Married Vs. Available

Victorian Man and Woman

The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct:  she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference.

In her novel, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton allows her characters to make some interesting assertions about the proper behavior of women.  Foremost among these is an idea that we saw earlier in Daisy Miller: that married women are allowed much more freedom than single women, particularly when it comes to flirtation.

Despite no actual wrongdoing, Lily Bart is ousted from polite society for the perception afforded her behaviors only because she was a single woman.  Her initial shaky social footing results from unintentionally borrowing money from Gus Trenor.  The implied result of this transaction to the social elite is that Lily becomes a kind of kept mistress for Mr. Ternor.  This little social impropriety erodes her perceived sexual purity enough that Bertha Dorset is later able to seal her social fate by implying an affair between Lily and George Dorset.

For the characters of Wharton’s novel, there are certain social privileges associated with being married.  These include basically ignoring flirtatious behavior, or even extramarital affairs.  At one point a character comments about Lily, “When a girl’s as good-looking as that she’d better marry; then no questions are asked” (195).  This implies that Lily could flirt or be seen with as many men as she liked if she were married.  This seems like such fuzzy logic.  Just because a woman is married does not mean she is free from improprieties (think of Bertha Dorset).  So I guess I have a hard time understanding exactly why society no longer cares.  I suppose this inexplicable social constraint is exactly why Edith Wharton routinely emphasizes it throughout the novel.  Perhaps she wanted to draw attention to the ridiculousness of it, and how the pointless rule leads Lily down the path to ruin.

Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I absolutely adore Lily Bart as a character. I love the conflict she has between the world that she has been taught to want and the world that she desires. I guess I’m a sucker for it. She is extremely complicated though. I liked the point that was drawn out today about Lily being more in touch with reality than Selden. I think that her practicality is one of her greatest assets, and yet is seen as a flaw in 19th century literature. I am excited to see how she further develops as a character and all of the trouble she gets herself in and out of.

  2. I agree, the logic concerning the appropriate social rules for women (single versus married) seem to be a little outlandish. It appears as though money may be a primary factor here. The women that have more money have more power; they are in the upper echelons of society, thus having more influence on the way women should act– whether it is right or wrong. The few people that can challenge these “rules” are very admirable. However, without money, it will probably make little difference outside their own life.

  3. It is also admirable that Edith Wharton, a woman writer, has the confidence to challenge these notions.

  4. I’d agree. The idea is that each woman needs to be controlled in some way by a man for the economic and social good of the nation. If you look at the situation in economic terms, a young unmarried woman and her fortune (if she has one) is a loose cannon: she might lose her money or her virtue to a scoundrel, and then her relatives would have to support her, whereas a married woman only has to answer to her husband.

  5. I completely agree. The logic is crazy and I think that Edith Wharton may have been displaying the irony of things through The House of Mirth. Do you think that perhaps the expectations were in place because beautiful women such as Lilly Bart were considered a threat, where as a married woman would have been seen as more or less settled. If a man likes a single woman, he may wish to divorce his wife for her or he may want to give his money away to her. This puts the wife into a precarious position. But, when an woman cheats on her husband, chances are the wives would wish to remain married to ensure their financial stability. They would be able to maintain their security.
    Just a thought. I am not sure of the answer.
    Amanda Renslow

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