While reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of the major themes that sticks out to me is the struggle of leisure-class women to have a sense of purpose in their lives. Discussing an evening of bridge-playing, Lily urges Judy to think of “my career” (43). The fact that Lily’s lifestyle is a representative reflection of the tasks at hand for well-to-do women of the era, this offers a bleak and limited array of prospects for women. What might Lily be talking about when she discusses her “career?” One can only assume that it entails the process of marriage for a woman. As we have already learned about Lily, she is that she “is horribly poor-- and very expensive” (8). This creates a pretty negative picture for her as a character, because it becomes clear over the course of the novel that what she considers her career is the process of marrying into money.
But IS this actually a negative perspective? While outwardly there are some distinct similarities, projecting the 20th-and-21st-century perspective of “gold-digging” is not necessarily a fair assessment of the female condition in this time period. For one thing, there were limited (from my understanding, virtually no) vocations for upper-middle and higher economic class women to be active or successful in (Edith Wharton, as we discussed in class today, could be considered a notable anomaly, as she procured substantial wealth through writing in her lifetime. Still, she was not exactly born into poverty, and it is often said that one needs to have money to make money).
While a modern reader could be quick to criticize the lifestyle, materialism, and goals of Lily as a woman, it is key to acknowledge that women have a drastically different situation and more vocational options than they once had. Also, most of us as readers have different perspectives of the value of money than turn-of-the-century aristocrats, a period which Wharton depicts as a time dominated by men with money and women who spend money. While Lily and her ideals are not necessarily the most identifiable for this era (or for debt-ridden WSU students) I think that it is key to take a step back and acknowledge Wharton’s novel as a benchmark; it is indicative of a transitional period in women’s rights. Suffrage and vocations for women were not all that far off.