The House of Mirth

Discusses the importance of beauty and reputation in upper-class societal status within Edith Wharton’s novel.

Although wealth is a necessary prerequisite in order to secure a place for oneself in society, wealth alone cannot solidify a person’s place, and beauty and reputation prove to be essential qualities in the quest to be successful in Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth. This paper examines how, in the novel, Lily is ultimately ostracized from upper-class society due to the loss of her reputation, rather than the loss of her wealth. It is her beauty that made Lily feel entitled to marriage to a wealthy man, thus maintaining her position in upper-class society. The paper shows that, when her reputation is destroyed, Lily’s tale ultimately reveals that beauty and reputation are the essential components, at least for a woman, in upper-class society.
“Lily’s beauty is an essential component in her ability to attract a rich man, and through his wealth and standing entrench her place in high society. Lily sees the world through her beauty, and it is this beauty that defines her destiny and creates a place for her in the upper social class. Without this beauty, Lily would be fated to the same unmarried and poor life as her friend Gerty Farish, who is plain and thus not able to attract a rich man with her looks. As such, Lily quite rightly believes that her beauty should virtually guarantee her a rich husband, and an associated life in the upper class. In doing so, Lily clearly sees both herself and her beauty as objects that are to be attained. In debating marriage to wealthy Percy Gryce, Lily muses of herself as becoming, the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it (65).”

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