Marriage as Perceived in ‘The House of Mirth’

Women and Marriage

The institute of Marriage should be viewed as a consummation of love and not as a social contract which gives economic and social stability. Freedom is better sought in the confinements of love and marriage is better perceived as a strengthening relationship rather than loss of freedom.

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The prevailing social structure in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries played a vital role in defining the ideas of marriage. During these periods there was a clear distinction and gender discrimination which seriously hampered the freedom of women.

Right from the Elizabethan period to the industrial age women were still striving hard to get over the influences of the male dominated society. The literary works by women during these periods of time invariably assert to this quest for freedom and neatly defined the role of marriage in deciding the status of women. Let us look at how women’s perception of marriage and to what extent society influenced them by studying some of the ‘literary works of manners’ which were created during this time.

Marriage as Perceived in ‘The House of Mirth’

The ‘House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton is an excellent novel of manners, which depicts the social values of the American upper society. In this novel we see clearly as to how marriage is regarded as a medium of security rather than as a union of hearts. There is also a clear depiction of the class distinctions and how it influences women in their marriage. Lily the protagonist of the novel is typical of the woman of that period and considers marriage as a means of raising her status in the echelons of the society. Still unmarried at the age of 29 ‘Lily’ represents a totally confused woman who is yet undecided about her marriage, ever looking for a better choice. Lily is obsessed filled with the single thought of raising up the social ladder that she grossly ignores Lawrence Selden whom she loves at the heart. The only reason for this is that Selden is a man of modest means and marrying him would not in any way contribute to her happiness. The impact of civilization is evident from what Selden observes of her “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.” [pg 6]

The consumerist society of America in which money was the all important and central commodity is neatly expounded by Wharton. Women who were weighed inferior and dominated by men considered money as an important means to overcome their limitations. Marriage to a wealthy man guaranteed them a position in the society. This clearly indicates as to how much the social setup affected the lives of young women. In short marriage, money and status were viewed as synonymous and women were considering marriage as a springboard to reach social success and security.

In the novel we also see that Lily lacks the decision-making ability. She is never contended with the good proposals that come and is always on the lookout for better offers. It is this kind of indecision that proves to be the undoing of Lily. The power that money enjoyed and the need to get absorbed into the higher ranks of the society had indeed blinded Lily. Lily is one of those typical women who entertained wrong notions that money and status alone could guarantee happiness. She asks Gus Ternor the husband of her friend Judy to invest some money for her in the stock market. Lilly gets the first blow of this opportunistic society when she is asked by Gus Ternor to pay him back by way of spending her time with him. So we can easily gauge the insecurities and the difficulties that an unmarried women had to face in the society.

Marriage and Security

Lily had to put up with such difficulties only because she was unmarried. To some extent it is true that it is all her own making for she could have settled for any of the good marriage proposals that came her way. In chapter six for example Lily and Selden come so close to each other and just when they were about to express their love for each other the sound of the car horn diverts the attention of Lily. This is a symbolic indication of the unstable or the rather flickery nature of the unmarried women in New York. Attracted by the promises that marriage to a wealthy person would grant them, Women tend to ignore their heartfelt love. But we cannot deny the hands of fate either for when Lily was just about to propose her love to Percy Gryce (a rich and young man) he tells her about his engagement to ‘Evie Van Osburgh’. So one by one all the chances evade Lily and she ends up as an aloof and depressed woman. Finally when her aunt dies leaving her with only $10,000 (the amount that she owes to Gus Ternor) Lily is left all alone in a society which was bloating in false values and prejudices.

The Judgmental Society

The author also highlights the highly judgmental nature of the New York’s elite people. The class distinctions that existed in New York are clearly obvious when Simon Rosedale looks at Lily with a suspecting eye. (Just for the only reason that she had tea with Selden, a modest person) This is preciesly the reason why Lily tries to conceal her meeting with Selden when Rosedale questions her about her presence at the Benedick. “Yes — I came up to see my dress-maker. I am just on my way to catch the train to the Trenors’.” (Part 11)So in a way the society has contributed to the suppression of Lily’s true feelings (her love for Selden) and her earning for the elusive status and security. What is more Lily is even forced to get involved in gambling (a pass time for the rich) just to cement her place in the higher society. One only gets the feeling that Lilly has virtually compromised the real things in her life in pursuing false vanities. In all Lily is thoroughly haunted by the fear of social seclusion and envisions that money alone could get her the status and security. Lily is bereft of these things and she seeks to restore hem through her marriage. But in her pursuit to secure the comforts and the status in life she looses her own real identity and becomes another victim of the society which is perverted by the negative stains of class and money.

Marriage (as Viewed by the Upper and Lower Classes)

Lily is the typical middle class woman who is haunted by the need for recognition and urge to reach the upper rings of the society. There is also a clear distinction in the manner in which the upper class or the elite people consider their marriage and how the middle or lower classes view it. From what happens in the novel it is clear that the elite people are very loose about their moral values and tend to be promiscuous. The ease with which they hide away their amoral affairs under the shield of their social status and wealth is bought to the fore by the author. This is evident when Mrs. Ternor says to Lily that “last year, when he came, Gus forgot all about his being here, and brought home the Ned Wintons and the Farleys — five divorces and six sets of children between them!”

Even when Lily meets Ternor in his house we see the ease with which he ignores all moral and ethical issues and addresses these ungainly words to Lily “I know I’m not talking the way a man is supposed to talk to a girl — but hang it, if you don’t like it you can stop me quick enough — you know I’m mad about you.” (Chapter 13) One more evidence for the breach of moral values by the elite people is the shrewd plot of Bertha to use Lily as a distraction for her husband George Dorset in order that she may pursue her affair with the young Ned Silverton. So it is plainly obvious that Lily doesn’t manage to become part of the upper class but only manages to fall a victim of their sly manipulations.

After all it seems it is not all that easy to get absorbed in to the upper crust of the New York City. She decides to marry not out of her love but only for the sake of society and as the novel unfolds she could not withstand this false vanity for too long. In the effort to achieve the much sought after social status she drags herself into reclusion and it is a pity that she gets addicted to sleeping pills unable to meet the demands that society puts upon her. When we look back as to what was responsible for the ruin of Lily’s life we get two different perspectives. One is that the deplorable quality of class divisions and the judgmental nature of society. Another reason is Lily’s struggle to express her freedom and her unwillingness to be controlled by others. (An overt reaction to male domination)

Another novel written during the Late eighteenth century also explicitly focuses on feminism and the freedom of women and how women viewed marriage during that time. The whole novel is a series of letters each describing the character of Eliza Wharton. This novel was in fact based on a true story of a woman called Elizabeth Whitman and it has echoes of moral ethos. The character of Eliza Wharton closely resembles that of Lily in the “The House of Mirth.” Like Lily, Eliza is also indecisive in choosing between her lovers. Just like Lily her quest for an independent living prevents her from entering wedlock and this ultimately proves to be her downfall. In both these novels we see that the feminist concept strives to manifest itself and refuses to be subjugated in anyway. (As it happens in a marriage). While in Lily’s case it was money and status which prevented her from entering a marriage in Eliza’s case it is the inherent urge to resist domination and be in charge of herself that makes her refrain from marriage. (She perceives marriage as a loss of freedom)

It is indeed sad that in both the cases this procrastination (in entering marriage) ultimately wrecks their life and both Lily and Eliza face a tragic death. Eliza loves two men and is confused in choosing between them. Her subconscious quest to live a life of freedom prevents her from settling with either one of them. But finally when she decides to get married it becomes too late as both the men are already married. The vilely Stanford pursues Eliza even after his marriage and impregnates her. Eliza runs away from her house, as she could no longer cover up the physical signs of pregnancy. “too obvious to be longer concealed” (p. 154). She is more worried about her inability to cover up the evidence “to elude the invidious eye of curiosity” (154) of her relationship with Stanford.

The character of Eliza is again a clear example of the dangers lurking in the society dominated by male chauvinism and moral bankruptcy. Unmarried women fall an easy prey to the whims and fancies of the obnoxious elements in the society. Eliza represents a case of sheer exploitation and she soon perceives herself as an outcast. Eliza runs away from the society as she is the “The Fallen Woman.” (9) Suddenly one day she is reported as dead giving birth to a baby. The very fact that the novel is a recounting of a real life incident makes it pretty clear that the society during the eighteenth century was unsafe for an unmarried woman.

Eliza’s character explicates the ease with which a single woman can be seduced and wronged in the society’s eyes. It also depicts the distinction shown in treating a woman and a man. Though both Eliza and Stanford are corrupt ultimately it is only the woman who is looked upon as an outcast by the society. Stanford (man) is virtually exempted from all moral consideration and we see in the novel that Stanford escapes with impunity. Society does not bind men as it does a woman. Ultimately we get to question the correctness of Eliza’s judgement that marriage is a submission of women and an acknowledgement of dependence. But it was the prevalent practice in the nineteenth century where men were deemed superior to women. Eliza’s revolutionary attempt to overcome this hackneyed practice (marriage) in favor of a free and self-controlled life has only backfired on her as she was easily seduced and debased by the evil forces that were rampant in the society.

In the final meting with Stanford Eliza accepts her own fallen status and seen to be in a repenting state of mind. She even tries to correct Stanford “I wish not to be your accuser, but your reformer. On several accounts, I view my own crime in a more aggravated light than yours; but my conscience is awakened to a conviction of my guilt. Yours, 1 fear is not.” (p. 160) The novel clearly highlights the author’s warning as to what the blind pursuit of freedom can result in. By projecting this story of an innocent girl being ruined by the society Foster wants to imprint the inherent dangers of attaching to false values in the hearts of all the young American ladies. This thought is clearly expressed in the novel, “beacon to warn the American fair” (p. 159). This was a revolutionary attempt during that time and is considered as a direct attack on male chauvinism and gender bias that marked the late nineteenth century. More than anything this novel presents a delicate subject of female freedom and the dangers of courtship that wreck havoc in the life of the unmarried women.


Both the ‘The House of the Mirth’ and ‘The Coquette’ have the underlying theme of feminism in them. There is the undertone of the quest for freedom and social status in these novels. In fact these two qualities are the driving forces for the protagonists of the novels but unfortunately a blind pursuit leads to their downfall. In both the novels we see that marriage is viewed as a necessity more than a culmination of love. Again in both the cases delaying the wedlock was deemed as a means of protracting the freedom. This raises the question as to the limits to which freedom can be safely pursued in a society corrupted with divisions, discrimination and declining moral habits. In conclusion we can say that unmarried women are more exposed to the dangers in a morally deprived society and freedom can be better pursued within the confined limits of a marriage of hearts in love.


Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (Oxford University Press, 1986 print)

Edith Wharton “The house of Mirths,” Mass Market Paperback, 2000

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