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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