Aristotle defines the literary genre of tragedy as “an imitation of serious subjects in a grand kind of verse”. According to the Greek philosopher, tragedies must inspire pity and fear: “pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves.” The main protagonist of a tragedy is usually “a man [or a woman] not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune […] is brought upon him [or her] not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity.” Tragedies are both touching and concerning because they depict the downfall of heroes we relate to at the hands of circumstances “enunciating a general truth”.
In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton uses elements of tragedy to protest the limitations imposed upon women in early twentieth century America. Lily Bart is the sympathetic but flawed heroine, a young woman torn between her need for financial security and her own moral convictions. The circumstances of her descent “from happiness to misfortune” are that of the society in which she was raised.
In Lily’s decadent world, the value of a human being is dependent on two factors: appearance and material possession. Percy Gryce is a good example: “the existence of the [book] collection was the only fact that had ever shed glory on the name of Gryce.” He evaluates his own social worth according to the popularity of his book collection, “the interest which would be excited if the persons he met in the street, or sat among in travelling, were suddenly to be told that he was the possessor of the Gryce Americana.”
Lily’s acquaintances are much more prone to judge others than themselves. At the beginning of the novel, when Selden spots Lily at the Grand Central Station, he scrutinizes her every move and expression: “her desultory air perplexed him […] an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one.” Every detail is taken under account; every action is interpreted. As an extension of his analysis of Lily, Selden even puts “her [social] skill to the test”. He strolls past her, knowing “that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him.”
In an environment in which every deed is dissected and criticized, decorum becomes a priority. At the news of their financial ruin, Mrs Bart quickly asks her daughter Lily to “shut the pantry door”. Her first reaction is to make sure her family preserves its dignity and does not “make a show […] before the servants”. Even in times of crisis, truth is inconsequential. All that matters is appearance, reputation. Concealing one’s true self becomes a way of life and a complex art form: “it is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.”
The characters develop into skilled liars. With the possible exception of Gertrude Farish and Selden, Lily’s acquaintances have no true moral values because their rigid definition of good conduct focuses uniquely on appearances: Judy immediately abandons Lily when associating with her becomes socially detrimental; Mrs Peniston rewards the socially accepted Grace Stepney, who likely influenced her decision to disown Lily. Lies are told without consequence.
However, no crime, in the legal sense, is perpetrated. Only one character throughout the novel resorts to illegal tactics: the charwoman who attempts to blackmail her. She stands outside of Lily’s prestigious circle. The transgressions of the American upper-class take place on an ethical level, not a legal one. Moral issues are abstract and highly subjective, while the law is concrete and absolute. The lack of moral values in Lily’s entourage is merely an extension of its excessive materialism.
The materialistic nature of the society Edith Wharton depicts is also apparent in the characters’ perception of marriage. The couples that surround Lily are loveless. A “long stretch of vacuity” separates Gus and Judy Trenor as they sit on opposite sides of a luxurious dinner table. Despite Bertha Dorset’s affair with Ned Silverton, she and her husband resume their marriage as if nothing had happened, “presenting their customary faces to the world”. George and Bertha Dorset’s decision to stay married is a tactical one. George needs his wife to uphold his social prestige, and Bertha needs her husband to maintain her financial prosperity: “she engrossed in establishing her relation with an intensely new gown.”
Marriage is merely a business transaction. Women are social trophies in which wealthy men invest in the hopes of gaining prestige. For women, marriage is crucial: “Oh, governesses–or widows [can enjoy the privileges of a flat]. But not girls–not poor, miserable, marriageable girls.” Unable to survive otherwise, they “have to go into partnership”.
At the beginning of the novel, Lily works toward inciting Percy Gryce “to do the honour of boring her for life”. Passion and emotions have no place in this business transaction. Love is useless: after losing most of her prestige, Lily attempts unsuccessfully to lure Simon Rosedale through lust and passion, but, as the perfect capitalist, his priorities place social standing above the promise of love. Lily’s usefulness has expired: “Last year I was wild to marry you, and you wouldn’t look at me: this year–well, you appear to be willing. Now, what has changed in the interval? Your situation, that’s all.”
Beauty becomes a strong and essential currency for women such as Lily: “But you’ll get it [her family’s fortune] all back–you’ll get it all back, with your face.” Lily panics and runs to the mirror to check her face when Gerty tells her, “But you look so tired: I’m sure you must be ill.” However, “beauty is only the raw material of conquest, and […] to convert it into success other arts are required.” Many strategies exist for women to acquire a rich and powerful husband. Most of them require patience and questionable morals: as Judy Trenor explains about Bertha Dorset’s ability to seduce Percy Gryce, “for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman.” In so harsh a competition, every weapon is needed.