Social Hierarchy In Edith Wharton's House Of Mirth

Powerful Essays
The novel, House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, documents the struggles of beautiful Lily Barton as she attempts to both find suitable husband and be accepted into New York City’s elite class during the turn of the nineteenth century. Being a part of this class herself, Wharton uses this novel to comment on the true nature of the rigid social hierarchy that dictated one’s survival during this time period. Using her plethora of different characters as examples, Wharton states that one’s place in this social hierarchy is dictated by the amount of money one has and in order to be accepted into the elite class, one must bend morals to succeed; furthermore, Wharton reveals that despite its innocent and revered exterior, the upper class is made up of…show more content…
Percy Gryce, for example, is greatly desired simply because of his immense wealth. The Trenors, the richest couple of the novel are able to host a number of social events and Judy Tenor’s hosting “backed by Mr. Tenor’s bank-account, almost always assured her triumph...” (Wharton 38). These events gain the respect of every one of the characters. Because of this connection, money can also be linked to power. Bertha Dorset uses this power to disgrace Lily in order to distract from her adultery in book two and risk losing her reputation. Despite her blatant lying, Bertha’s story of Lily and George’s relationship is believed over Lily’s denial simply because Bertha is richer and an elite. Even Lily realizes this when she scoffs, "‘The whole truth?’" Miss Bart laughed. " ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her.’" (Wharton 215). Bertha’s wealth elevates herself over Lily, thus her story is believed and not Lily’s. The subject of money and debt also show Lily’s downfall over the course of the novel. Lily’s relationship with money is tense and she struggles to keep up with the expensive demands of staying in an elite…show more content…
Lily Barton, the protagonist and main character of the novel, exemplifies how not being to do this makes it impossible for one to be accepted into the elite class. In fact, Lily’s unwavering stubbornness against bending her morales makes her unfit to even survive in the social hierarchy in which she is placed and is what ultimately what destroys her in the end. Lily realizes this is her fatal flaw and confesses to Gerty Farish after sinking into poverty saying, “‘I was never meant to be good.’” (Wharton 216). It this context, good means to be wealthy and part of the elite circle. She cannot constrain herself to the artificial behavior of those part of it. After being disgraced from the social circle, Lily could’ve easily used the letters to expose Bertha and reclaim her name. However, even though Bertha has antagonizes her throughout the novel, she cannot compel herself to do such a thing and burns the letters in Seldon’s fireplace. Lily’s righteousness also prevents her from finding a suitable husband-- the only way in which she can rise to the upper class. She refuses to participate in a loveless marriage that only acts as a business relation. This is shown when Simon Rosedale proposes to Lily. Simon knows that Lily does not love him and he states his marriage proposal as one would present a business proposal, saying “‘ I’ve
Get Access