House of Mirth

Breaking the Mold: Gender Assumptions in The House of Mirth and The Red Badge of Courage

In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, protagonist Lily Bart is on a quest for happiness. In her case, happiness embodied in the image of marriage to a rich and indulgent husband and, subsequently, the ability to behave as a proper woman of society and culture should. However, when she attempts to lure this sort of husband into her traps, she is betrayed by high society and forced to reevaluate the value of herself as a woman. Similarly, in The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s character Henry Fleming is also striving to fulfill an idealized gender role – that of the courageous and valiant soldier – only to realize that the manhood the role demands is not quite of the type he had imagined. Both characters are faced with disillusionment and startling insights into the nature of their society on their respective paths of self-realization.

The reader is introduced to Lily in the midst of her pursuit of a husband. She bemoans her advancing age, noting that “[y]ounger and plainer girls had been married off by dozens, and she was nine-and-twenty, and still Miss Bart” (Wharton). Lily blames her failure to procure a husband on her inability to emulate society’s idealized woman. She questions herself:

Had she shown an undue eagerness...

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