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House of Mirth

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Introduction

House of Mirth Edith Wharton in her introduction to House Of Mirth, reprinted in 1936, writes; " It seems like going back to the Pharaohs to try to re-enter the New York world in which House Of Mirth originated" (iv). Wharton adds that the New York of the 1890s' was a "hot house of traditions and conventions...these traditions and conventions were unassailed and tacitly regarded as unassailable" (vi). Wharton was raised in New York and the social values of the society that are depicted in House of Mirth are authentic values of the affluent New Yorker that she socialized with. Stephen Crane author of The Red Badge of Courage was also from a well-to do background (he was the son of Methodist minister in well-heeled Asbury Park, New Jersey) and if Wharton drew her materials directly from the life she observed first hand, Crane wrote with the perspective of an outsider. The Red Badge of Courage has been referred to as the first American War Novel, set in the Civil War, and Crane had no first hand experience of that war. (Fine 50). House of Mirth is then a study of a society wherein Whartons' central characters belong to an elite society with firm rules of behavior and conduct. Paying close attention to these rules and rituals, Edith Wharton was able to create convincing societies in her novels and stories that were as scathing as they were accurate. Addressing issues of gender, Whartons' feminine protagonist Lily Bart demonstrates what a waste it is for a woman to have no personal sense of self-worth and no personal goals outside of those attainable through men. ...read more.

Middle

With this superficial irony, the persistence of racial typecasting pervades and reveals the Jew as coarse and lascivious. Again, the Semite is drawn from the upper class of New York, (not from the immigrant ghettos) and Rosedale is a familiar and comfortable character of social fiction. This portrait of Rosedale shows the persistence of the old Shylock stereotype and the fear of the Jewish oligarchy. As a generalisation, the currency of women is traded in their marriageability. The class of women for whom marriage no rescue from poverty or wage-slave oppression is represented by Nettie Cran, whom Lily meets through her association with Gertie and her charitable work. Nettie is sent to a sanatorium by Lily, to recover from TB, and towards the end of Lily's life, they meet up again. Lilys remembers her thus "as one of the discouraged victims of over-work and anaemic parentage, one of the superfluous fragments of life destined to be swept prematurely into that social refuse-heap of which Lily has so recently expressed her dread" (341). Nettie takes Lily home, and explains the happiness she has found with her husband George, whom she had known all her life. Nettie had become involved with men whom she presumed "was too stylish for me" and when he left her because "work girls aren't looked after" she became ill (p343). Lily feels a kinship with Nettie and assesses that Netties' life has a completeness that her own would never have. The connection between them has come about because of their economic situation although Netties' future is more promising. ...read more.

Conclusion

Henrys growth in maturity occurs as he reconciles his masculine perceptions of heroic behaviour with defining moments of weak character and as such the masculine motifs of the novels are stereotypical but not diminished by that. In conclusion, House of Mirth is a novel of beliefs and attitudes that like the camera snap shots the cultural milieu of the upper class New Yorker. Lily's failure to mature as an autonomous woman may stem from the patriarchal repression of her class. Whilst Lily is at times insightful and profound, she is also trivial, overly preoccupied with her appearance and loyal to ideals of patriarchal femininity, and she does not mount the challenge to rationality and order that she needs to survive. This is in contrast to Henry Flemming who seeks in the order of nature finds an answer to the threatening havoc. His intellect demands both a rational an emotional plateau to develop himself. Although very different in most aspects, they have both the rationality of emotional responses to the constraints of circumstance, and take responsibility for their existence and problems. It is no surprise that Lilys escape becomes the traditional feminie one of death ( a change from madness), sick and weakened by her behaviour that for the most part has been misunderstood. Henry however, clearly views himself as someone who has improved and matures through his experiences, although it is not conclusive that either has occurred. If manliness were defined by actions, then deserting in battle, or abandoning the badly injured 'tattered man' would seem to be Henry's undoing. The Red Badge of Courage is a rite of passage from boy to man as much as an account of men at war. ...read more.

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