The New Woman: Testing the Boundaries of Class Expectations and Gender Roles by Mallory Eicher

The John D. Unruh Award is given to a research paper from the ares of the humanities and the social sciences that reflects the highest qualities of undergraduate research and writing. Inspiration Point is pleased to present the winning essay of this year’s contest!

At the turn of the 20th century, America had learned the taste of power: she had faced the challenges of the western frontier and settled the land from coast to coast, forced the Native Americans onto reservations to make room for “progress,” laid miles of track for the great network of trains, and was muscling her way into the world as a dominant power.  Society was alive with the feelings and sentiments found in Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem “Chicago” when he writes, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” A generation of self-made men was preeminently taking control as Andrew Carnegie turned America into the largest steel producer in the world, and John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust dominated the petroleum markets. It was a time of innovation and the birth of the American Dream: that all men might achieve prosperity through hard work and determination. It was in this age, too, that the infectious atmosphere of possibility took root in women in the beginning stages of the American feminist movement.

In July of 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held, the Seneca Falls Convention during which a Declaration of Sentiments was signed, stating the resolution for women’s voting rights. In May of 1869, Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and by the turn of the century, several states had begun granting women the right to vote. (talk about Victorian era family life and how voting pushed against women’s place in society) The Victorian Era was nearing to a close at the end at the turn of the century, and it is in this age that Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton wrote novels featuring women protagonists. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, written just six years apart, the female main character struggles with her role in life. Though Lily Bart in The House of Mirth is set among the elite wealthy in 1900s New York and Edna Pontellier in The Awakening moves among the Creole in late 1800s New Orleans, each feels constrained by the identities dictated to them by society and seeks to establish an individual self apart from the roles both women are expected to fulfill. Lily and Edna achieve some amount of success at obtaining an individual identity outside of marriage or prescribed roles, but, curiously, both commit suicide at the close of each novel. Some critics have declared their deaths to signal the characters’ defeat against the patriarchal ideologies at play in their lives. Their suicides were not a signal of resignation, however, but rather the fulfillment of both characters’ quest for autonomy. It is in their deaths that they ultimately transcend over society’s expectations and limitations and experience a certain redemption in their journey for an individual identity. 

Societal Restrictions of New York Culture

Edith Wharton wrote The House of Mirth in 1905, and its main character, Lily Bart, belongs to the highest class of society in early 1900s New York. Eric Homberger in his book Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age, writes that at this time, a growing public interest in the rich and wealthy resulted in newspaper columns filled with “the behavior, dress, marriages, divorces, and expensive homes of the American aristocracy” (11). By the late 1800s, a hostess belonging to the upper class “could expect virtually every aspect of her life…to be ‘covered’” (Homberger 12). In light of this constant scrutiny, appearances were vital, and the aristocrats had to take great care to be “proper” in all aspects or else face the malicious gossip of the media. Aristocracy, too, was more than just the presence of wealth. Men of “new money,” though in possession of the means to live like the wealthy elite, were nonetheless viewed as “rich, crude, half-educated” and seen as distasteful social climbers (Homberger 8). Aristocracy, then, was defined by a strict social correctness determining good manners in a “complex system of regulations, informal controls, and social rituals” in order to prescribe appropriate behavior, dress, entertainment, and “dozens of other aspects of the daily lives of those who were in society” (Homberger 10). For women, these regulations translated into a tightly controlled role in the aristocratic society.

During the period in which The House of Mirth was written, the ideology of separate spheres for women and men dictated that men generally occupied the public sphere and women remained in the private sphere, that is, men worked while women were expected to raise children and look after the household. Marriage was expected and was one way to secure a position in the New York aristocracy. The House of Mirth begins with Lawrence Selden’s chance meeting with Lily Bart at a train station. In Selden’s eyes, Lily Bart is the epitome of aristocracy: “He had the confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her” (Wharton 7). Lily herself admits that “she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings…Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in” (Wharton 23). Unfortunately, Lily’s parents at this point have both died and left her with little money. After her father’s death, which left the mother and daughter embarrassingly poor, Lily’s mother spent the remainder of her years instilling in Lily a sense of responsibility for caring for Lily’s great beauty in order to marry wealth. Though Lily “would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich” and was “secretly ashamed of her mother’s crude passion for money,” (Wharton 30) she nonetheless recognizes the power of her beauty. Lily’s mother’s last plea was for Lily to avoid “dinginess” if she could: “Fight your way out of it somehow – you’re young and can do it” (Wharton 31).  Thus, Lily’s final commission from her mother is to use her beauty and knowledge of the strict social conventions to marry wealth. Selden also agrees with this command as, when Lily reveals in private conversation to him that “people are getting tired of [her]; they are beginning to say [she] ought to marry,” Selden replies, “Well, why don’t you?” He then goes on to say, “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?” Lily dispiritedly agrees, saying, “What else is there?” (Wharton 10).

During the time of The House of Mirth, the ideal wife was characterized by propriety and obedience. Homberger describes her as “dutiful, complaisant, and socially presentable” (254). It was her duty to manage the household, observe social visits, and organize all entertaining. Indeed, Mrs. Trenor, one of Lily’s friends at the start of the novel, is described as being “difficult to define…beyond saying that she seemed to exist only as a hostess” (Wharton 34). Marriage among aristocracy, however, often featured little love. Bertha Dorset, a cunning high class woman, is described as delighting in making people miserable (especially her husband), but, as Mrs. Trenor tells Lily, Bertha “doesn’t dare lose her hold of him on account of the money” (Wharton 37). Lily’s mother also vehemently discourages Lily from love-matches in favor of a marriage that will gain her social standing and wealth. Homberger perhaps describes the elite marriages of that time best when relating the story of Sallie Hargous, a member of the elite New York class, saying that she was not prepared for “the long littleness of married life” (22). This conflict between the expectation to marry and the perceived miserableness of marriage is what would later spur Lily to begin her journey for individuality. It is to be concluded, then, that aristocracy in turn of the century New York demanded strict social conventions to be followed and expected its women to marry, often for money and status rather than love.

Societal Restrictions of Creole Culture

Though Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening from the viewpoint of the Creole culture in late 1800s New Orleans, many aspects and expectations of Creole high society were similar to those of the New York high society found in The House of Mirth. These expectations also resulted in a specific role for women as mothers within the Creole society just as women were expected to be wives in New York aristocratic society.

A mix of French and Spanish ancestry, the Creole people had a distinct and complex culture that was carefully guarded.  At the turn of the century, the group as a whole “had largely succeeded in resisting the assimilation of the American melting pot” despite the advent of English being taught in public schools and an influx of non-Creole residents in New Orleans (Huber Forward). To combat the pressures on their culture, the Creoles “clung tenaciously to the lifestyle of their forefathers” by encouraging the study of the French language and French culture at home as well as by creating an exclusive world in the Vieux Carré (Huber Forward). The beginning of The Awakening is set at Grand Isle, a popular resort island for wealthy Creoles. The Lebrun family hosts guests, and that summer, only Creoles were there: “They all knew each other, and felt like one large family, among whom existed the most amicable relations” (Chopin 10). Creoles, like the New York aristocracy, were also judged heavily on appearances, manners, and conduct and so had specific roles expected of them in order to maintain this appearance.

Each member of the Creole family was subject to a distinct role in society. The Creole father was the ultimate authority in the household and “the unquestioned autocrat of his domain” (Huber 18). It was his duty to maintain the appearance of the family despite the conditions at home. Part of this duty included working to afford the extravagant lifestyle of the Creole wealthy, and so, during summer migrations to resorts, the men often remained behind in New Orleans to continue working (Huber 93). The Creole mother was expected to dedicate herself to the household, placing “home and family above all else, regardless of sacrifice” (Huber 20). Creole mothers were also defined by their love for the children whether they had two or nine with a large number of children often being the rule rather than the exception (Huber 21). In The Awakening, Adèle Ratignolle is portrayed as the ideal mother-woman in Creole society. Chopin describes the mother-woman as women “who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals…” (9). Though only married for seven years, Adèle already has three children and “was beginning to think of a fourth one” (Chopin 10), and, in one scene, is shown sewing winter clothes for her children in the middle of summer in anticipation of her children’s needs.

In addition to appearing as a motherly figure, Creole women were also expected to be beautiful. Sharmita Lahiri believes the Creole wife’s role to be largely ceremonial in which “her physical beauty and accessories bear evidence of her husband’s material prosperity” (62). Adèle fits this description, as well; she is portrayed having grace in “every step, pose, gesture” (Chopin 9) and “excessive physical charm” in her “feminine and matronly figure” (Chopin 14,15). The definition of beauty in the Creole culture was that of smooth, soft, white skin (Huber 15). Ever the picture of perfection, Adèle wears gloves with gauntlets and a gauze veil on her head to protect her from the sun when walking with Edna to the beach (Chopin 15). It is Adèle’s loveliness that draws Edna to her. Just as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth basks in a luxurious setting, so is Edna defined as having “a sensuous susceptibility to beauty” (Chopin 14). Though Edna is surrounded by Creole culture that summer on Grand Isle with Adèle and throughout the novel, Edna was not born into the culture. Rather, she married into it through her husband Léonce. Her desire for individuality is partially found in her conflict with the foreign Creole culture in which she found herself.

Edna Pontellier grew up in Kentucky and was raised Presbyterian before she experienced Creole culture through her future husband. Léonce’s “absolute devotion flattered her” (Chopin 18), and Edna’s family’s opposition to his Catholic background only added to the allure. Despite marrying a Catholic, Edna’s Presbyterian background nonetheless undermines her comfort, at times, when with the Creoles. Presbyterian women were expected to be silent and subordinate (Boyd and Brackenridge 24). Creole culture, on the other hand, appeared to be much freer of speech. To Edna, their freedom of expression was impressive and, at times, incomprehensible though she determines that the Creole’s “lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable” must account for their seeming “entire absence of prudery” (Chopin 10). Romance for the Creole woman “is simply an aristocratic amusement” (Martin 20) as evidenced by the presence of Robert Lebrun.

During the summers at Grand Isle, Robert LeBrun enjoyed various relationships with women. Beginning at the age of fifteen, he devoted himself every summer to “some fair dame or damsel. Sometimes it was a young girl, again a widow; but often as not it was some interesting married woman” (Chopin 11). Despite Robert’s attention to Adèle the previous summer and his current devotion to Edna, he is never taken seriously and, as Chopin writes, “the Creole husband is never jealous” (12). Unfortunately, Edna’s Presbyterian background lends her some confusion to this practice of a doting younger man, and, along with her aversion to the prescribed Creole mother-role, Robert’s attentions become a catalyst to her quest for an individual identity.

Ill-fitted Societal Roles

It has been determined, then, that in both the New York aristocratic culture and the Creole high society culture, members were held to a rigid standard comprised of social conventions, proper appearances, and defined roles for men and women. Jennifer Gray comments on these societal rules, writing, “The hegemonic institutions of nineteenth-century society required women to be objects in marriage and in motherhood, existing as vessels of maternity and sexuality, with little opportunity for individuality” (53). It is precisely the limited opportunity for individuality that causes Lily and Edna to resist conforming to these roles and leads them to strive towards emulating the attributes of the “New Woman.”

Elizabeth Burt, in her article “From ‘True Woman’ to ‘New Woman,’” proposes a set of characteristics unique to the “True Woman” and the “New Woman.” According to Burt, the “True Woman” is defined by “her piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” and would closely align with the mother-woman figure of the Creole culture while the “New Woman” is “was independent, politically active, forward thinking, and outspoken” (210). Neither Edna nor Lily exhibit willingness to be a “True Woman” in their cultures.

Though the Creole culture expects women to fulfill the role of mother and even though Edna has two children of her own, Edna does not enjoy being a mother. Chopin writes that “in short, Edna Pontellier was not a mother-woman” (9). Edna did love her boys and “was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way,” but their occasional visits to their grandmother “seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (Chopin 19). Edna admits to Adèle later that “she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one” (Chopin 46). Though she would give up money and life for her children, she would not sacrifice her very self. Adèle is confused, replying that she could do no more than sacrifice her life, and Edna laughingly replies, “Oh, yes you could!” (Chopin 46). In Creole culture, Edna’s very self should be found in her children (and, therefore, tied to her life), but Edna’s resistance to the role of mother-woman leads her to crave an individual sense of self apart from that role in which sacrificing her life would not be the same as sacrificing her sense of self.

Though Lily outwardly conforms to societal expectations by flirting with the wealthy Percy Gryce in hopes of marriage, she also harbors doubts about her role in society. In Selden’s apartment, she wishfully expresses how wonderful it must be to have a place to oneself and exclaims, “What a miserable thing it is to be a woman” (Wharton 8). Though Lily and Selden both know Gerty Ferish, an unmarried woman who owns her own flat, Selden cannot picture Lily breaking free of her role to live like Gerty, observing that Lily “was so evidently the victim of the civilization which produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (Wharton 8). Lily, too, feels the weight of her expected role in society when she claims she is different from Gerty: “She likes being good, and I like being happy. And besides, she is free and I am not” (Wharton 8).  To Lily, happiness is directly tied to wealth and freedom from monetary concerns. Lily’s possible marriage to Percy Gryce, then, should provide that happiness.

When Lily considers marrying Percy Gryce, it is as if a great burden has been lifted from her mind. In marriage, her “vulgar cares” would be no more, she would have gowns and jewels, and there would be room for her “in this crowded selfish world of pleasure” (Wharton 41). Despite the obvious relief marriage to a wealthy man would bring, Lily cannot help but realize “the long littleness of married life” (Homberger 22) that would come with it as she views her potential marriage with a certain sarcastic twist:

She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce – the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice – but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom… all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life” (Wharton 23).

Lily’s confusion is summed up in Wharton’s comment that “she was beginning to have fits of angry rebellion against fate, when she longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself. But what manner of life would it be?” (33). Despite Lily’s want for independence, she also realizes her distaste for dinginess and declares that “to her last breath she meant to fight against it” (Wharton 33) even if it meant marrying a bore. It thus takes the presence of Selden to encourage Lily forward in her desire to become a “New Woman.”

The Catalyst Presence of Men

When Lily considers the wealth that marrying Percy Gryce would bring her, she views society with a newfound approval. Though she had previously ridiculed and envied the women with secure, financial standings among the rich, she now appreciates their elegance, their self-assurance. With her compliance to prescribed social regulations, “they were ready to admit her to their ranks” and she is ready to accept an “allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of their limitations, a disbelief in the things they did not believe in” (Wharton 42). Lily soon finds herself becoming more and more preoccupied with Selden, however, though she had known him for eight years or more. She determines that this preoccupation “was due to the fact that his presence shed a new light on her surroundings” (Wharton 45). Lily imagines him to have the ability to escape, at times, outside of “the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at” (Wharton 45). With the thought of Selden in mind, Lily once again views society and now finds it to be “dreary and trivial” (Wharton 45). Though they had previously represented everything Lily wanted to gain and become, she now sees “under the glitter of their opportunities…the poverty of their achievement” (Wharton 45). Roslyn Dixon concludes that Selden has changed the elements that Lily previously saw as “crucial to her emotional well-being” and rendered them irrelevant. When Selden, then, “adds a dimension to Lily’s life she thought not possible, she instinctually turns away from the proposed marriage” (Dixon 214). Dixon views Lily as “on the brink of a crucial choice” with a “latent personal quality that is stimulated when another…participant, Lawrence Selden, exerts sufficient influence to provide a compelling alternative” (212). This alternative in found in Selden’s “republic of the spirit” (Wharton 55).

Though Lily meant to attend church to impress Percy Gryce, her imaginations of their dull future together persuades her to abandon the idea. Contemplating “that great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path” that waited for her in her marriage to Percy, Lily decides to skip church. Lily then meets Lawrence Selden instead who convinces her to accompany him on a walk the following afternoon. When the two discuss the idea of success that next afternoon, Lily believes it to mean “to get as much as one can out of life” (Wharton 55). Selden immediately dismisses her question as to whether that is his idea of success, as well, and “offers Lily a more compelling alternative” in his definition of success as personal freedom, including freedom “from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit” (Wharton 55). It is Selden’s support and his labeling what Lily had yet been unable to name and only feel in his republic of the spirit that Lily is further encouraged to develop that same personal freedom. Edna Pontellier does not have a male mentor in the sense that Lily finds in Selden, but her experiences with men also catalyze her own personal “awakening.”

Though Edna is submersed in Creole culture at Grand Isle, she nonetheless is still a foreigner to some of the peculiarities of the culture. Adèle recognizes this and makes a request of Robert that he would leave Mrs. Pontellier alone. When Robert questions her, Adèle replies, “She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously” (Chopin 20). It is true, too, that earlier Edna had difficulty determining Robert’s seriousness when he teases Adèle with loving words (Chopin 12). Robert, however, tells Adèle, “I hope Mrs. Pontellier does take me seriously” (Chopin 20), and as the novel progresses, Edna begins to do just that. When Robert announces his sudden intention to leave for Mexico, Edna is upset and reveals that she “was planning to be together [with Robert], thinking of how pleasant it would be to see [him] in the city next winter” (Chopin 43). Even in Robert’s absence, however, he still plays a role in Edna’s awakening as thoughts of him distance herself from her husband and ignite within her desire and longing, feelings that Victorian women were not expected to have. After an argument over Edna’s rejection of receiving callers on Tuesdays, Mr. Pontellier leaves the house, and Edna returns to her room. There, she takes of her wedding rings, throws it to the carpet, and seeks to crush it with her boot. Although she puts it back on her finger after a servant finds it, it is nevertheless a small step towards personal freedom.

Edna also turns to Alcée Arobin, a man of questionably reputation, during her time in New Orleans without Robert. Elaine Showalter views Edna’s dalliances with men as an expression of quarreling with Victorian culture. Showalter believes the heroine of New Woman fiction to chiefly express her discontent through sexual means (69). In the sexual repression of the Victorian Era, it is only fitting that Edna would be encouraged in her awakening through the pleasure of men as evidenced by one night encounter with Arobin: “When he leaned forward and kissed her, she clasped his head, holding his lips to hers. It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch and that kindled desire” (Chopin 80). In Edna’s longing and desire for Robert while he is away and her illicit affair with Arobin, she asserts her fledgling independence as a woman and an individual.

Though relationships with men in both novels initially lend legitimacy and support to Lily and Edna’s defiance of social norms, these relationships ultimately fail the women as the men in these cultures are also bound by societal norms and so cannot continue to provide the women support in their increasing defiance of social norms. The women, too, begin to find themselves outside of their expected roles with few alternative styles of living that, ultimately, are seen as unsatisfactory.

Retraction of Support and Limited Alternatives

The House of Mirth provides a critique on many aspects of life, among them the moral absence of the elite, the emptiness and confinement of marriage, and the constraints society prescribed to women and men in the roles they could and could not fulfill.  In the novel, Selden is seen presenting Lily with alternative ideals to these societal roles and empty marriages, but he fails to provide her with viable, concrete lifestyle alternatives. Roslyn Dixon, in her article “Reflecting Vision in The House of Mirth,” effectively summarizes this conflict by describing the novel as “formed by Lily’s struggle to reconcile her spiritual needs as they are embodied by Selden, with her material and social needs as they are embodied by the group” (212). In terms of spiritual needs, Selden, as shown previously, encourages Lily to view society from an alternative viewpoint than the one in which her mother advocated, but Selden’s assistance fails to progress much farther than that initial paradigm shift. Erin Mahoney relates Lily’s story to a failed fairy tale in which her lack of success is directly tied to her lack of a reliable “Prince Charming.” She quotes Joan Lidoff, saying, “All her romance ‘helpers’ fail her. She has only a defective Prince Charming who has the magical power to change her complacent vision of the world, but is unable to transport her to a kingdom beyond” (37). Indeed, Selden is just as restricted by society as Lily is, causing him to retract his support.

Selden appears to be the ideal toward which Lily strives, an individual with more freedom than her, but his role in society limits the amount of support he can provide her. Showalter writes that Selden “is revealed to be even more inflexible” and incapable of defining himself as “the New Man” (97). Though he stimulates her with his republic of spirit, “the man who should have faith in her cannot trust her long enough to overcome his own emotional fastidiousness” (Showalter 91). He expects of her perfection and only offers her an idea of life that is divorced form the demands of her situation. Selden encourages Lily to redefine success, eschew the idea of marriage for wealth, and search for personal freedom, but he leaves Lily without the skills to support herself financially. Lily was raised by her mother to marry for wealth; her talents lie in superb social skills that, while helpful for attracting wealthy men like Percy Gryce, are not helpful for investing or beginning a business. Thus, Selden’s encouragement of Lily leaves her disdainful of marriage but without any practical skills to attain financial security by other means.  It is, in fact, due to Selden’s guidance that Lily entangles herself in a series of social crises as she attempts to throw off the expectations of society in order to assert herself as an individual. In casting off these expectations, however, “she continuously loses sight of the common rules of conduct until, finally, she is ejected from her social group” (Dixon 217). Once ejected from her social group, her alternatives to her final decision of suicide become unfeasible.

Without the support of her social group, Lily would need to compromise her values in order to regain financial security. Determined to remain financially independent, Lily turns to Mr. Trenor for advice in investing her money. Though the investments initially appear to be successful and Lily begins receiving regular payments via Mr. Trenor, Lily later finds out that Mr. Trenor was merely giving her gifts of money under the assumption that she would return the favor through favors of her own. Lily is thus given the opportunity to accept Trenor’s “offer,” remain his mistress, and receive regular financial aid while still appearing independent outside of a marriage. Another option for financial security would require Lily to marry the “new money” social climber Simon Rosedale.

Rosedale promises Lily that he would put her in a position above the rest of her former social class in return for her social expertise. He declares, “I’d set you up over them all – I’d put you where you could wipe your feet on ‘em!” if she would guide him in garnering a position among the aristocratic (Wharton 234).  In order to marry Rosedale and enhance his reputation, however, Lily must first restore her own position in society. This can be done by blackmailing Bertha Dorset whose rumors first caused Lily to be rejected. Near the beginning of the novel, Lily is presented with letters that Bertha wrote to Selden and purchases them to protect Selden’s reputation. If Lily would threaten to reveal those letters, Bertha would have to restore Lily’s place in society or risk being rejected by the social group, as well.  Both blackmailing Bertha and remaining Trenor’s mistress, however, include a compromise of Lily’s moral values as well as alienate Selden.

Though Selden is incapable of fully supporting Lily’s awakening, he is still seen as Lily’s mentor. Dixon writes, “As genuine as Lily’s affection is for Selden, more significantly, he epitomizes the ideal to which she aspires. Regardless of his culpability, crushing Selden to ensure her own survival would be tantamount to crushing the ideal” (218). Outside of relationships with men, Lily is presented two other alternatives to death which ultimately fail her, as well.

As Lily’s talents lie in her social abilities, her other two options focus on aiding social climbers like Simon Rosedale achieve a position in the elite class. Carry Fisher, adept herself at managing those of “new money,” helps establish Lily with the newly wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Gomer. In this way, Lily has an opportunity to use the skills at which she excels to guide the Gormers in their quest for social recognition while maintaining a well-funded existence outside of marriage or an affair. Ironically, Lily’s role is that of hostess, one of the acceptable and prescribed roles for women in her society. Bertha Dorset’s rumors soon ruin Lily’s reputation with the Gormers, however, and Lily is reassigned through Fisher to Mrs. Norma Hatch. Lower in the social classes than even the Gormers, Mrs. Hatch attempts to marry a young high society man to attain a position with the aristocratic. Though Lily leaves Mrs. Hatch out of disapproval of the situation, Lily loses what little sympathy she had remaining among her former social class in this scandal: “Once again, Lily had withdrawn from an ambiguous situation in time to save her self-respect, but too late for public vindication” (Wharton 221). This rejection from her social class also destroys Lily’s final chance at financial independence.

Lily’s friend, Gerty Farish, remembers Lily’s propensity for trimming hats and seeks to establish her as a milliner. Though Lily had dreams of a “charming little front shop,” she would need both a considerable sum of money and the approval of fashionable ladies to give it credibility – neither of which she now has. Lily is instead sent to work in the work-room of Madame Regina’s millinery. Women were increasingly joining the workforce at the time of The House of Mirth, but Lily was not raised in such an environment, and after two months of work, her craftsmanship is still less than satisfactory. In the final chapters of the novel, Lily resolves to use the letters convicting Selden of an affair with Bertha to blackmail Bertha in order to regain her social position. Briefly visiting Selden before she meets Bertha, however, Lily finds she cannot betray his reputation in order to assure hers and instead burns the letters. It is at this point that Lily is left without her reputation, the support of Selden or her social class, or the ability to survive as a working class woman. She is destitute.

Whereas Lily wished to be financially independent, Edna’s marriage to Léonce assures her of financial security to the extent that Edna’s awakening primarily consists of desires, love, and the wish to be solely in control of these desires. Alcée Arobin provides Edna with the opportunity to explore desire but it is through love of her own choosing that Edna believes she will find fulfillment. Thus, she turns to Robert: “‘I love you,’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream… Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence’” (Chopin 102-103). Despite Robert’s equally passionate love for Edna, however, the social conventions dictating his own place in Creole society hinder him from fulfilling her wish.

Just as Edna longed for Robert in his absence, Robert also longed for Edna. He reveals that during his time in Mexico, he “forgot everything but a wild dream of [Edna’s] some way becoming [his] wife” (Chopin 102). He continues, however, saying that he was “a cur” to dream of such things because of her marriage to Léonce(Chopin 102). Ednaonly replies, “You have been a very, very foolish boy…I am no longer one of Mr. Pontelliers’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose” (Chopin 102). At this moment, Robert has the opportunity of extending to Edna his love and allowing her to give of herself to whomever she pleases and thus supporting her emerging independence. Instead, he blanches and can only reply, “What do you mean?” (Chopin 102). Though Robert loves Edna, he denies her vision of freedom of will in relationships. Rather than redefining the roles society has placed before both of them, Robert merely wishes to rearrange the places each of them hold within that society. Indeed, when Edna returns after assisting Adèle with the birth of her fourth child, Edna finds Robert gone and only a note stating simply, “I love you. Good-by – because I love you” (Chopin 106). With Robert unwilling to break from convention and Edna unwilling to give of herself sufficiently to be a Creole mother-woman like Adèle, Edna is left with the choice of becoming like Madame Reisz.

Madame Reisz functions as a foil to the beautiful, obedient, and mothering Creole Adèle. Showalter describes Madame Reisz as “a renegade, self-assertive and outspoken. She has no patience with petty social rules and violates the most basic expectations of femininity” (75). Madame Reisz is effectively independent but has sacrificed her femininity to do so as she is described as “a disagreeable little woman” with “a small weazened face” and “no taste in dress” (Chopin 25). Jennifer Gray writes, “She is neither feminine nor sexual and is, rather, an alternative female” (62). Because of her lack of identity as feminine or sexual, Reisz effectively places herself outside of female societal expectations so does not pose a conflict to those roles. Edna, however, began her awakening on the basis of awakened feelings of desire and love so that to deny them and become like Madame Reisz would be denying her newly awakened sense of self. Gray concludes, “The ‘artist-woman,’ an alternative…allows the autonomy Edna desires, but not the emotional and sexual freedom she craves” (66). Edna, therefore, rejects the Creole mother-woman role, the role of an eccentric artist and social outcast, and the role presented to her through Arobin – that of a relationship of desire separate from love in which she would have to remain a “kept woman” of Arobin (Lahiri 67). Robert refuses to imagine a life where she is able to give of herself freely, and so Edna concludes, like Lily, that suicide is her last option.

Though Lily and Edna are faced with expected roles in society, both women seek to cast off these roles and create another place in society for themselves as dictated by their needs. Lily’s need for financial security could be met through relationships with Mr. Trenor or Mr. Rosedale but both of those would require a sacrifice of Lily’s moral values. Other opportunities prove unsuccessful due to a lack of practical skills and the rejection of her social group. Edna similarly discovers a need for the fulfillment of her newly awakened desires, a need which cannot be met through the unfeminine role of artist. Edna’s need for the ability to control who receives her love, too, is rejected by Robert and cannot be met as a mistress of Arobin. Lily and Edna thus discover that outside of the roles society dictates for women, they cannot create an alternative identity that would suitably meet their needs.

Redemptive Death

Both The Awakening and The House of Mirth chronicle the journal of a woman’s refusal to be defined by her gender’s prevailing societal expectations. Edna and Lily attempt, instead, to unearth an inner sense of self rife with passion, feelings, and strivings for independence. In these strivings, The Awakening and The House of Mirth would seem to be novels characterized by the quest for fulfillment and a purposeful life. Wendy Martin, however, in respect to The Awakening specifically, writes, “In many respects, The Awakening is about death, not life” (17). It would seem to be true, too, that though these women struggled in life to create a sense of self, it is only in their death that they achieve this purpose.

Wendy Martin thus begins the discussion about fulfillment in death through an analysis of Edna’s suicide. Though Martin recognizes Edna’s effort to establish a sense of self outside of marriage or outcast eccentricity, Martin condemns that struggle as futile in a patriarchal society that had no role or tolerance for an independent, sexually awakened woman. Many critics, in fact, see Edna’s death at the end of the novel as a sign of defeat and resignation. Lahiri references Manfred Malzhn’s argument about Edna’s choice of death “that it is a defeated escape from a society where, having relinquished her old place, she is unsuccessful in creating a new one for herself” (69). Edna is determined to be a misfit, capable of neither being content with the mother-woman figure nor bold enough to embrace the eccentricities of an existence like Madame Reisz’s. Lahiri, however, suggests that Edna’s acquiescence to either of these roles would have been a compromise to her newly awakened desires. The patriarchal pressures of society allowed Edna limited freedom in inventing an entirely new role for herself, and “nothing less than a transformation of social reality would enable the new born creature that Edna has become to go on living” (Gilmore, as qtd. in Lahiri 68). Without the support of Robert, no viable alternatives, and a culture that refused Edna the freedom she sought, Edna returns to the shores of Grand Isle.

The sensations produced by the sea near Grand Isle are featured prominently throughout the novel. “The voice of the sea” is described near the beginning as “seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring…The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 14). It is only fitting, then, that the close of the novel finds Edna on that same shoreline, casting off “the unpleasant, pricking garments” until she stands “naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her” (Chopin 108). Edna’s subsequent endless swim into the sea has been the focus of many critics when determining whether her death was a triumph or defeat. P. Abbasi, author of “The Masculine Sea and the Impossibility of Awakening in Chopin’s The Awakening” and one such critic, looks to the significance of the sea in his critique of Edna’s death.

Rather than associating the sea with positive sensations, Abbasi identifies the sea as a negative force. He posits that the sea represents feelings of fear and horror as, during Edna’s final swim, she recalls “the terror that seized her at the fear or being unable to regain the shore” during a previous attempt at swimming, and, as exhaustion overtakes her, “the old terror flamed up for an instant” (Chopin 109). Abbasi also argues that though Edna seeks throughout the novel to establish an independent voice, in the presence of the sea, “only the sea’s voice can be heard” as it “robs Edna of speech.” The sea, repressing her speech and representing the masculine societal expectations, also saps her strength as it swallows her. Other critics, however, view the sea in a much more positive manner.

Shirly Foster believes the sea to be a signal of Edna’s triumph over patriarchal societal expectations. Instead of a representing fear and horror, the sea, according to Foster, is a symbol of rebirth in Edna’s “escape from the taboos of land-locked society” (166). The sea’s sensual description as it embraces Edna, “enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 109), also coincides with the nature of Edna’s awakening as predominately sexual in nature. Gray and Lahiri both view the sea as representing in its vast expanses endless possibilities and the ability for Edna to exert a “bold defiance” (Lahiri 62) of a culture who fails to recognize her need for independence.  Edna’s rejection of the role of mother-woman and consequent unsuccessful attempt at creating an alternative role that would fulfill her awakened needs and desires illustrates this inability of the culture to accept nonconformity.  Though Edna could not create an alternative role, Lahiri does not view this as failure: “Edna is not a vanquished rebel, who having failed desperately seeks refuge in death. She is an explorer of newer spaces” (70). Because there was no alternative role for Edna within her life without sacrificing her ideals, she turns to the sea’s sensual embrace to affirm her desires in a decision that is purely her own.  Perhaps Foster phrases Edna’s unfortunate death with the most accuracy: “Edna is at the end still a victim – of herself as much as of her circumstances – yet in choosing to commit suicide she is making the ultimate bid for freedom” (168).

Lily Bart’s death is also viewed in the same tragic, yet fulfilling, manner as Edna Pontellier’s death. At the end of the novel, Lily has been cast out of high society, rejected by her friends and Selden for perceived sordid interactions, and sent unsuccessfully to work in a milliner’s shop. Alone in her boarding room, Lily is beset by loneliness. Though she finally receives her inheritance check from the death of her aunt, most of the money was to be used towards paying bills. More than material poverty, however, Lily has a sense “of deeper empoverishment – of an inner destitution” (Wharton 248). In a state of fogged tiredness as she has been unable to sleep without the aid of chloral, Lily’s perception of life has turned grim so that “the next day pressed close upon her, and on its heels came the days that were to follow – they swarmed about her like a shrieking mob” (Wharton 250). That final night, Lily increases the dosage of chloral beyond its recommended highest limit despite the chance of death, and indeed, it is death that holds her after she drifts to sleep for the last time.

Though Lily consciously raises her dosage level of chloral, her intent is much more ambiguous than Edna’s death. Wharton writes that Lily was aware of the potential danger of chloral, but “did not, in truth, consider the question very closely – the physical craving for sleep was her only sustained sensation” (250). Mahoney recognizes this ambiguity but nevertheless determines Lily’s death to be her only possible escape in light of her absence of any support: “By the novel’s end, Lily’s only real option for escape is suicide – an option that she ultimately chooses, although her intent in undertaking the act remains dubious” (37). Ironically, Lily, unlike Edna, was presented with an alternative role in the form of Nellie Struthers before her death.

The night before her death, Lily is happened upon by Nellie Struthers, one of the working class girls Lily once donated money to in order to send Nellie to the country to recover from a lung sickness. Nellie invites Lily to her home and tells her of her new baby and marriage. When Lily holds the baby, Lily is overcome “with a sense of warmth and returning life” (Wharton 245). Later, as Lily is falling asleep under the effects of the chloral, she imagines that she feels Nettie’s child nestled in her arm. While Showalter quotes Patricia Spacks in viewing this scene as Lily’s escape into the fantasy of motherhood, Showalter views this interaction as representing “Lily’s awakened sense of loving solidarity and community” (101). Though Lily could not survive as a working class woman, at the end of her life, she recognizes the vitality and community present among these women. The House of Mirth thus ends “with the vision of a new world of female solidarity, a world in which women like Gerty Farish and Nettie Struther will struggle hopefully and courageously” (Showalter 101). Lily did not achieve material security, a supportive relationship with Selden, or an independent, respected lifestyle. She died a poor outcast in relative obscurity. Nevertheless, her death can be seen as empowering this community of working class women. Though Lily could not find an alternative living style within the aristocratic society that would satisfy her desire for freedom, perhaps in her death (and, therefore, the symbolic death of the aristocratic class and culture) a complete societal transformation could occur and possibilities for independence could emerge among the newly developed class of working women. Showalter effectively summarizes this viewpoint in her statement, “Lily dies – the lady dies – so that these women may live and grow” (101).

Though America has long been considered a melting pot of cultures, there is still a unifying belief that draws together the diverse people that claim America as home. Underneath the various languages, ethnicities, and traditions lies the belief in freedom and hope. Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin capture that same call of freedom in their novels. Within the elite society of New York, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth finds herself raised to abhor poverty and expected to marry for wealth. Despite the strict expectations of society, Lily expresses her discontent to Lawrence Selden who then further awakens her to the possibilities of individual freedom. Caught between her material needs and spiritual needs, however, Lily dangerously acts against societal norms and is cast from the aristocratic circle. Selden, too, proves to be unreliable and retracts his support, leaving Lily in the midst of a setting for which she has no skills – the working class – and unable to attain her former social position due to her desire to protect Selden’s reputation. Edna Pontellier is also repressed by the roles the Creole society places upon her. Though Edna does not face the same material need as Lily, she, too, cannot develop a niche in a society that seeks to conform her to either the mother-woman role or that of the eccentric artist. Through her interactions with men, Edna is sexually awakened, but her love, Robert, cannot imagine a life in which Edna has the freedom to choose her own role and so leaves her. Both Lily and Edna commit suicide at the close of the novels, though Lily’s suicide is somewhat ambiguous. In Edna’s death is found the fulfillment of her awakening – her choice of swimming under her own strength into the limitless, sensuous sea is an explicit defiance of a culture that allowed her no space to create an identity for herself. In Lily’s death is the possibility for a new society to take hold, that of the independent working class women. Though both women died tragic deaths, their deaths are flavored by their choice to create their identity and their refusal to conform. It is only in their deaths that they are reborn.


Works Cited

Abbasi, P. “The Masculine Sea and the Impossibility of Awakening in Chopin’s The Awakening.” K@Ta 14.1 (2012): 37-42. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

Blair, Amy L. “Misreading The House of Mirth.” American Literature 76.1 (2004): 149-175. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Boyd, Lois A. and R. Douglas Brackenridge. Presbyterian Women in America. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. Print.

Burt, Elizabeth V. “From ‘True Woman’ to ‘New Woman.’” Journalism History 37.4 (2012): 207-217. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. Print.

Dixon, Roslyn. “Reflecting Vision in The House of Mirth.” Twentieth Century Literature 33.2 (1987): 211-222. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Foster, Shirley. “The Open Cage: Freedom, Marriage and the Heroine in Early Twentieth-Century American Women’s Novels.” Ed. Moira Monteith. Women’s Writing: A Challenge to Theory. New York: Harvester Press, 1986. 154-174. Print.

Gray, Jennifer B. “The Escape of the ‘Sea’: Ideology and The Awakening.” Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004): 53-73. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Homberger, Eric. Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.

Huber, Leonard V. Creole Collage. Lafayette: The Center for Louisiana Studies, 1980. Print.

Lahiri, Sharmita. “Not a Vanquished Rebel but a Successful Explorer of Newer Realms: A Study of Edna Pontellier in Chopin’s The Awakening.” IUP Journal of English Studies 6.3 (2011): 61-72. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Leder, Priscilla. “An American Dilemma: Cultural Conflict in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 22.1 (1983): 97-104. Web. 15 Sept. 2013.

Mahoney, Erin. “The House of Mirth and the Realistic Fairy Tale.” Explicator 68.1 (2010): 36-38. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Martin, Wendy. “Introduction.” Ed. Wendy Martin. New Essays on The Awakening. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 1-29. Print.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. 65-103. Print.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. Print.

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