Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chapter One

Although apparently focused on the role of women in upper-class turn-of-the-century society, the role of nature is a central idea in Edith Wharton’s first novel, The House of Mirth (1905). Subtly constructed, yet persistent, the relationship between women and nature permeates the text.

In this novel, Wharton emphasizes how characters understand nature and their relationship to nature. While environmental descriptions do not dominate the text, when present they reveal the cultural associations shared by many of the characters. Exploring these associations, readers can discern a basic world-view regarding the ways in which gender inflects the human-nature relationship against which to examine the details of the text. These details regarding this human-nature relationship often emerge where the language of the text suggests natural phenomena even when “nature” is not the focus of the passage, a pattern that highlights the pervasiveness of the theme.

This reading focuses primarily on what I call the flower-woman ideology. From the outset Wharton presents the reader with language that illustrates this conceptual relationship between heroine Lily Bart and nature. Although the Lily is not a farmer, woods-woman, nor a pioneer in any real sense, she is connected to nature in a way that is both symbolic and intentional. Her name is botanical and like a flower she is expected to bear a correlation to nature predicated upon beauty and passivity.
Furthermore she is, like all women of her age, intended for consumption.

Wharton’s two main characters in this novel, Lily and Selden, disclose much about Wharton’s consideration of the natural world and its relationship to culture. Through their interactions with each other and the world around them Wharton reveals a range of conflicting pressures and ideologies which ultimately destroy Lily, who I believe operates as a viable icon of the natural world in this novel, being symbolically tied to nature –through her botanical name and her “ornamental” value, and controlled / ruined by a patriarchal market-culture that idealizes even as it destroys .

In this novel Wharton evinces her dystopian vision regarding nature and “natural-identified” characters through the consumption and destruction of Lily Bart. This plot trajectory reveals the impossibility and impracticality of a woman being a perfect “lily”. The novel comments on the bitter realities of patriarchal and commercial life, but it also addresses the cultural associations that bind the identities of nature and women together, and how these associations result from a limited understanding of both on the part of those who dominate Wharton’s world.

 Cultivating and Consuming Lily
The consumption of Lily Bart as a natural aesthetic object is joined textually with the careful cultivation of her “natural” identity, which is to say that there is nothing innate about this particular identity. The wide cultural sensibility which ties femininity to nature aside, Wharton provides the reader with evidence of the ways in which the characters that populate Lily’s social sphere work to reaffirm her role by describing her in terms of naturalness.

Language of cultivation used on several occasions indicates the work Lily must do in order to make a good matrimonial match. For example, Carrie Fisher in a conversation with Selden says, “That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic” (147). This passage frames Lily in agricultural and botanical terms. The ambiguous phrase “her seed” allows the reader to consider these seeds as metaphorical extensions of the flower-woman herself rather than something distinct or separate. While this phrasing grants Lily some agency, it is worth noting that Carrie Fisher, like many of the other women in this text, invests herself in promoting Lily’s presence and success among the social elite. In this capacity, Fisher cultivates and exhibits Lily for consumption. While not insensible to Lily’s personhood, Fisher is aware that Lily’s value in their social set is determined not by her humanity, but by those traits most desirable to the men of their class. In the same conversation with Selden, Fisher states, “it's Lily's beauty that does it” (147). A statement that indicates the woman’s beauty is her prime asset.

The theme of Lily’s cultivation for consumption runs through the novel. Nearly every friendly female character in the text works in some way to propagate Lily . In descriptions of Miss Bart’s youth, Wharton shows the reader that this has been a life-long condition for the main character. Not only does Lily’s mother “foster her naturally lively taste for splendour” but she also becomes fixated on Lily’s beauty and the power it might have (29). Mrs. Bart straddles the line between cultivation and consumption. Although she promotes Lily in the marriage markets of Europe, she watches Lily’s beauty “jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian” (29).

Other women also consume Lily in a variety of ways, she is an ornament to enhance the parties of the rich, to draw attention to their tables while abroad, and to help the newly wealthy make connections with those in higher social positions. Of those women who cultivate and consume Lily it is interesting to note the rather complicated role played by Gerty Farish in the text. While the other women in the novel are interested in cultivating the flower-woman along the lines of beauty and sexuality through their focus on the marriage match, Farish is interested in the spiritual idealization of Lily. Wharton expresses this interest in a number of passages where Gerty presents her vision of Lily as contrary to the prevailing view. In the scene preceding the tableaux vivants for example, Gerty describes Lily as “dear” and “wonderfully kind” while telling Selden of how
Lily has visited with the Club Girls and contributed money to their cause (105).

This interest in the spiritual uplift of Lily seeks to cultivate her along the lines of beauty and purity, not unlike Selden’s idealizations although his also contain an undeniable element of sexuality . In my view, Selden is the primary consumer of Lily Bart. I contend that Wharton makes clear the dismal reality of Lily’s existence, and by extension the dismal situation faced by nature, by beginning and ending the novel with Selden. Although Selden has been often considered a sort of “spokesperson” for Wharton’s own sensibilities, I believe, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff contends, that, “Selden is the final object of [Wharton’s] sweeping social satire” (338). From beginning to end, both Lily and nature are under the gaze of a masculine culture which finds both nearly as appealing dead, as they were alive.


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