House of Mirth

Female Characters in The House of Mirth

The relationship between the ideal and the reality is many times pictured in black and white. The ideal can be defined as a conception of something in its perfection, whereas reality is defined as something that exists independently of ideas concerning it. In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton blurs the relationship between ideals and reality by introducing characters that represent different ideals emphasizing womanhood and beauty, but not allowing them to be absolutely flawless. Wharton epitomizes the ideal women not as those who are “perfect ornaments of jewel-like rareness” (94), but those who can embrace in their own imperfections and attain happiness apart from society’s expectations. By analyzing the women Wharton utilizes in the novel and focusing specifically on their imperfections and the way they present and handle them, one can understand Wharton’s notion of the “ideal woman.”

From the inception of the novel, Mr. Selden, a “detached observer of the [high-class social] scene” (99), is caught admiring the protagonist, Lily Bart. A woman at the age of 29 and unmarried, Lily is fascinatingly beautiful and intelligent. At social gatherings, men cannot take their eyes off of her radiant beauty and vigor. Lily is...

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