Interiors and the Interior Life in Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth.'

By Clubbe, John | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Interiors and the Interior Life in Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth.'


Clubbe, John, Studies in the Novel


No American author has written with more understanding and artistry about the interplay among character, social history, and domestic esthetics than has Edith Wharton. In 1897 she established herself as an authority on interiors with The Decoration of Houses, written with the noted Gilded Age designer Ogden Codman, Jr. From that time forward Wharton's fine-tuned readings of interior space became a signature aspect of her writings. Edmund Wilson once called her, rightly, "not only one of the great pioneers, but also the poet, of interior decoration."(1) It is in The House of Mirth (1905) that her genius in this area is most compelling. Part of the triumph of The House of Mirth results from the pains Wharton took to correlate the character of the clearly beautiful and clearly flawed Lily Bart to her environment, an environment that consists chiefly of a sequence of interiors.(2)

The House of Mirth chronicles the efforts of Lily Bart, single, poor, and twenty-nine, to move from the interiors that constrict her to the ideal but unfocused interior that haunts her dreams. That over the novel's course she fails to realize a lastingly viable interior for herself or to find herself truly at home in any interior space may seem the result of her background, financial status, and the limited scope offered women of her acquaintance, but Wharton makes it abundantly clear that,n spite of it all Lily has numerous chances to take charge of her life. An analysis of Lily in relation to interior space lends support to the position that Wharton's presentation of her heroine is not unrelievedly deterministic, as many contemporary feminist critics have argued, but many-faceted, subtle, and richly ambivalent.(3)

That Lily shies away from both constructive awareness of herself and accurate assessment of those around her are behavioral patterns directly related to her unfocused vision of the ideal interior that would be commensurate with her being. The interior that she longs for is one of the "fancy," not of the "imagination," if we hold to the Coleridgean distinction. The seal on her writing paper--"Beyond! beneath a flying ship"(4)--suggests a personal trajectory away from the palpable workaday world toward the unrealizable infinite, die Ferne, the ever-receding "Beyond!" Just as no waves hinder a flying ship, so no humanly fabricated interior can fulfill her insatiable, narcissistic desires. Only in fantasy can she make herself into a queen of infinite space, and in fantasy she prefers to dwell. For this reason Lily is always restless, always moving, unable to live in a house, anyone's house, for very long. We see Lily only in transit. We first meet her in a railroad station; she has come back from Tuxedo and is on the way to Rhinebeck. She has, not coincidentally, missed her train. We bid goodbye to her in a hotel room.

What both impels and facilitates such continual changes is Lily's "faculty for adapting herself" (p. 84). Such an individual, capable of playing many roles, takes her colors, chameleon-like, from the circumstances of the moment. Byron in Don Juan terms this characteristic "mobility," which he derives from French "mobilite." Although Byron found mobility among "actors, artists, and romancers . . . speakers, bards, diplomatists, and dancers," his prime example of mobility in Don Juan is a woman, Lady Adeline Amundeville, whose faculty for adaptation underlies her strength as a hostess but also (Byron implies) her weakness as a woman.(5) Likewise, for Wharton, though Lily's adaptability "served her now and then in small contingencies, [it] hampered her in the decisive moments of life" (p. 84). In many ways we may regard Lily Bart as Wharton's vast and subtle elaboration of Byronic mobility.

Nothing could be more antithetical to Lily's mobility, her fluid sensibilities, and her vague vision of an ideal interior than the too-solid Victorian decor and glacial neatness of her aunt's opulent Manhattan townhouse. …

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