Edith Wharton's effort in The House of Mirth to excoriate the nexus between sex and money in turn-of-the-century upper-class New York life and to reveal the tragic effects of a society of this kind upon a sensitive young woman has been recognized from the publication of the novel in 1905. Criticism of the day, however, and indeed for the next half-century, shied away from an identification of these themes with literary naturalism. The fictional worlds of Norris, Crane, and Dreiser, the naturalists of Wharton's generation, appeared so distant from those of Wharton that the almost inevitable tendency of the literary historian, as revealed most notably in a well-known section of Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds, was to consider Wharton and Dreiser as antithetical tendencies in early twentieth-century American expression.
A notable attempt, however, to free Wharton criticism from this conventional assumption occurred in 1953, when Blake Nevius observed that Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth, is "as completely and typically the product of her heredity, environment, and the historical moment ... as the protagonist of any recognized naturalistic novel" (57). Although Nevius failed to pursue this insight, it nevertheless became, if not a critical commonplace, at least one of the options for a way into the complexities of this pivotal work in Wharton's career.(1)
Indeed, in recent years, with the emphasis in critical discourse on the controlling role of the contemporary moment in shaping the beliefs and values both of fictional characters and of their authors, the idea that The House of Mirth can best be read as a form of naturalistic fiction has often been endorsed. In much of this commentary the attempt has been to refine the gross categories of naturalistic determinism into the fine gold of recent critical preoccupations. Above all, the specific deterministic character of Lily's social environment has received a number of full readings. Whether Lily's fate is shaped by the capitalistic exchange values of her society or by its patriarchal power structure or by some variation of these two central readings in contemporary criticism of the novel,(2) it is now common--whether or not the critic employs the terms of naturalistic criticism--to view the work as in the naturalistic camp.
Absent from almost all of this recent reexamination of The House of Mirth, however, is an effort to reconcile a view of Lily Bart as naturalistic victim of her world and Wharton's bold and concerted attempt, at the close of the work, to modify or counter an interpretation of this kind. We seem to have returned, in this respect, to the critical climate of the 1930s, when the need to view fiction in specific cultural terms because of the social work which this reading could provide led to a simplification of the novels of such figures as Norris and Dreiser. The rediscovery of Wharton as a naturalist, in other words, has also led to the redeployment in her case of the critical assumption that American naturalism in its various forms is an unqualified representation of social determinism in action. It is this assumption about The House of Mirth which I wish to test.
Even the casual reader of The House of Mirth is made aware throughout the work that Edith Wharton had been reading widely in social evolutionary theory of her day3 and that she was applying much of its central belief about the insignificance of individual will in relation to social environment (including belief and value as conditions of environment) to Lily Bart. Thus, with Wharton using the conventional language and imagery of a pessimistic environmental determinism--of man as not merely related to or dependent on his social setting but as destructively imprisoned by it--we are told during the course of Lily and Selden's first encounter that "She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate" (7). …