House of Mirth

Objectification as a Naturalist Tool in The House of Mirth

Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, is understood from chapter 1 to be a female of remarkable beauty. Throughout the novel she is classified as uniquely attractive, a woman to be desired by men and subtly threatening to women. But beauty is not the only way in which Miss Bart is distinguished from the other characters in The House of Mirth - Wharton repeatedly depicts her as an object (or, if not explicitly objectifying her, Wharton has Lily Bart treated by others as an object). This tactic suggests numerous things about Wharton's protagonist - most of all, it accentuates the degree to which, as the reader realizes at the novel's poignant end, Lily Bart is a character trapped in a world which obeys the rules of Naturalism to an almost cruel degree.

It can not be truly said, however, that the Naturalist tone of the book manifests itself in a cruel way for Lily and Selden. The very definition of Naturalism absolves it from the type of value judgment that a word like "cruel" imparts. Like the Darwinism that gave rise to the notion of Naturalist laws at play in society (and also the books which carefully examine and deal with those laws), Naturalism hinges upon the concept of greater...

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