1.1Edith Wharton and her works
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is a famous literary writer at the end of the 19th century. In her life, as a female writer, she had been awarded many times for her outstanding contribution to literature . Her works are not only of great commercial value but also occupies a very important position in the history of American literature. At the beginning of the 21st century, the American Library published Edith Wharton” Selected Works of Novels and Short Stories “, which made her a member of the American classical writers. The prize announcement of Pulitzer depicts the American atmosphere of life at that time to the greatest extent , show the American way of life and style with the highest standards. This reflects that Walton’s work focus on the main ethical issue of society in the United States. Ethics issues are usually manifested in social conflicts, although Wharton does not agree with the prize announcement, it still shows that Wharton’s work does focus on moral values in the course of the transition from traditional society to modern society in the period of the 19th century to the twentieth century, ethical contradictions became a serious problem that could not be ignored in social life at that time.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was in the transition period from traditional society to modern society. At this stage, the ethical contradictions are highlighted and become one of the most important problems that people can not avoid in social life. All these social and cultural factors result in the study to the Wharton literature works to ethical issues.
As a prolific writer, she has a lot of works shocked the field of American literature, of course, Edith Wharton and her works has become the focus of literary critics for a long time. Edith Wharton’s novels are of great interest to many readers at home and abroad because of their elegant style and contemporary values.
Wharton was once called “the last Victorian female writer”. The reason why she has such a title is closely related to the creative theme reflected in her work. The Victorian era is known for its moral cultivation and rituals, and is a conservative and ethical era. In her works, Wharton has done a lot of revelations to American social ethics and ritual customs, and has given great attention to the individual in social life.
Wharton is in the transition period from traditional society to modern capitalist society, and in the conflict between traditional ethics and modern ethics, which also embodies the status of individual. Thus, the conflict between personal ethics and collective ethics was one of the most important themes of the time. The development of the capitalist market economy needs to establish the status of the individual in social development. Wharton captures this conflict in her work, reflecting the ethical choices of individuals in the social transition period. Thus, the famous British novelist and literary biographer Margaret Drabble said that Wharton “keep up with the society she analysis”, and sometimes even “beyond the times.”
1.2Domestic and International Literature Review
The novel “Happy House” was published in 1905, and it was one of masterpiece of Edith Wharton . This book tells the story of Lily Bart, She is a beautiful lady who comes from a wealthy background but the family fortune declined, then she lost both parents and has to live with her aunt, hoping to rely on their own beauty and temperament to marry a wealthy husband and squeeze into upper social class but has repeatedly failed, and later was Framed into the bottom of society, ultimately, she dead lonely in her own house. .
A large number of literary critics studied this novel from the perspective of feminism, Marxist criticism and sociology. Louise Barnett explores the relationship between language, gender and society. As Maryann Zihala said, this is an extraordinary book.New York is described in the book in a way that no one has ever done before, the irony here is so profound and so true (Zihala , 2002). Some other critics also believe that men also fall into the victims of the patriarchal society, become a money machine and is lack of spiritual life. According to Mary K. Ford, we can see from the tragic facts of the original family of Lily Bart, her extravagant mother and her overly tired coward death, that her death is a reasonable result of life.
Most literary critics emphasize the historical background of literary works. New York critics have always believed that ” The house of Mirth” is “the first American novel to accurately describe this society.” Edith Wharton has profoundly criticized the relationship of gender, she vividly depicts the heroine’s heart, such as self and self imbalance, and vividly depicts the contradiction between women and the pursuit in the patriarchal society.
Many critics are concerned about the feminine issues represented by “The house of Mirth”. They look into women’s living conditions in society, including their rights, social status and mental condition. They analyze feminism with Marxism, sociology, psychoanalysis and philosophical theory. Bell claimed that the novel depicts the “conditions of female imprisonment” in a rich environment and the most limited social environment (Bell, 1995: 10-11).
Other critics have analyzed the naturalism in this novel. They think that Lily is the product of the social environment. Critics such as Blake Nevis, Donald Praiser, Jennifer Fraser and Larry Rubin have made research in this area. Blair Nevius believes that Lily is a complete and typical “product of the environment and historical movement” (Nevius, 1953: 58).
- Characteristics of American Transitional Period
2.1Creation Background of The House of Mirth
In 1862, Wharton was born in a Dutch immigrant family of upper class in New York. Since grow in the upper class circle, Wharton is well versed in the lifestyle of it. It is a small circle of closed, conservative, self-righteous, advocating rituals and traditional ethical norms.
The high society members of this historical period belongs to the second generation of “nobility” in the history of New York, their ancestors mainly rely on real estate investment to gain wealth. In this generation, most of them get personal wealth through inheritance of property, and they themselves do not create new social values. At the end of the 19th century, the United States entered into a period of rapid economic development, and the mode of production of the whole society has also changed and gradually entered into the capitalist industrial society, representing that the economic growth of American society will rely mainly on capitalist production. The change in the mode of economic growth requires the establishment of a political structure that is compatible with it. Therefore, the rising bourgeoisie in the ascendant period gradually demands to establish its dominance in American social life. And what they must do first is to obtain the recognition by the original ruling class “high society”. Unless recognized by the upper class, or marry with a person from high society family, there is no other way for the new bourgeoisie to climb on the ladder of society. This intention is essentially to change the composition of the upper class at that time, representing the change of class attributes of high society.
Old New York upper class represents the old power, the old class and the old way of production, so they are afraid the most is change. Although they are also eager to get more wealth, but they are very contempt for capitalist mode of production to protect the class interests, and being arrogant that the emerging bourgeoisie related with capitalist mode of production is also vulgar and degrading. Wharton wrote in her book : people in high society “do not even have the interest to make money,only one of my close relatives do ‘business’, there is not even one relative in my husband’s home do business, no one is not satisfied with this level of well-off and continue to struggle. ” ” Old aristocracy, their negative attitude and belittle the spirit of others progressiveness destined its fate of dying, because it do not has any advancement and has been decadent from the inside.
2.2Ethical Environment of The House of Mirth
The Constitution declared that ‘the United States will no longer grant aristocratic title’.” But the American high society still forms a pyramid-type small group by blood or surname. Kinship has ensured the stability of the constituents of the upper class and has thus become the basis of the ethical relations of the old New York society. Therefore, the family surname became a symbol of the status of members in the upper class, the family’s decent is closely related with individual. Collective ethic, which is based on family interests, is the highest code of conduct for this small group of high society. Family ethics, which is based on the family’s overall interests, is also a reflection of the ethical view of the whole society. This is because only with the existence of upper class, the so-called aristocratic surname and aristocratic family could exist. Therefore, the old New York upper class family ethics is a kind of collectivism ethic which based on the interest of whole family and even the whole society. It is in service of the overall interests of the upper class, requiring individuals to be absolutely obey the conduct code of the community. In order to obtain the recognition of other members of the group, the individual can only succumb to collectivist ethics.
The family should have been built on the basis of resonance between two lovers. But in the old New York upper class, the family is considered to be “a boring alliance of material and social interests that is fooled by one side’s ignorance and the other’s hypocrisy.” This shows that the family relationship is based on the material and has nothing to do love. At the end of the nineteenth century, the old New York upper class was still dominated by male and patriarchal. Men should act like gentlemen in front of women. Although the social allows men to be half-hearted to women, but in front of his spouse, he should hide his “past”; and women were asked not to have any concealment, her experience should be as clean as a white paper. This formulation fully reflects the the use of dual ethical standards in high society and the unequal of right and the obligations.
In the old New York upper class, women do not need to have any survival skills, they just need to learn how to please men and abide by the ethical norms of high society. Women’s economic independence is an important reason for their subordination to men in social status. This determines the value of women’s life can only exist in the marriage. Therefore, in such a social ethical concept, it is difficult for women to have space to develop their own independent personality, and ultimately can only be the vassal of male.
Ethics is an important criterion for regulating the relationship between people. Therefore, it should reflect the fairness of rights and obligations between people, especially the respect for people. And the duality of the old New York ethical standards will inevitably lead to the abnormal development of gender relations. The family is built on the basis of love and equality, inequal gender status within the family will inevitably lead to instability in the family, and ultimately will inevitably affect the whole society harmony and stability.
- Ethical Choice and Enlightenment of Lily Bart
3.1Lily’s Relationship with Selden：Gender-based politics and ethical standards in mate selection
The most important narrative power of the “the house of mirth” lies in the fact that Lily Bart is deliberately seizing the chance to marry a member of upper class, the basis of which is the focus action taken by the individual to achieve “life happiness” and the marriage as a separation of class which could provide social mobility for individual. Through the eyes of Selden and Lily’s marriage choice, the opening of the novel shows the gender inequality in the marriage system.
First Selden’s eyes are an effective intermediary for shaping Bart’s characters. From the beginning of the narrative, the heroine of the “the house of the mirth” is in the observation of Selden, is lack of the more neutral and objective introduction of her family background, character, origin, occupation and so on. Selden’s pair of “eyes”, that is, the third-person perspective used by the narrator, provides readers with a sharp view to criticize Bart’s money worship in marriage, and provides a sympathetic interpretation for Bart, which has a distinctive social and ethical significance.
“Even ordinary laughter must be considered.”, “Blush needs to choose time”.Selden’s observation through tinted eyes is a kind of materialization of women in male society, the judgment is formed by unequal and unjust social norms. In the judgment, female characters are dwarfed and full of scheming to attract men as the only motivation of their own life. This judgment has the same unethical social logic with Bart’s defense in her marriage choice.
On the other hand, Selden’s eyes are sympathetic and profound In the opening, Selden saw Lily Bart’s conjecture: her “casualness” might be a “mask” to cover her “purpose”. When walking together, Selden looked at the beauty of Bart, and the narrator said, “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?”(Wharton,1905:6)Here Selden suddenly realized , Bart have made a lot of effort in the mate selection, from clothing, jewelry, cosmetics to talk manners, temperament, etc, even the value of life, may just be the mask that the society or the environment imposes on them .
The first chapter is to explore the marriage and ethical issues. Bart is so frank about her view of marriage, when it comes to the question why she has not take care of her marriage at the age of 29 ,she admitted it was because wasteful.(Wharton,1905:9) When talking about the different meaning of marriage to men and women , Bart said: “In order to change the situation,the woman can only get married,while men have a choice.” (Wharton, 1905:12).About dressing nicely, Bart comment: “Your coat’s a little shabby-but who cares?It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine.The clothes are the background ,the frame,if you like:they don’t make success,but they are a part of it.”(Wharton:,1905:12)
This rhetoric is very eloquent, not only defends the need for women to dress up (this is the desperation imposed by the patriarchal society) but also point out the importance of marriage in women’s life , Which is the ethic code living in society.
Bart’s logic is based on the universally accepted values of society; and the universally accepted value standards are based on certain social forms and ideologies, which may not be consistent with impartial ethical standards. The helplessness in the self defense of Bart reflects the social values of the immoral and injustice; in this situation, a woman is in face of such dilemma: either accept social values, or accept the absolute fair ethical standards; Either choices will inevitably bring difficulties to women. Since the acceptance of social standards means one will succumb to the unjust social standards (represented by Bart); the latter eager to be treated fairly and reject social standards, but she will be ignored and rejected by the social class.
3.2Lily’s Relationship with Percy Gryce：Ethical choice of both men and women
The second chapter describes the story of Lily Bart try to win Mr. Percy as a husband on the train. Bart lives in a male supremacy society. In the choice of marriage, male take the initiative attitude and the dominant position; Men could choose his wife through propose, and women can only express their choice through saying yes or no. Although both men and women have a lot of choices in terms of choosing spouse, but in the first step of the process of marriage, male is dealing with a question with multiple choices, while women are dealing with the yes- no question; After being rejected, men could continue do multiple choice question as much as one like, while women can only wait for the opportunity to do the yes-no question. This social rule determines the marriage form that the male is preying on women.
In the process of fishing, Bart was depicted as typical ambitious comedy characters; When Lily saw Percy, she was thinking how to win him: “She began to cut the pages of a novel,tranquilly studying her pery through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack.”( Wharton,1905:22) Percy belongs to the rustic,he had been brought up in the principles which so excellent a woman was sure to inculcate. He was too easy to be cheated, he obviously seen excited when Lily Slightly mention something about the full set of literary history and showing appreciation to her; he also refused to lead a life of pleasure, although he has millions of family wealth, he would rather be a miser. The author of the novel also arranged the debut of Mrs. Dotson at the end of the chapter. The so-called funny Harlequin, is the comedy in the usual clown, Lane Chen and other roles. Dotson asked Bart “I don’t suppose you’ve a single one left,have you,Lily?( Wharton,1905:30)which shocked the mother’s boy Percy. At last, Percy retreat when knowing Bart’s habit.
Although Bart’s actions are deceptive, seemingly immoral, but overall they are based on the rules of marriage in the patriarchal society and detours in the hierarchical society , which has some rationality; Percy sitting on a huge amount of property, who is stiff and very cautious when choosing wife, one the surface, he should be one being sympathized. While, the logic behind him choosing wife cautiously is that he rejecting women that outside his social statues and full of selfish emotional appeal, which in fact contradicts ethics of equality and mutual tolerance of both sides. It is because the class segment in the society, the lower class women try to squeeze into the upper class through marriage, her actions were obstructed and frustrated for the original structure of the upper class.
3.3Females figures in Lily’s life：Marriage,happiness and other ethical issues
This section analyzes how the social structure of patriarchy in the novel has caused the moral dilemma of women by looking into the female figure group. The women in the “the house of mirth” cover a wide range of social status:From Mrs. Renault,Mrs Trenor,Mrs Bertha, Mrs Fischer and others, to the newly emerging bourgeois Gabriel, There are Lily herself, Miss Farish, Lily’s aunt Julia Peniston and others.Lower women are Mrs Haffen and Mrs Nikki. The upper class women are luxurious and extravagant; middle-class women live frugally and try to maintain decent; lower society women can only feed their families through hard work. But women of all class are depend on their own men: Mrs. Renault must rely on her husband’s property to support their own expenses and life; Mrs. White’s husband George has always has the power to tame and punish her; Bart and her mother are supported by his father ,Mrs Peniston is also live by her husband’s legacy .The lower class women, not only need to feed themselves, but also need to feed the family, because the men being exploited are unable to support the whole family. This kind of social structure is the driving force behind the formation of Bart marriage morality.
The middle class women represented by Bart’s mother has a decisive influence on the daughter’s concept of marriage. The novel depiction to the relationship of the family of Bart, provides a sample of the traditional patriarchal family relationship. Bart’s father is a business men who take care of his business all day outside and treat his wife and daughter very well, but unfortunately the performance of his business keeps declining, while his wife was still longing for luxury and vanity. Even when her husband went bankrupt and was seriously ill, the wife thought that “He no longer counted:he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfill his purpose.”(Wharton,1905:41) 。When the daughter shows the instinct of being filial, Brat’s seemed to say:“You are sorry for him now-but you will feel differently when you see what he has done to us.”( Wharton,1906:42) The narrator description of the relationship in the the family and privileges given to the women by the traditional society also reveals the distortion of women morality.
As for the lower class women, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the process of industrialization in Europe and the United States employed a large number of women workers and child labor, because the cost is lower, so that in the economic downturn, many families rely on women to support their families. The lower class women also helps to shape Bart’s morality on marriage. Mrs Haffen first appeared in the first chapter, the author only focused on her look at Lily (Dayton: 1988: 13-14). But she suddenly appeared in the eighth chapter to blackmail Lily: she privately collected letters reveling Selden and Mrs Bertha improper relations, mistakenly believe that the letter was written by Bart.When she was fired, she asked to get back her job or get money. This narrative, on the one hand, represents a particular ethical paradox and predicament. It is immoral to collecting others’ letters, but her own defense and accusation are extremely powerful: “I guess they’re worth more to you than to me, but the poor has got to live as well as the rich.”(Wharton,1905:136)
On one hand, Mrs Haffen’s life would be the dilemma of Bart if she can not married to a wealthy people, which objectively constitutes her previous marriage ethics. On the other hand, there is a contradiction between ethical principles: extortion is immoral, but the need to survival is reasonable in ethical principles for human beings.(He Huaihong, 2002: 42). Ethical principles can not function in a vacuum, and in the absence of social relief and social security, if the rules of society are unethical itself to the point where people can not live, there is not much room for others to accuse the one who committed something like this with minor consequences. The letters later become something Bart could use against Miss Bertha, and a effective means to obtained the understanding of Selden and marry him. But Bart eventually burn the letter, representing her moral concern on the issue of marriage, that is no longer looking for the maximum happiness and attachment in the marriage, while showing her rejection to the hypocritical and shameless position of the upper society and turned to ethics.
3.4Houses in Lily’s life:Social ethics and morality
One of important house for Bart is the mansion the Mr and Mrs Bailey.Mrs Bailey is different from Mrs Trenor the former want to squeeze into the upper class, access to high society identity; the latter is one of the core members of the upper class. In order to achieve the purpose of being accepted by the upper class, Gabriel couples do everything possible to show their own taste and wealth. To this end, Gabriel deliberately built a new mansion, their mansion is not for live, but specifically used to entertain guests and more precisely to show their wealthy identity, in exchange for more opportunities to get along with the upper class people, so their interior is extremely luxurious, “the owner of the house would like to use the house to say that he had been to Europe and with culture”, this house in New York is not uncommon, although neither fish nor fowl, but to meet their owners They found the designer to design this house with gold-plated furniture and built with marble.
This decoration style shows the “power of money”. It shows the prevailing social pragmatism: people will spend as long as it can show the status and being helpful to squeeze into the upper class regardless of the price. Walton indirectly satire the decorative style of the “gilded age” at the end of the nineteenth century by depicting the couple’s mansion. In this trend, people gradually lost their self-awareness, but become a mansion decoration. In such an environment, it is difficult for Bart to stay out of the trend. These old mansion on the old streets of New York show the ideology and value of the gilded age – wealth is the basis for social status.
Another important house for Bart is Mrs.Penny’s residence. After Bart lost her parents, Mrs. Penny had taken Lily. Mrs Penny is Lily’s aunt. She was born in the old aristocratic family and being strict with herself and others.Mrs Penny Dayton would carefully check all the tablecloths, sheets and blankets, and even the darkness of the basement and the cellar are carefully examined every time she come back from vacation. Bart is very dissatisfied with Mrs Penitston’s decoration and always trying to rearrange Mrs Peniston’s home. However, it is impossible because she is not the owner of the house. Bart would like to have her own house, in essence, she want to get rid of the plight of material poverty and being the master of her own. She do not want to follow the ethical behavior of others and want to establish her own ethical status. When the individual is in the environment contradicts with their own ethics, such desire is more intense.
At the end of the novel, the writer shows the last living room decoration of Bart: “：“There was very little furniture in the room.The shabby chest of drawers was spread with a lace cover,and set out with a few gold-topped boxes and bottles,a rose-coloured pin-cushion,a glass tray strewn with tortoise-shell hairpins-he shrankfrom the poignant intimacy of these trifles.”The spotless table shows that Bart’s inner world is no longer chaotic, her pursuit of material has been reduced to the lowest point, the house and the concept of ethics realized two-way interaction in real life.
This paper believes that “the house of mirth ” shows the complex marriage and ethical issues of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, because the marriage system is the cornerstone of social class politics and gender politics, although the narrator of the novel has certainly affirmed the desire of the heroin to achieve social mobility through marriage, But with the advancement of the story, the work further criticized then hypocritical marriage and gender system, profoundly expounded the happiness and the meaning of life in American society (Blackburn, 2001: 66 ). The writer tells a story of a girl who wants to squeeze into upper society by marrying a wealthy man with status. Though depicting Bart’s ethical choice in the marriage, the writer reveals the solidification of the class structure, the money worship of American, the fact that it is difficult for women to be independent from man, and the contradicts of the individual value and collective value. At the end of the novel, Bart died. Her death accomplished rebirth.,which was the destination of seeking for the spiritual home. It revealed the trail of her growth and also her ethical choice.