House of Mirth

A Feminist Study of The House of Mirth: Lily Bart as Art and Artist

He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape? (27)

In this passage of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Selden's description of Lily Bart clearly exposes the image that her environment has shaped of her. Lily is seen as a finely crafted product of the culture that surrounds her. In order to survive, she is forced to maintain two specific roles. Trained to identify herself as a marketable item among the elite who so casually objectify her, the first role Lily maintains is that of an object d'art. The second role is very much an effect of the first. Displayed as an aesthetic commodity of her environment, Lily becomes not only art, but artist; not one who composes with an empty canvas or a palate of colors, but...

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