Female Doubling: The Other Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth.'
Sapora, Carol Baker, Papers on Language & Literature
At Mrs. Wellington Bry's evening of tableaux vivants, when the curtain suddenly parts on a picture that is "simply and undisguisedly the portrait of Miss Bart," we are told that the awed spectators pay tribute not to Reynolds's "Mrs. Lloyd" but to the "flesh and blood loveliness of Lily Bart" (Wharton, Mirth 131). Each person in this "house of mirth" is convinced that now he or she has had a vision of "the real Lily." As readers, we, too, are eager to see just who Lily Bart really is. With raised expectations, we study the guests' reactions, hoping to find the key to this appealing but puzzling woman. Mr. Ned Van Alstyne, connoisseur of the "female outline," sees Lily as the epitome of physical perfection. He can't hold back his exclamation of appreciation: "Gad, there isn't a break in the lines anywhere" (131). Lawrence Selden, cultivated authority on inner value, is struck speechless by the "noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace"; he sees Lily as pure poetry, "divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part" (131). Humanitarian Gerty Farish's response is hardly less enthusiastic. Pleased with Lily's simple dress, she sees the "real Lily" she knows, the one who has been kind and generous to the working-class girls in her Girls' Club. The rest of the audience's responses are heard only in the unanimous "Oh!" that greets Lily's appearance, but their specific interpretations are clear enough from their subsequent actions. Gus Trenor sees Lily as a sexual object on display, and he later lures her to his house alone, determined to get his share of the goods he feels he has already paid for. Simon Rosedale sees her economic value. She is the perfect woman to display his jewels and to pose for a "Paul Morpeth" portrait that would be sure to "appreciate a hundred per cent in ten years" (154). Rosedale proposes a plain business deal: if Lily will be his wife, he promises "to provide for the good time and do the settling" (173). If we as readers pay attention to these responses, however, we will come no closer to an understanding of Lily than we were before the curtain opened, for the guests see not the "real Lily Bart" but rather reflections of their own ideals of womanhood embodied in Lily's "dryad-like curves" (131).
Here, at the center of Edith Wharton's most popular novel, The House of Mirth, we observe a type of literary doubling that raises an issue that was of prime concern in the early twentieth century, the "woman question." We see that the question in this novel is not merely who is the real Lily Bart--the "flesh and blood" woman or the breath-taking work of art she has created--but who or what is a real woman. Writers like Wharton, concerned with both their careers as creative artists and their position in society as women, saw not only the privileges but also the imprisonment resulting from the idealization of women. In their writing, they found many ways, both direct and indirect, to express their feelings of division. In the works of this period, readers today can see, more comprehensively perhaps than contemporary readers could, the double messages these writers and their texts often delivered. Not surprisingly, one of the conventions particularly suited to dealing with the feelings of division and conflict was the technique of literary doubling. In doubling, women writers found a convention their readers readily recognized and accepted, but because women's experiences and concerns were different from men's, their uses of doubling differed. It is this revised and often reversed doubling used to by-pass or subvert the surface message of a text that I will examine here. Although doubling is usually studied as an attribute of male characters, it is a convention used by many women writers in general and Wharton in particular to address the "woman question." Wharton uses Lily and her double to criticize society, to comment on women's lack of access to language, and finally to allow her character a kind of personal triumph even in her physical defeat.
Many different ideas are loosely collected under the concept of doubling. Doubles are mysterious and elusive--sometimes seen, sometimes hallucinated; sometimes they are external characters or physical duplicates who share a psychic understanding with the main character, sometimes they take the form of internal personality divisions that make a character behave like two different people. They inhabit a world half rational, half irrational; they seem to come half from the conscious, half from the subconscious mind.(1) From ancient myth, primitive folklore, early philosophy, and religion, the doubled or divided character has appeared as a metaphor for people's feeling of division--from themselves, from their society, or from their culture.(2) It is the broad and elusive qualities of the technique that both draw writers to use doubles in their fiction and make defining the term so difficult. Attempts to describe doubles precisely often seem to let their power slip away.
By the nineteenth century, literary doubling and pairing of opposites was common in popular Gothic romances and sentimental fiction. It was a code, familiar to both writers and readers, that enabled them to deal with subjects and emotions which social mores and internal censors barred from direct representation. In Gothic romances, supernatural doubles suggest man's self-alienation. Edgar Allan Poe depicts William Wilson's struggle to the death with his interfering "other self"; Feodor Dostoyevsky in The Double shows Golyadkin's increasing distress as he tries to dissociate himself from his identical double; Robert Louis Stevenson's doubles, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, portray the war between the accepted and the repressed parts of a single personality; Oscar Wilde has Dorian Gray watch his portrait-double gradually reflect his own moral degeneration; and in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay's and Sidney Carton's similar appearance highlights their divergent characters. In sentimental fiction, paired light and dark women often appear as antithetical doubles embodying the hero's moral choice. Typically the heroine's blond hair denotes purity and innocence while her dark-haired counterpart offers passion and the temptations of sin. Charles Dickens's heroines frequently operate as opposing pairs. The "mild and gentle," "pure and beautiful," blue-eyed Rose Maylie contrasts with the dark, more
earthy prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist. In William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, the demonic Becky Sharp stands out against the angelic Amelia Smedley. Even works that question the absolute black and white dichotomy of the doubling convention depend on the reader's understanding of it. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, the fair Priscilla and the dark Zenobia embody Coverdale's choice between spirit and flesh, although which is better is not necessarily clear. In Herman Melville's Pierre; or, the Ambiguities, the dark-haired Isabel and the fair Lucy are seen, albeit ambiguously, as Pierre's good and bad angels vying for his soul.(3) Whether through physical duplicates or psychological counterparts, story tellers can find in the conflicts of divided and doubled characters ways to express the inexpressible and speak of the tabooed.
Women writers at the turn of the century frequently used the convention of doubling to deal with a different forbidden topic--their own independence. Feeling a conflict between their careers as artists and their social positions as women, they used the available conventions of their male literary heritage for their own purposes.(4) In divided and paired characters, they could express their simultaneous impulses to speak out against the restrictions that bound them and to acquiesce silently to the privileges that protected them. Using literary doubling, they could explore the dilemma of being pulled in opposite directions by their sense of themselves as artists and their acceptance of themselves as women. Doubling allowed them, without alarming their male editors and publishers, to deliver these contradictory and often subversive double messages in their fiction.
A number of studies of women writers have pointed out the use of doubling as a convention that can reflect issues of gender. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic, examine nineteenth-century women writers' uses of opposing pairs of monsters and angels. They suggest that the madwoman found in so many of these works is the repressed half of the author's personality, "the image of her own anxiety and rage" (78). The mad double enacts the author's "raging desire to escape male houses and male texts," while at the same time articulating the "costly destructiveness of anger repressed until it can no longer be contained" (85). Sharon O'Brien, in her biography of Willa Cather, traces the patterns that link "an individual's many selves" in Cather's fiction and points out that, because Cather's lesbianism required an additional layer of concealment, her "resolution of the oppositions between female identity and artistic vocation" was sometimes obscured (7). She used male characters and heterosexual love affairs as "masks" or "cover" stories to protect her true self and disguise her real story (217).
Some critics have noted the subversive potential of the doubling convention. Karl Miller, in Doubles: Studies in Literary History, describes the cultural heritage of duality from the Romantic period to the present and finds that the double "stands at the start of that cultivation of uncertainty by which the literature of the modern world has come to be distinguished" (viii). Miller sees the dualistic quality of literature as an author's response to the contradictions, dilemmas, and ambiguities of life. He finds doubling crucial to the modern writer's projection of a divided world and emphasizes "the ambiance of the double with its constant inversions and reversals" (416). Rosemary Jackson, in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, also discusses doubling's contribution to the subversion of texts in fantastic literature. Fantastic literature, using the conventions of realistic fiction to present what is "manifestly unreal," constantly questions "the status of what is being seen and recorded as |real'" (34). The double can represent "the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made |absent,'" (34). Doubles, whether real or unreal, can call attention to what exists but is denied.
Edith Wharton, a writer familiar with the nineteenth-century conventions of doubling, demonstrates the way repressed or silenced writers develop strategies for speaking out through encoded or double messages in their texts. Through the doubled character Lily Bart, Wharton explores the restrictions of gender that defeated women in her society even as she, through her writing, rose above those restrictions. Lily's double is not a physical duplicate but a division of a single personality. The many secondary characters in this novel serve as foils to delineate Lily's character and expose the oppressiveness of her situation but not as true doubles, for Lily's appearance, personality and circumstances disqualify each of the others' solutions to the difficulties of being a woman. Lily is not unattractive like Gerty Farish, rich like Gwen Van Osburgh, simple like Gwen's sister Evie, married like Judy Trenor, unscrupulous like Bertha Dorset, or scheming like Carrie Fisher. Nor is she fortunate enough to find a man who loves and accepts her as she is, like Nettie Struther. To find Lily's double we must examine the complexity of her own personality. Lily herself feels like two different people: one fully occupied with her "vocation" of finding a rich husband and one growing tired, after eleven years, of the demands of the race. This division causes her to swing from eager acceptance of the people and luxuries of society to utter disgust with the "crowded selfish world of pleasure" (47). Sometimes she sees only the "amiable qualities" of these "lords of the only world she cared for" (48), while at other times she sees, "under the glitter of their opportunities, . . . the poverty of their achievement" (53). One of her selves conforms to the image of a "jeune fille a marier," the other flies from the prospect of allowing a man to bore her for life.
Lily's private self is different from the one she displays in public. This hidden self generally makes her uncomfortable when she is alone, and so she avoids the solitude that would force her into dialogue with it. She looks around on the train for someone to talk with in order "to get away from herself" (15); and after a losing evening of bridge, she lingers on the stairway because she has "no desire for self-communion" (22). Again and again when she cannot face the disagreeable implications of her situation, she runs away from her public self and its associates. She escapes reckoning with her creditors by accepting Gus's stock market tip; she avoids the unsavory overtones of his loan by sailing on the Dorset's yacht; she ignores Bertha's accusations by joining the Gormers in Alaska; and when she fails to make herself indispensable to Mattie Gormer, she takes a job with Mrs. Norma Hatch. Much as Lily longs for change, however, she cannot escape the restrictions of her public double's goals, for "the utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting" (97). Wharton shows that women's training and society's expectations do not provide Lily with a horizon any broader than the social conventions she knows. As she tells Gerty, "The beginning was in my cradle, I suppose--in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for" (220). Although the motto on Lily's seal reads "Beyond!" (151), as a society woman she is not equipped to go beyond the narrow limits of her sheltered existence.
In Lawrence Selden, Lily thinks she has finally found a person who will welcome her inner self, a friend "who won't be afraid to say the disagreeable [things]" that her real self needs to hear (7). Lily has acted the part of her public self for so long that she has begun to fear she has no other self left. She looks to Selden to verify her existence, to prove the reality of her inner self. Because he seems to see beneath the surface of their materialistic society, she tries to show him that she has a self worthy of his recognition. Each time they meet, Lily's inner self, not her social double, comes forth. She feels "an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her" (58) when she thinks he has not followed her on her Sunday morning walk. After he catches up with her, she opens their conversation with a frank, though playful, exchange about her experiment; she does not try to hide her tactics from him. But then, when Percy Gryce also appears, her face suddenly changes as she resumes the role of her other self, her public double (60). Selden admires Lily and the appearance she gives of being the ideal woman, but he does not understand the complexity of her double personality. He is fascinated by the glimpses he catches of her inner self, but he doesn't believe in it--he thinks "even her weeping was an art" (69). When, during their afternoon walk, they speak of marrying, it is Lily who reminds him of reality: "I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes" (71). Nevertheless, they climb "like adventurous children ... to a forbidden height from which they, discover a new world," leaving the "actual world" behind (71). From this elevated height, society no longer matters. But they are soon recalled to the real world, ironically, by Lily's recollection of the lie her public self told in order to buy their afternoon together--"I told them I was not well--that I should not go out" (71). The spell is broken, but this moment of freedom costs Lily a future of ease and luxury though it also saves her from a life of boredom and weekly church attendance.
Lily's inner self is rarely seen in her society. Nevertheless it is there. It is the self that draws "deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration" when she climbs to the heights with Selden (61). It is also the self that becomes increasingly frightened by the image it sees reflected in mirrors. She asks Gerty, "Can you imagine looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement--some hideous change that has come to you while you slept? Well, I seem to myself like that--I can't bear to see myself in my own thoughts" (161). Finally, it is the self she tries to leave with Selden when she is on her way to Bertha Dorset's to use the incriminating packet of letters in a last desperate effort to regain her lost position in society. Cold and shivering, Lily tells Selden, "There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you. . .--but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you--I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you--and she'll be no trouble, she'll take up no room" (303).
On the surface, the story of Lily Bart seems a conventional example of literary doubling. Otto Rank, in his early work, The Double: A Psychoanalytical Study, would classify it as a clear case of split personality. Robert Rogers, in his A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature, would describe it as a story of division where two parts of a single person struggle against and eventually destroy each other. On the other hand, C. F. Keppler, in The Literature of the Second Self, would not consider it an example of literature of the "second self," for to qualify as such, a double must have both "an external reality" and share a "basic psychic identity" with the first self (11). While these various categorizations may be valid, they are not as helpful in discovering and describing what happens to Lily Bart as they might be, and they do not hint at the complexity of what is going on on Wharton's text. Closer consideration reveals that Wharton is using the convention of doubling in an unconventional way. Lily does not face her double except as reflected in mirrors that sometimes flatter and sometimes distort her image, nor do the other members of her society meet two different "Jekyll and Hyde" personalities sharing the same body. Lily senses her own division, but only we as readers are able to mark the distinction Wharton makes between the "real" Lily that the guests think they see in the tableau vivant and the Lily whose character emerges ever more clearly throughout the course of the novel. In typical nineteenth-century male doubling, whether the characters are multiple or divided, "the ugly and frightening realities of man's nature [are] hidden behind an attractive facade" (Elbarbary 113). Wharton reverses the typical positions of the doubles. Lily's secondary, "ugly" (i.e. hypocritical) self plays the dominant role in the story and her real "attractive" self appears as the "Other." Thus Wharton both conforms to the archetypal patterns commonly used in nineteenth-century literary doubling and converts them to accommodate her own concerns as a woman and an artist.
Wharton was not alone in her use of female doubling or in her revision and subversion of the convention to serve her own purposes. Other writers from this period reflect similar feelings of division and equally duplicitous uses of the convention of doubling. The woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" clearly releases her "other self," her double, from imprisonment behind the wallpaper, but is her action heroic or insane? Is her double her better or her worse self? Edna Pontellier, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, may see her options represented by the opposing characters of her friends, the matronly Madame Ratignolle and the artistic Mademoiselle Reisz, but her "other self" is most clearly embodied in the birds that whistle, scream, fly, and flutter throughout the text. How are readers to interpret these feathered alter egos? Color adds another dimension to the possibilities of doubling when used by African-American women writers caught in the two-fold subjection of gender and race. What does it mean when Angela Murray in Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun passes as white? Women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, and Zora Neale Hurston, among many others, have used various forms of the convention to reflect and protest the condition of women in their society. Wharton, however, made the convention work not only to criticize society but also to characterize what she saw as the most significant restriction on women, their lack of access to language and, more importantly, their consequent inability to use language as independent adults.
At the turn of the century, much of the fiction being produced in America was written by women. Although these writers still struggled against Hawthorne's label of "scribbling women," their stories and novels appeared in major literary journals and their books were given serious attention by the predominantly male publishing industry. As Elaine Showalter explains, women of this period no longer rejected the male literary tradition that had seemed so alien to their own culture earlier in the nineteenth century. This generation of women writers saw themselves as "artists" and were concerned with working out "their relationship to both the male and female literary heritage" ("The Death" 137). The fact remains, however, that they were still restricted by Victorian notions of acceptable behavior as well as by their internalized cultural prohibitions. Despite the attention paid to the "New Woman" and her new freedoms, these women found it difficult to deal frankly with exclusively female experiences and to convey their persistent dissatisfaction with women's prescribed roles.
Biographies of women from this period underscore the common feelings of division peculiar to women and describe some of their different strategies for dealing with it. Jean Strouse's biography of Alice James documents the tremendous demands that late nineteenth-century society placed on women to be dependent. The strong-willed Alice James's solution was to become a permanent invalid; thus she could blame her chronic illness, not her gender, for her life-long dependence. As an invalid, she could maintain her personal integrity without giving in to the intellectual limits placed on her merely because she was a woman.(5) Cynthia Griffin Wolff's study of Emily Dickinson points out the "struggle between the members of a |divided self,'" evident in Dickinson's correspondence and poetry (136-140). By choosing to become a poet, Dickinson "rejected the roles usually available to women, [and] she discovered that this |I,'the |poet,' was in some ways better than the roles offered by Amherst to anyone (man or woman), a secret, privileged inner self that could observe life to analyze and criticize with complete safety" (128).
Because of their secondary status in society, many women writers have developed a double consciousness, an almost innate double vision of themselves both inside and outside of patriarchal society. They are able to view their world simultaneously from both a dominant male and a marginal female perspective. Sensitive to this doubleness of vision and the contradictions it encompasses, they have learned to use it strategically in the language of their fiction. Even while many women at the turn of the century spoke out politically, woman artists such as Wharton, concerned with their literary reputations and their acceptance by the male artistic establishment, took advantage of what Bakhtin labels the "double-voicedness" inherent in novelistic discourse. In novels and short stories, women writers could refract their own intentions through the language of their characters. By eliminating the direct authorial voice from the text they disguised their voices and their messages.
In The House of Mirth, Wharton takes on an even greater challenge than disguising her true intention behind the language and actions of her characters, for in this novel she represents a central character who essentially does not have what Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, calls an "ideological discourse." Bakhtin maintains that it is impossible to reveal a character's "ideological position and the ideological world at its heart" without representing his (or her) discourse, "without first permitting it to sound" (335). In Lily's society, however, beautiful women, like children, were expected to be seen but not heard--or at any rate not listened to seriously. Lily talks, of course. She is an expert at the wordplay and verbal evasion women needed to succeed in society, but she has trouble putting her true feelings and ideas into words. She expresses emotion noon-verbally and ambiguously by a touch of her hand or a trembling smile over a cigarette, but her attempt to put her idea of success into words is tentative and hazy. She replies uncertainly to Selden's question about what success is: "Why, to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose. It's a relative quality, after all. Isn't that your idea of it?" (65). Clearly she has never before thought of success as an issue to discuss. As a "jeune fille a marrier" in a patriarchal society, Lily can neither imagine nor express a desire for any goal other than marriage even though she is dissatisfied with the available prospects. The question for her, as she realizes, is not whether but whom. As she tells Selden, she has not been shown the way; she has not been taught the language. When he chides her for not seeing personal freedom as the only success, she objects, justly under the circumstances: "But perhaps it's rather that I never had any choice. There was no one, I mean, to tell me about the republic of the spirit" (65). Girls were not taught or encouraged to learn an "ideological discourse," the language of self-knowledge, because as women they were not expected to entertain such independent thoughts. Lily's inability to express her ideas and the limitations of her goals reflect the hollowness of her position in society rather than her personal deficiency.
If we return to the tableau vivant scene, trying to catch a glimpse of the real Lily in a second look, hoping to find some crucial detail missed in the first reading, we are still disappointed because, in fact, the only self that appears in that scene is the pure representation of Lily's beautiful surface, the double she herself has created. As the narrator observes, she has literally "stepped, not out of, but into Reynolds's canvas" (131). Aloof and untouchable, she has at this moment become completely a work of art.(6) Silent and on display, she is open to interpretation by her audience but unable to respond to or control their reactions. Lily learned in childhood how to make herself a beautiful object and is well aware of her power "to look and to be so exactly what the occasion required" (86). Whether standing apart from the crowd in Grand Central Station, deftly pouring tea on a moving train, or lingering on the broad stairway at Bellomont, Lily is continually setting herself in scenes to be looked at. In her we see the effects of the divided and divisive turn-of-the-century society and the pressures it put on American women to be all things--innocent and worldly, naive and knowing, refined and spirited. In the tableau vivant Lily seems to have succeeded, but only, as we come to realize, by completely stifling her individual self. Ultimately it is this silencing of women, the denying them access to language, that Wharton protests most vehemently and dramatizes most compellingly in Lily's silent double, the tableau vivant. Bakhtin identifies the central stylistic problem of a novel as the problem of "artistically representing language, the problem of representing the image of a language" (336). How much greater, then, is the problem for Wharton and other women writers of artistically representing the absence of a language? Lily's representation of "Mrs. Lloyd" speaks in the only way women in this society were allowed to speak--or, perhaps more accurately, in the only way they were listened to--through their appearance. But, although the tableau speaks to the people who see it, its meaning, its symbolic value, is designated not by Lily but by her audience. They are in control, not she.
During the course of the novel Lily does begin to hear the silent language of her artificial double; she does begin to understand the ambiguity of the message her beauty delivers; and she does begin to take responsibility for what her appearance "says." She sees how her touch misled Gus Trenor and how her mere presence on the Dorset yacht allowed Bertha to construct her own self-serving story. Lily knows that in her society "the truth about any girl is that once she's talked about she's done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks" (220). Caught in this double bind, desperately needing to explain but lacking access to language, she never tells her own story, not to Selden, not to Gerty, not even to herself. She is thus at the mercy of Town Talk and prowling gossips (154). Lily does, however, finally come to understand the importance of spoken language, of words, although "the word" she needs remains outside her grasp. As she falls into a drugged sleep after her last meeting with Selden, she thinks of "something she must tell [him], some word she had found that should make life clear between them" (317). The particular word fades, but the importance of language for the real Lily, for all women, remains as the subversive message of Wharton's text. Finally Wharton's novel tells not only of Lily's physical defeat, but also of a possible means of success through words, indeed of an escape from the silence of the beautiful object. It is this course that Wharton herself followed in her writing career.
Part of the problem in studying women's uses of doubling stems from the fact that, although both men and women respond readily to metaphors of division--whether literal doppelgangers or split personalities--historically the concept of the double has most often been viewed as a masculine one.(7) From early myth to contemporary literature, it is man--as representative of the "universal"--who is most often seen as meeting, fighting, or fleeing from a second self' Women may appear as object-doubles representing choices for the male protagonist, but until recently critics rarely considered them as subject-doubles in their own right.(9) Conclusions, based on the patriarchal presumptions of language and culture, can blind readers to the interesting--and often subversive--uses of this supposedly standard convention.
Wharton's use of doubling in The House of Mirth shows not merely a divided female subject at the center of the text, but more significantly, in Lily Bart the Jekyll/ Hyde roles of the self and the double, common to masculine doubling, are reversed. The divided nineteenth-century man was most frequently depicted as split between his socially acceptable, "good" self, honorable and trustworthy, and an anti-social being, prey to the baser passions of greed and lust (Aptner 48). The man had to control his "bad" self in order to allow his "good" self to live in society.(10) Women, however, were defined by society as either "good" or "bad." They were either innocent and pure--"true" women--or sexually experienced and passionate--"fallen" women. Unlike men who could exert their will to determine which self would dominate, women were not considered in control of their behavior, not capable of changing it, and, thus, not morally responsible for it. Wharton shows that for women in a patriarchal society the real struggle is not between a good and an evil self but between a dependent and an independent self. In order to succeed in such a society, a woman must accept its definition of her and repress her individual self Deceit and hypocrisy are essential ingredients of a woman's socially acceptable self, necessary to the appearance--if not the fact--of the purity and innocence of ideal womanhood. The Emersonian ideals of independence and self-reliance, so valued in American men because they enable each to choose to be his better self, have to be repressed and concealed by women if they want to retain their pedestaled position in society.
Whether Lily Bart is good or bad ultimately makes no difference to society because it judges her not by what she is but by what she appears to be. Although she knows how to "show herself to advantage," appearances destroy her. She is met coming alone from Selden's apartment, glimpsed on Gus Trenor's doorstep late at night, seen too often with George Dorset and too long with the Gormers. Only the reader can see beyond Lily's double and sense the presence of Lily's real, independent self, invisible to the people in her society. When Lily seems most "real" to them, they are seeing only her double, the empty shell of her beauty filled with their own projected ideals. A society that values women only as ornaments doesn't ask questions of morality--as long as appearances are kept up. Even Selden, to whom Lily tries to reveal her real self, is blinded by the beauty of her double and ignores the halting words of her real self. His questions concern her surface appearance, not her character: Is the vessel useless? Is the clay vulgar? Is her hair brightened? Signs of emotion, such as her tears, he dismisses as calculated effects, not evidence of her genuine feelings.
Because society validates only Lily's double, its desires and goals (a rich husband and a drawing room of her own) control her life. She does try to turn from the moral ugliness of her double and ignore the effects of compromise which she sees creeping into her character. However, when she discovers that she has lost her value even to Simon Rosedale, she admits that she cannot continue to be two different people; she cannot support the ideals of both physical and moral beauty at the same time. She resigns herself to giving up one of her selves and, so, resolves to abandon her scruples and use Bertha Dorset's letters to blackmail her way back into society. After all, she reasons, "What debt did she owe a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial? She had never been heard in her own defense; she was innocent of the charge on which she had been found guilty; and the irregularity of her conviction might seem to justify the use of methods as irregular in recovering her lost rights" (294). Yet, valid as these arguments are, Lily finds she cannot abandon her real self and become completely her double. She cannot simply "go forth and leave her old self with [Selden]" (303). She realizes that "that self must indeed live on in his presence, but it must still continue to be hers" as well (303). Lily's achievement is her attainment of double vision, her independent assertion of the reality of her inner self. despite the expectations of society and the threat of poverty, and without even Selden's support or approval. She recognizes that she no longer wakens his love, but she wants to regain her self-respect for her own sake, not his. She burns Bertha's letters.
After Lily returns to her room, though she is cheered by her encounter with Nettie Struther and by "the glimpse of the continuity of life" she had caught while holding Nettie's baby, she discovers an "inner destitution," for now she is truly alone without even her double to provide her with a refuge from herself and from the feeling that she is a "mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence" (313). She takes her gowns, reminders of her double's life, out of her trunk, but they are shapeless and dead now, as is her double. Receiving her aunt's legacy briefly stirs her double back to life with the "glitter of visions mounting to her brain," and she knows that morning will tempt her to "fall from the height of her last moment with Lawrence Selden" (315). She longs to "prolong, to perpetuate, the momentary exaltation of her spirit. If only life could end now," she wishes as she takes an extra dose of chloral to assure she will sleep soundly (315). In the world of the novel, Lily's double, the work of art, ostensibly triumphs. In the end, Selden, convinced he knows "the word he meant to say to her," enters Lily's small room and finds, stretched out on the narrow bed, "the semblance of Lily Bart," a beautiful but lifeless body (318-19). The real person he might have spoken to is dead. Wharton has used the convention of doubling to create a character whose "real" self--neither innately good or bad but morally responsible--is not perceived by the members of her society. They would have no place for her if they did.
Wharton's reversal and revision of the doubling convention turns The House of Mirth from a static "portrait of a lady" to a literal tableau vivant, a portrait of a living woman struggling to be both beautiful and self-reliant. At the same time, the novel criticizes the society in which such a woman cannot exist. Through her double, Lily attempts to satisfy both of her society's chief ideals for women: to be beautiful and to be good. The struggle between the tableau vivant ideal and Lily's real self dramatizes the conflict between society's contradictory ideals for women and demonstrates the difficulty, in a society that values beautiful appearance over moral responsibility, of achieving success. And yet, the real Lily does not fail entirely. In the Lily Bart recognized and constructed by readers who share Wharton's double vision, we see a complex woman, divided and physically destroyed by the ideals and restrictions of her society, but personally triumphant in her determination to become a responsible adult by her final rejection of her empty self.
Virginia Woolf recognized that "killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer," an experience "bound to befall all women writers" at the beginning of the twentieth century (279). Despite the constraints--or because of them--the shared repression of women and the resulting affiliations among them allowed these writers to explore a female imaginative universe. Wharton, successful with both general readers and literary critics, and popular with both men and women, demonstrates that women were not limited to an exclusively female universe or to a negative position defined solely by a rejection of male culture. Rather, a skilled and careful artist, she was able to use established conventions, sometimes traditionally sometimes subversively, for her own ends. Like Willa Cather, in her fiction she disguised her real story, but she did so without having to hide her sexual preferences (although she did keep her affair with Morton Fullerton a secret). Like Alice James she refused to compromise her independent spirit, but she did so without becoming a permanent invalid (although she did suffer from neurasthenia in the early years of her marriage). Like Emily Dickinson, she chose art to give expression to her inner self, but she did so without giving up her position in society (although she was shy and uncomfortable in crowds).(11) Wharton was herself a divided person--an artist and a woman. As Judith Fryer puts it, "Wharton attempts to reconcile her two lives by tacking back and forth between the private space and the public place, lingering in the ghostly reverie of the one, participating in the |ceremony' of the other" (35-6). Her success demonstrates that women need not be limited to the extremes of open antagonism, blind acquiescence, or reclusive withdrawal. Her doubled characters live in a world where black and white answers to social problems and moral dilemmas do not exist. Wharton brings her female doubles out of the temptress's den of iniquity, down from the madwoman's attic, and off the neurasthenic's couch. They may not find a place in their society, but they are not immoral, they are not insane, and they are not sick. They are complex human beings whose existence cannot be ignored or dismissed. Although they may not change society, their struggle brings into question the criteria of feminine success that cost an individual's integrity and independence. Their existence exposes the contradictions inherent in a society that claims to value Puritan ethics and Emersonian self-reliance and yet punishes women who practice them.
Women of Wharton's era were part of a silenced subculture which was able effectively to confront the ethical and artistic problems that faced them by adapting existing literary modes to their own purposes. Seemingly conventional, they made sure that their work was published and read--and their covert messages delivered. Throughout her writing career Wharton used doubles and doubling for a wide variety of purposes--from her earliest existing novella, Fast and Loose, which mocks the convention of light and dark heroines, through her last completed novel, The Gods Arrive, which uses male-female doubling to resolve the antagonism between men and women. Wharton's use of doubling in The House of Mirth shows how she employed literary conventions with originality and innovation to present the dilemma of women expected to communicate without words and tempted to abdicate moral responsibility for their lives. At the same time, Wharton's own success as a writer supplied at least one answer to the "woman question" and began to resolve her own equivocal position as a woman and as an artist in her society. (1) Robert Rogers in A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature uses psychoanalytic terms to describe four basic types of doubling. He distinguishes first between explicit, physically duplicated doubles and implicit or paired characters, both of which are related either by their similarity or their striking opposition. Second, the division may be dual or multiple: a single personality may be represented by two or by several different characters. Third, the doubling may occur by division or by multiplication. In division, parts of a single personality are distributed among two or more characters, while in multiplication a single relationship may be repeated in several different characters. Finally the doubling may occur in the subject character, divided against himself, or in the object characters, representing choices for the protagonist (4-5). (2) See A. E. Crawley, "Doubles," The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, for an investigation of the early sources of "the beliefs to which the term |double' refers" (4: 853). (3) See Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon, for a discussion of the four central types of women in the Victorian imagination--"the angel, the demon, the old maid, and the fallen woman" (63). See also Mary K. Patterson Thornburg, The Monster in the Mirror. Thornburg, discussing the masculinity and femininity of characters, observes that generally in the works of women we find "the antisentimental element expressed most strongly, recognizing or partly recognizing sentimentality as a set of conventions for literary interest or realism" (34 ff). (4) Women's use of male language is a much discussed and debated issue. See Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic. Alicia Ostriker, in "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking," includes extensive references on this subject (334 n8). (5) Henry James realized that "the extraordinary intensity of [Alice's] will and personality really would have made the equal, the reciprocal life of a |well' person--in the usual world--almost impossible to her--so that her disastrous, her tragic health was in a manner the only solution for her of the practical problem of life . . ." (Letter to William James, May 28, 1894, qtd. in Strouse 284). (6) See Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words. Wolff describes Lily Bart not as "the woman as productive artist, but the woman as self-creating artistic object" (111). (7) Crawley, in "Doubles," focuses almost exclusively on examples of the masculine sources in psychology and culture of beliefs in doubles. Ralph Tymms, in Doubles in Literary Psychology, also describes masculine cultural and literary origins of the double (15-27). For objections to this patriarchal bias, see Ann Rosalind Jones, "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'Ecriture feminine." She explains how French feminists Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Helene Cixous reject the "reigning binary system of meaning--identity/other, man/nature, reason/chaos, man/woman" as evidence of "phallogocentricity" (masculine symbolic patterns) embedded in Western culture. This system, they say, inevitably gives negative value to the "female" half of the pair (366). (8) Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, reacts to the cultural assumption that "man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity" (xviii). (9) Existing studies of literary doubling, most notably those by Ralph Tymms, Robert Rogers, C. F. Keppler, John Herdman, and Karl Miller, are valuable in tracing and describing the doubling convention, but they ignore the issue of gender both in the characters who are doubled and the authors who use the convention. Because these critics focus primarily on texts by and about men, their conclusions generally concern masculine experiences. Tymms begins with fairy tales and considers a variety of individual writers but no women. Rogers never raises the question of the author's gender, although his chapter "The Fair Maid and the Femme Fatale" demonstrates his presumption that the male is the subject and the female the object in literary doubling. Keppler admits that his study is limited by the range of his own competence but proceeds to take as his task 'that of introducing the Double to ... readers who would like to know more about him and to be able to recognize him when they meet him again (x, emphasis added). He contends that the double as "beloved" is "almost invariably female, perhaps, since most literature has been written by males" (133): certainly most of the literature Keppler chooses to examine is written by men. John Herdman, too, noting that "sisters are a rarity in this literature," examines only male doubling (14). Karl Miller makes the presumptions of the other critics explicit by observing: "Comparatively few women are awarded doubles, or write about them" (52). Nevertheless, the material Miller examines contradicts his conclusion to some extent, for he does find women writing about doubles and discusses duality in the works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Wharton, and Sylvia Plath. (10) Masao Miyoshi, in The Divided Self, analyzes ways that "Victorian men of letters experienced the self-division endemic to their times" (ix) and examines the "violent oscillation of evil deed and penitent mood that makes the Gothic villain a modern archetype for alienated man divided against himself" (5). (11) Letters revealing Wharton's relationship with Morton Fullerton were discovered when R. W. B. Lewis was working on his biography of Wharton (540-43). Cynthia Griffin Wolff describes Wharton's S. Weir Mitchell rest treatment (Feast 85-89). Wharton, in her memoir, A Backward Glance, attests to her ill ease as an adolescent. She was a shy and private person throughout her life.
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Publication information: Article title: Female Doubling: The Other Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth.'. Contributors: Sapora, Carol Baker - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 29. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 1993. Page number: 371+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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