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Henry James, book report
Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth examine the societal constraints of their female protagonists, and the limited possibilities open to them in the midst of wealthy society. Isabel Archer and Lily Bart are victims of a rigid society in which the independent lifestyle they desire is only acceptable for women who are either ‘unmarriageable’ or exceedingly wealthy. Despite this commonality, the two characters differ greatly in terms of their goals and the resources at their disposal with which these goals could potentially be accomplished. Lily and Isabel have similar possibilities open to them but a crucial difference between them is that Lily has no personal wealth, while Isabel becomes a very wealthy woman, which opens many new opportunities for her. Lily has fewer possibilities open to her due to her meager income and her insatiable need for excessive luxury, which would need to be sacrificed in order to maintain an independent lifestyle, while Isabel’s wealth give her the option of a lifestyle that is simultaneously independent and luxurious.
Lily and Isabel are both extremely attractive and charming, which cause them to have more than one marriage proposal from wealthy and eligible bachelors. This option would alleviate their financial concerns but would also restrict their personal freedom. Isabel refuses the proposals of Casper Goodwood and Lord Warburton , because she does not want to be someone’s wife even though getting married would give her security and approval of society. Lily, however, actively seeks out potential suitors and uses her beauty to manipulate men and to win the admiration of her peers. To get married is considered a young lady’s duty and Lily is determined to fulfill this duty. As Henrietta points out to Ralf: ‘It’s everyone’s duty to get married ‘(The Portrait of a Lady, 110). She is determined to find a husband and her only criteria seem to be that he be wealthy and socially powerful even if she does not like him. She considers Percy Gryce to be boring and unattractive but knows that the many advantages to ‘marrying rich’ would far outweigh these minor disappointments and she does not see any other option. “It was a hateful fate- but how escape from it? What choice had she?”( The House of Mirth, 24). Isabel is determined not to get married and values her independence and freedom above luxury and social acceptance and her wealth gives her the choice. For Lily luxury is something she simply refuses to live without, and actually considers her survival dependent upon it as the following lines clearly indicate: ‘ Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product that she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as a sea anemone torn from the rock ( The House of Mirth, 289). Lily is aware of her own selfish need for social status and wealth and these needs are satisfied only as long as her wealthy friends provide her with a life of ease and merriment. Once she is ostracized from the wealthy society that she had so long been embraced by, marriage or poverty seem to be her only remaining options. Isabel is also expected to find herself a rich husband but once she inherits a fortune from her uncle her situation immediately alters. She now has the option to remain unmarried and still be wealthy but Lily does not have this advantage.
The possibility of remaining unmarried and independent is not a realistic option for Lily because she has neither the financial resources to care for herself nor the financial support of family and friends once they turn their back on her. Isabel has both of these advantages as well as the love and respect of her family and friends. Sadly, to many of the people in her life Lily is merely a decorative object whose beauty and charm make her a valuable asset to them: ‘ She felt herself of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child ( The House of Mirth, 231). She is not entirely blameless though for she allows them to treat her this way and considers this treatment to be worth the benefits.
An obvious indication of the contrast between these two characters is how differently each of them define ’success.’ When asked for her definition of success Lily replies: ‘Why to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose. It’s a relative quality after all’ (The House of Mirth, 64). Lily regards success in terms of how much material wealth and pleasure one is able to get out of life. Isabel’s definition of success is far more idealistic and not as selfish: “It’s to see some dream of one’s youth come true” (The Portrait of a Lady ,222). These contrasting points of view demonstrate the different goals in life which each of them strive for. Lily’s ’success’ relies upon the marriage to a wealthy man, which would allow her to fulfill her lavish tastes and her desire for increased social status. For Isabel success is more simplistic and rings of youthful idealism and one’s ability to accomplish specific aspirations. Seldon’s definition of success is ‘personal freedom’ which he, as a man, can easily acquire and maintain. Because he is a man he is not under the obligation to find a wife. Lily recognizes the distinction: ‘Ah, theres the difference- a girl must, a man may if he chooses’ (The House of Mirth ,10).
There is an inextricable connection between money and personal freedom in both of these works. In The Portrait of a Lady Isabel craves independence and personal freedom and at first her newly acquired wealth make this possible but this wealth also leads to her loss of freedom. Personal freedom does not come without a price for Lily who must be poor if she wants to remain independent. Interestingly, it is Isabel who chooses to get married even though it is no longer as necessary for her to do so once she acquires personal wealth. Lily’s most appealing option is to marry one of her rich admirerers because wealth would free her from worries of money and the judgment of her friends, but she is not as eager to be married as she had so long perceived herself to be: ” She might have married more than once- the conventional rich marriage which she had been taught to consider the sole end of existence- but when the opportunity came she had always shrunk from it” (The House of Mirth, 150).
Ironically, Isabel and Lily’s desire for independence can only be reached by accepting the choices, which they freely made. For Isabel that decision was to marry Osmond and for Lily it was her choice to remain unmarried. In sticking with their choices, despite the unpleasant consequences, they somehow feel that they are being independent. Isabel justifies her intentions of staying with Osmond, despite her great unhappiness, with the following explanation: “One must accept one’s deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change that way” ( The Portrait of a Lady, 521).
The very appropriate metaphor of being trapped in a cage is also mentioned in each of these novels but from two different angles, which serve to emphasize the coexisting differences and similarities between Lily and Isabel. The fundamental difference is that Isabel is caught and put into her cage by Osmond, while Lily is very self-aware in terms of the cage, which she entered with wide-open eyes. She admires Sheldon’s ability to enter the cage without getting trapped: ‘ .most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Seldon’s distiction that he had never forgotten the way out’ ( The House of Mirth, 51). Ralf warns Isabel after he learns that she has decided to marry Gilbert Osmond : “You’re going to be put into a cage”( The Portrait of a Lady, 368) and of this danger Isabel is completely oblivious. This is the very predicament from which he tried to protect her by giving her wealth and thus ‘freedom.’ Instead of his desired effect the inheritance only makes Isabel more vulnerable to people like Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond who scheme to take her money and her freedom away from her. Lily ponders ‘the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’( The House of Mirth, 51). Wharton emphasizes Lily’s awareness in the following line: ‘How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily as she heard its door clang on her’( 51) ! Isabel is trapped because she has money and Lily is trapped because she does not. However, Isabel has fewer barriers to freedom than Lily does. Isabel can leave Osmond and still be wealthy, independent and loved by her family and friends. She has unconditional love and loyalty, which Lily does not have. All that prevents Isabel from leaving Osmond are Pansy and her honorable feeling that she should accept responsibility for her free decision to marry Osmond. Lily must remain in her cage as long as she wants the advantages that go with it; pretty clothes, parties and mingling with high society. To escape she would need to give up everything that she thinks is important to her. Her situation is similar to Isabel’s in that she feels obligated to stand by her choices as a means of retaining her independence. Escape for Isabel would not involve as much personal sacrifice.
The following quote from The Portrait of a Lady is indicative of why marriage is not always the most appealing option for women for women as independent-minded as Lily and Isabel: ‘ A women has to change a great deal to marry.’ ( The Portrait of a Lady, 601) Neither one of them is willing to make the necessary changes even though Isabel eventually gets married and Lily wants to. Isabel is much truer to herself than Lily is. Lily is a kind of social chameleon who changes herself to adapt to her surroundings. She knows that she is only valuable to her ‘friends’ as long as she is useful to them. She accepts this role of a ‘decorative object’ because she sees herself as having little else to offer: ‘ She could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume’ ( The House of Mirth, 96). Isabel does not hide herself from people the way Lily does, which is possibly why her marriage to Osmond does not work. He wants someone who is more like Lily.
Lily and Isabel are each given the opportunity to escape from the personal hell, which they have created for themselves. Despite Lily’s alienation from the inner circle of wealthy society, Rosedale still wants to marry her and so does George Dorset. Both offers would enable her to climb the social ladder and satisfy her need for luxury but she knows her heart belongs to Seldon. She does not consider being with him because he does not have enough money. Isabel feels very differently and does not care about social status and material possessions. She chooses to marry Osmond for the very reason that he does not have wealth or social status: ” no property, no title, no honors, no houses, nor lands, nor position, nor reputation, nor brilliant belongings of any sort. It’s the total absence of all these things that pleases me” ( The Portrait of a Lady, 375). She refuses to marry Lord Warburton because of the responsibilities connected with being a rich man’s wife. Marrying Osmond defies the conventional expectations of how an attractive and wealthy young woman should choose to spend her life. This is part of the reason why he appeals to her. For Lily a handsome and wealthy lord would be the ideal suitor but for Isabel he represents exactly what she wants to avoid. She does not want to marry an ‘institution’.
Lily is very tempted to take advantage of the opportunity to escape the working class, which she is now a part of. She could have immediate relief from all of her worries if she agreed to marry Rosedale but she does not love him and is even repulsed by him. Isabel is also given the opportunity to escape from her problems when Casper Goodwood makes his final plea for her to become his wife. It is very tempting because she knows that she would be in control if she were to marry Casper. Any alternative seems better than returning to a loveless marriage but Isabel decides to make the best of the life that she has created for herself. Lily attempts to do this also but does not succeed.
There is one possibility which is open to Lily which Isabel does not have despite her wealth and that is to spend her life with someone she loves and who loves her. Isabel thinks that she loves Osmond at first but realizes very quickly that the man she is married to is completely different from the man who proposed to her. She had thought that in marrying Osmond she would not be marrying an ‘institution’ and that she could fulfill her duty to get married and still be independent. Instead, marrying Osmond strips her of all personal freedom: ‘ The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his- attached to his own like a small garden plot to a deer-park( The Portrait of a Lady, 463). Osmond admires her for her beauty and cleverness but thinks she ‘has too many ideas.” Seldon’s feelings for Lily are quite different. He does not want to own her, as Osmond wants to own Isabelle. Lily also loves Seldon but thinks he is inadequate in terms of his lack of wealth and power.
Lily and Isabel’s determination to retain their independence is ultimately self-defeating. They fail to realize that it is within their power to make their lives better despite the obstacles they perceive to be standing in their way. Isabel marries Osmond for the wrong reasons just as Lily does not make an effort to be with Seldon for the wrong reasons. For Lily, Seldon represents the freedom that she herself desires but as a woman can never have. Isabel sees Ralf this way as well and calls him an ‘apostle of freedom’. Lily measures her self worth in terms of how beautiful and manipulative she can be. She considers herself to be a product of her environment as a way of partially shifting the blame from her own character. Seldon knows that Lily is superficial and ambitious but he also sees her potential.
Isabel chooses not to leave Osmond because her last feeble grasp at independence lies in the knowledge that she is still her own person as long as she accepts responsibility for her actions. Lily Bart is also determined to accept the consequences of her mistakes. One way in which she does this is by using her small inheritance to settle her debt with George Dorset even though she needs the money for her own living expenses. She does not want to be under his control and the only way to avoid this is to pay him back.
There are a very limited number of possibilities open to young women who refuse to conform to society’s ideals and expectations of them. A woman’s future is not her own to create. Madame Merle puts it rather well when she says: ” A woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less to crawl” ( The Portrait of a Lady, 217). Unfortunately, this seems true for both Isabel and Lily, despite Isabel’s advantage of wealth, simply because they are women. Isabel becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and knows she is partially to blame for her own misery: ” Nothing was a pleasure to her now; how could anything be a pleasure to a woman who knew that she had thrown away her life? There was an everlasting weight on her heart-( The Portrait of a Lady,465). Lily is also miserable and ‘ feels the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years ( The House of Mirth, 306). Like Isabel, she knows the role that she played in her own unhappiness, and this knowledge makes her misfortunes all the more unbearable. She is not a strong enough person to cope with life’s hardships, and her intense need for ‘a brief bath of oblivion’ due to lack of sleep and utter emotional exhaustion lead to her untimely death. Isabel is a much stronger person than Lily and chooses to live with the consequences of her mistakes even if that means being miserable and unsatisfied with her life. Both characters strive for independence, but ultimately the result of all their ‘free’ choices, which they feel compelled to accept, lead them to an inevitably tragic end.
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