflecting her troubled, hopeless mood. The novel also shows how the wealthy has more power over those who are not, and that people are willing to believe the wealthy over anyone else. When Bertha starts the rumour about Lily and George, people believe Bertha simply because she is wealthier than Lily, giving her the power to get rid of Lily from society. As the novel nears the end, Wharton shows Lily beginning to get older.
She portrays Lily as a mother figure to the newborn baby, as well as Fred van Osburgh who she worries about when he is in a difficult situation. It shows that Lily is getting old and is at a point where she should be applying her caretaking instincts to her own children, instead of being single with no children. Towards the end of the novel, Wharton uses flashbacks where Lily looks back to where she was at the beginning of the novel. The novel begins with her and Selden and it ends with them.
Book one shows how Lily succeeds in high class society despite her increasing debt, but book two show her fall from society due to her increasing debt. The setting in the novel is generally Bellomont, where everyone visits, and Lily attends knowing gambling is involved, intent on getting something out of everyone. This shows how Lily’s attitude rests solely on how much she can afford. Money becomes an important symbol in the novel as it shows that whenever Lily comes across money, she feels free, but is enslaved when she falls into debt.
She is confined to money because she can never be free, even when she thinks she is, as it is the controlling factor in her life. Symbolism, narrative and language techniques and setting is used to convey the main ideas in The House of Mirth. It shows how Lily makes it her personal mission to search for a wealthy husband to relieve herself of her financial burden and, later, to secure her place in high class society. Unfortunately, due to her indecision, she fails at finding a husband and ends up overdosing before the real love of her life can profess his love to her.