Academic journal article Style

Going No Place?: Foreground Nostalgia and Psychological Spaces in Wharton's the House of Mirth

Academic journal article Style

Going No Place?: Foreground Nostalgia and Psychological Spaces in Wharton's the House of Mirth

Article excerpt

Introduction: Siting Lily Bart's Family System

Edith Wharton is well known for her ability to illuminate class and gender consciousness in her penetrating accounts of New York City elite society in novels such as The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), Old New York (1924), The Mother's Recompense (1925), and Twilight Sleep (1927). But her most successful novel of the changing shape of urban desire and identity focused through domestic tragedy is The House of Mirth (1905). It is, above all, a family tragedy.

The heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is Lily Bart, a young woman raised to embody the specific virtues of the wealthy and fashionable class in turn-of-the-century New York City. (1) These virtues are beauty, pliability, and dissimulation. Lily's tragedy is that she begins to understand that these virtues are actually trade qualities in the marriage market for which she has been groomed. But her realization comes too late for her to adapt to the changing ideals of family, environmental, and socioeconomic systems. Her final self-reflections set her marriage problems in relief, against a backdrop of her two primary problems: her lack of a stable home and a supporting family. (2) What makes this novel so extraordinary is the complexity of her emerging understanding that her idea, and her ideal, of home and family disable her forward movement. Lily is in constant motion between various temporary homes, yet she never feels at home. Throughout the novel, her inability to adapt, to commit, or to change is structured by these three interlocking systems: family, environmental, and socioeconomic. Lily Bart's slide from riches to rags can be tracked through a close attention to the novel's vivid portrayal of her changing access to both imaginary, idealized homes and actual, realized homes. The power of the novel comes not from Lily's function as a mere symptom of historical and economic pressures, but from the complex narrative and affective processes by which she negotiates homes and their loss or collapse.

The arc of the plot is suggested by Lily's movements between and her relationships to a series of homes, none of which are formally hers: Lawrence Selden's bachelor's fiat, Gus Trenor's upstate mansion, Lily's Aunt Peniston's New York City mansion, Nettie Struther's tenement fiat, and Lily's boarding house room. From the beginning of the novel, Lily Ban is between homes. While waiting to travel to Gus Trenor's mansion, Lily visits Selden's bachelor flat. There, she considers her uncomfortable marriage status and lack of personal fortune. At the Trenor's Bellomont, both Percy Gryce and Lawrence Selden court Lily, but she remains aloof. Lily's return to her permanent base at her Aunt Peniston's New York City mansion--where she has lived since the death of her parents--is marked by her reflections on her increasing risk-taking and her narrowing future options. Near the end of the novel, Nettie Struther rescues Lily from a rainstorm and shows her an alternate family system. In the final scene, and in her final boarding house home, Lily has an epiphany of the meaning of home and family just before she overdoses on chloral hydrate. Each of these homes situates Lily's increasingly complex nostalgic homesickness, a feeling that leads to both the undermining and the (temporary) stabilization of identity.

Rescuing and revitalizing The House of Mirth from the label of sentimental fiction or a novel of manners, recent literary critics have emphasized that Lily Bart is part of the speculation and capitalistic commodification that leads to her rootlessness. Amy Kaplan writes in The Social Construction of American Realism (1988) that The House of Mirth follows Lily as she progresses from one enclosed interior to the next under the watchful eye of society. Kaplan's constructionist rubric claims that The House of Mirth is an example of realism because Lily is "deployed" as a scout in a shadowy society "in which the connections between the members are binding yet elusive" (89). …

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