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The House Of Mirth And The Gilded Age

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Novelist Edith Wharton wrote her defining work, 1905's the House of Mirth, on a subject she knew all too well: the style-over-substance realm of New York's upper-crust society during the Gilded Age. Having been raised in this "fashionable" society, Wharton knew both its intricacies and cruelties firsthand. The triumphant rise and tragic fall of protagonist Lily Bart demonstrate both the "sunshine and shadow" of the Gilded Age. The House of Mirth not only exposes the reality of how "the other half live," but also satirizes and condemns their elitist existence.

Historians refer to the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s as America's "Gilded Age."

This was essentially a time when stock market trading and industrial expansion

widened the chasm between America's "haves" and "have nots." This economic

disparity is the basis for Wharton's novel. She set her cautionary tale in New

York because, as a physical setting, it encapsulated the Gilded Age's wealth

distribution gap. The filthy, vermin-infested tenement houses of factory workers were situated just blocks from the palatial, million-dollar mansions of railroad tycoons and oil magnates. Lily Bart exists in a torturous state of limbo between socio-economic classes. She is the meager niece of the wealthy Mrs. Peniston, and as such, is on the "outside looking in" on polite society. However, Lily's impoverished childhood has left her with a hatred for all things "dingy" and an insatiable desire for the luxurious

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and elegant. Because the Gilded Age was still a time when women held little clout in social "politics," Lily's only way of securing her presence in elite society is to find a wealthy suitor and marry him. Her obsession with money and social standing prevent her from marrying the only man she truly loves, Lawrence Selden, because his modest means could not possibly support her. This obsession also leads to excessive spending and gambling, which ultimately factor in Lily's downfall.

The concept of Social Darwinism, or the idea that one's place is society is

determined by "survival of the fittest," permeates every aspect of Wharton's novel. During the Gilded Age, many in the aristocracy felt that their success was a result of natural superiority, and that in order to preserve their position in society, the poor must not be allowed any social or economic mobility. Despite her struggles, Lily is unable to secure a place in the upper-echelon of New York society. When it seems that Lily has finally become one of the "elite," Bertha Dorset (the richest and most powerful of the upper-crust wives) spreads vile rumors about her, thus sentencing her to social exile. This action is symbolic of the aristocracy ensuring its "survival" by oppressing the weaker species (the working class.) Lily then loses her inheritance and is forced to join the workforce. Her coworkers refuse to accept her because they see her as an "elite," and therefore an enemy. This irony further demonstrates Lily's state of social purgatory, and relates it to the economic disparity which plagued the Gilded Age. Lily's nature is too frail to survive society's cruelties, and as such, she is doomed to extinction.

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Lily's "extinction" comes in the form of a bottle of sleeping medication. She

is so distraught by her "fall from grace" that she turns to the sleeping pills for

rest and solace. On the same day that Lily pays off the last of her debts, she

overdoses on the pills and dies peacefully in her



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