Female Doubling: The Other Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth.'

By Sapora, Carol Baker | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

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.

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