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In the book, The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, the characters are extremely interesting in how they choose to present themselves. There is one social group in which they are all rich upper class Americans, with an aura of snobbishness surrounding them. Then there is one woman who ran with this crowd and she did not quite fit into the label of a “snob”, yet she was consumed with Veblen?s theory of “conspicuous consumption”. That character was Lily Bart. Wharton portrays these characters to think that what they have, and in some cases do not have, is wonderful and should be flaunted.
Thorstien Veblen?s whole idea of conspicuous consumption is to broadcast what one has. In his piece Theory of the leisure class, he states, “the consumption of luxuries , in the true sense, is a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and is therefore a mark of the master.” The word mirth in The House of Mirth, clearly defines what Veblen is saying. Mirth means festivities, fun, glee, all those definitions is what the people in the book are looking to have or do. But when they do it, they go all out, show off at those festivities. These people were the upper crust of the fashionable New York City society, yet had false values and it showed.
In the beginning of the book, we see that Lily has a sense of arrogance. There was an uncertainty of whether to hate her or to be totally intimidated by her. She came across as an heiress, but by no means was she even close to one. The way Lawrence Selden described her, one could imagine her to be a dainty; beautiful woman. “Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more “conspicuous” than in a ball room”, Lawrence said. Lawrence was obviously impressed by Lily?s demeanor and class. When Lily and Lawrence went back to his apartment, one could tell that Lily was consumed by the silly ideals of the women from that time period. She could not fathom how his cousin Gerty Farish could live alone like Lawrence. She states, “She has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat.” We can see that she assumes that a woman should be doted on , cleaned for and taken care of. Lily makes it clear that she is used to getting those advantages in life and she expects them.
Lily came about being so expectant of luxuries and other finer things from her mother. Lily?s mother, Mrs. Bart was presented to be an extremely pretentious lady. Her mother could have fitted Veblen?s theory of “conspicuous consumption” quite well. Mrs. Bart?s lavish lifestyle was one that she assumed everyone should live by. Those that did not live like her she considered them as “living like pigs”. She lived above and beyond her mean. During the time of buying new dresses for herself, and being chauffeured around like a queen, her husband was going broke. Even when the reality hit home that they would no longer be able to live how they once did, Mrs. Bart paid it no mind. What she did differently though, was to coach and try to train Lily to catch a rich man. Up until the day she died, she drilled it into Lily?s head that she had to marry money and be taken care of.
So after the time that Lily?s parents both passed, Lily had it in her head that money mattered more than anything, including love.
Lily?s friends and acquaintances spent their money the same as Lily?s mother. They spent it a lot and made it quite obvious to everyone else. The fancy dresses that they all wore, the beautiful furniture in their homes, and the lavish parties they all threw is an example of their “conspicuous consumption”. One night Lily and a couple of her girlfriends sat down to a game of bridge. The other ladies that Lily was playing with could afford to lose their money, yet Lily, who needed every penny, still took her place at the table. She did so because she felt as if it were her duty, and did not want to give away the evidence that she could not live as expensive as her peers. Lily stated that there were times when she had won certain sums of money and the first thing that she did was go out and buy a new dress or jewels. Then she would show off what she had gotten.
The parties that her friends had were apparently routines of displaying their new items of luxury. The women bragged and strolled around in their new gowns, almost as if to see who was in the latest fashion and had the most expensive taste. Veblen says, “the aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents, expensive feasts and entertainment?s.” The word mirth fits in so well. The fun, festivities, merriment these people all are subject to, is all a game. A shallow game to try and get ahead of each other with money and items as the game pieces.
Most of the characters choose to show off their objects of materialism. None of them make these items concealed, or inconspicuous in any way at all. Whenever most of these people had money, especially Lily, they were all very quick to spend it regardless of the ramifications. Lily wanted women to look upon her as stylish and men to see her as marriageable. In the end, that competitiveness and struggling to stay in the game destroys her.
Everything seems so aggressive and surreal in that world of the white bread New York society scene. Everyone is so sneaky and wanting to outdo each other. All their money or lack of it is made evident by “conspicuous consumption”.
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