"Queer Myself for Good and All": The House of Mirth and the Fictions of Lily's Whiteness

By Harrison-Kahan, Lori | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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"Queer Myself for Good and All": The House of Mirth and the Fictions of Lily's Whiteness


Harrison-Kahan, Lori, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


At the conclusion of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth, few options remain for the novel's heroine Lily Bart. Forced out of the upper echelons of Old New York by false accusations of sexual impropriety, Lily recognizes that the only way to end her troubles may be to marry Simon Rosedale, the ardent and wealthy Jewish suitor whom she has rejected repeatedly due to his race. Marriage to Rosedale, however, would come at a cost: she must use the set of stolen love letters in her possession to blackmail her friend-turned-enemy, Bertha Dorset, and reinstate herself in society. Unless Lily satisfies this condition, Rosedale--equally shrewd in matters of money and the heart--will withdraw his long-standing proposal of marriage. As he explains bluntly, "I'm more in love with you 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" (362).

In the turn-of-the-century context of The House of Mirth, the verb "queer" refers to the act of decentering identity. For Rosedale, marriage to Lily--if she does not clear her name--would forever render him an outcast. This meaning of "queer" clearly anticipates our contemporary understanding of the word. Queer theorists argue that "queer" resists definition, referring instead to identities that are always in the process of being destabilized and thus cannot be fixed or defined. But "queer" as it is used today usually refers to sexual identity. (1) In contrast, Rosedale's fears about marrying Lily play out in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In stating that a union with Lily would queer him "for good and all," Rosedale indicates that queerness was a part of his identity that he tried to shed as he worked his way up in society. Due to their ethnic difference, Jews like Rosedale were perceived as "queer" at the turn of the century, and this placed them on the border between Americaness and racial otherness. Yet by trying to erase the signs of this difference and be accepted among the white elites, Rosedale--through his potential sameness--threatens to destabilize whiteness itself. Rosedale has attempted to trade an unstable Jewish identity for a more fixed white one and thereby lose some of his queerness, but marriage to Lily--whose social decline parallels his ascent--would reverse this process. It would ironically fix him as "queer," as beyond the pale. In implicating Lily as one who could "queer" him, Rosedale draws attention to her new status on the margins of society and reveals the instability of her sexual, racial, and class identities.

This essay examines the relationship between Lily and Rosedale alongside another "queer" alternative available to the novel's heroine once she is cast aside by most of her former friends. At this point in the novel, Lily is also presented with a proposal from the bachelor Lawrence Selden, the gentleman who has won her heart, but whom she does not dare marry due to his lack of adequate funds. But Selden does not ask that Lily share her life with him; instead he proposes that she form a union with another woman. Prompted by his cousin Gerty Farish, Selden puts forth this plan: "[Y]ou and [Gerty] could surely contrive a life together which would put you beyond the need of having to support yourself. Gerty, I know, is eager to make such an arrangement, and would be quite happy in it" (394). In the extensive criticism of The House of Mirth, this other alternative, a same-sex union with Gertrude Farish, the novel's closest approximation to the historical New Woman, goes strangely unremarked. To complicate matters, Gerty also purports to be an admirer of Lawrence Selden. Lily, Gerty, and Selden compose an erotic triangle that, in the words of Eve Sedgwick, is "a sensitive register precisely for delineating relationships of power and meaning, and for making graphically intelligible the play of desire and identification" (27). As a testament to the triangulated relationship between Selden and the two women, the proposal of marriage that Selden never makes is displaced onto his proposed union of Gerty and Lily.

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"Queer Myself for Good and All": The House of Mirth and the Fictions of Lily's Whiteness
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