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Nature, whether in the form of the arctic tundra of the North Pole or the busy street-life of Manhattan, was viewed by Naturalist writers as a phenomena which necessarily challenged individual survival; a phenomena, moreover, which operated on Darwin’s maxim of the “survival of the fittest.” This contrasted sharply with the Romantic view, which worshipped Nature for its beauty, beneficence and self-liberating powers. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart attempts to “survive” within the urbane “drawing-room” society she inhabits. Although Selden uses Romantic nature imagery to describe Lily, throughout the novel such Romantic imagery and its accompanying meanings are continually subverted. By simply invoking different understandings and views of “Nature,” Wharton demonstrates that not only is Lily’s ability to “adapt” to various environments isn’t necessarily salutary, but also that flower imagery, used in an ironic fashion, captures perfectly Lily’s need for “climates of luxury.” It is Wharton’s image of a “hot-house,” however, which ultimately captures the ambiguous nature of what, to Wharton, truly is Nature.
Lily, although a city-dweller, is described by Selden as one who is intimately connected with a benevolent, life-giving Nature. He exclaims, “The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline- as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room” (13). Selden’s notion of Lily’s “sylvan freedom” and her interconnectedness to all things “natural” is echoed later in the novel, when Lily is either described as, or compared to, a “rose,” (167) an “orchid” (150), a “water plant” (53) and a “fine flower” (216). Even her name, “Lily,” like the kind of flower, relates to nature and things natural. Thus a cursory reading of such material would suggest that Lily, despite her urban status, manages to retain a spiritual connection with Mother Nature, a connection, unfortunately, which is restrained and “subdued” by the “conventions of the drawing-room.” It could be argued, therefore, that Wharton views the industrial city as preventing Lily from understanding and experiencing her “true self”- namely that “self” present in a state of nature
We shall quickly see, however, that Wharton doesn’t always share Selden’s Romantic view of Nature. Throughout The House of Mirth we witness Lily’s ability to “adapt herself” (53) to whatever environment she enters. Wharton writes, “Selden noted the fine shades of manner by which she harmonized herself with her surroundings” (192) and describes, “Her faculty for renewing herself in new scenes, and casting off problems of conduct as easily as the surroundings in which they had arisen” (196). Such ability is seen most clearly when Lily is forced, unwillingly, to enter the “Gormer milieu” (234). Although she doesn’t enjoy this “milieu” it is through “her immense social facility, her long habit of adapting herself to others without suffering her own outline to be blurred, the skilled manipulation of all the polished implements of her craft” that she wins “an important place in the Gormer group” (237). This “adaptability,” which ostensibly parallels Darwin’s notion that biological species, in order to survive, must adapt to changing environments, does not, in reality, contribute to Lily’s survival. Nor does it allow her to retain any sort of “spiritual connection” with Nature. Rather its effect is quite the opposite. Wharton writes, “(Lily’s) faculty for adapting herself?served her now and then in small contingencies,” but ultimately “hampered her in the decisive moments of life. She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides” (53). Wharton’s simile here, “She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides,” changes the way in which the reader must understand and view Nature. Whereas Selden, when describing Lily, used Nature to represent a kind of benevolent, self-freeing phenomena, Wharton uses Nature in this instance to represent a heartless, unthinking Darwinian process where only the strong survive. Although Lily is still described in terms of “natural” imagery (a “water-plant”), her connection to Nature is no longer liberating or life-renewing, but rather serves to, as Wharton tells us, “hamper her in the decisive moments of life” (53). Thus in this instance Nature’s character is altered, which in turn changes how we can interpret the “naturalistic” imagery used to describe Lily. Her adaptability as a “water-plant,” rather than being spiritually rewarding, instead proves ultimately unhealthy.
Although Lily has, as we have seen, adaptive powers, Wharton makes it clear that such powers, in addition to not always being healthy or beneficial, are actually quite limited in scope. Although Lily can survive for a while outside of her high-society “drawing-rooms,” she is inexorably drawn back to them, like a swimmer coming up for water. Wharton tells us, “(Lily’s) whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury, it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in” (26). We see again how the meaning of “Nature” has been completely transformed. Unlike Selden’s view of “Nature,” which held that actual, physical surroundings held the key to Lily’s well-being and self-liberation, in this case “Nature” has nothing to do with pastoral, idyllic settings, but instead refers to “drawing-rooms.” But similar to Selden’s view of Nature, we see that, Nature, (in this case, life in the drawing-rooms) is absolutely necessary for Lily’s continued existence. It is that which gives her life and allows her to breathe. As Selden tells Lily, “Your lungs are thinking about air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people-they may not be thinking of money, but they’re breathing it in all the while” 69). Not only, however, does Wharton (again) completely transform the meaning of Nature, she also ironically draws upon Romantic nature imagery to complete this transformation. Wharton avers, “(Lily) could not figure herself anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume” (100). The phrase “as a flower sheds perfume” captures accurately the irony which Wharton sees in using Romantic nature imagery (i.e. flowers) within the context of her own version of Nature, that of the drawing rooms. To say that a “flower sheds perfume” connotes the image of a flower giving off an odor, an odor which is then bottled and made into a “perfume,” a perfume which is then used by high-society ladies to smell nice. Thus Wharton, in choosing to describe Lily as a “flower” reinforces the notion that Lily’s “Nature,” her “natural habitat” was that of the drawing-room. But as she is a “flower” that sheds “perfume” Wharton captures the double-meaning extant in such a symbol, showing that not only was Lily’s “natural habitat” the drawing-room, but also pointing out the irony of Lily’s “Nature.” Wharton demonstrates that Lily’s supposed “Nature” is a world in which flowers don’t shed “scents” or natural “odors” but rather smell like bottled, artificial “perfume,” ironic, of course, because “perfume” is not commonly thought of as “natural.”
Wharton’s final, and most effective, re-imaging of Nature comes when Lily contrasts “the dreary limbo of dinginess” with “that little illuminated circle in which life reached its finest efflorescence, as the mud and sleet of a winter night enclose a hot-house filled with tropical flowers. All this was the natural order of things, and the orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere could round the delicate curves of its petals undisturbed by the ice on the panes” (150). This passage is the absolute symbolic crux of Wharton’s Nature imagery, capturing fully the way in which Wharton views the relationship between Lily and Nature. In this instance Nature is not singly portrayed as a benevolent, life-giving force, nor a heartless, amoral reality, or as being embodied in high-society’s “drawing-rooms.” Rather Nature is an “artificially created atmosphere,” an insulated natural world with a “natural state of things” protected from the harsh Nature of external reality; a world, if you will, within a world, a nature within a greater nature. This symbology corresponds nicely to Wharton’s dual fashioning of Nature. Her two views of Nature, that it is an unthinking, unfeeling harsh physical reality, or, conversely, that it exists in the drawing-rooms of New York city as well as in the physical, rural environment, is embodied perfectly in Wharton’s image of a “hot-house.” The Nature, and natural forces, that exist within the hot-house can be viewed as being akin to the Wharton’s Nature, and natural forces, that exist in a drawing-room. Conversely, the external Nature which rages on outside of the hot-house, can be viewed as being akin to Wharton’s (other) Nature, and natural forces, of an unthinking, unfeeling harsh physical reality. If we accept, as we should, that the orchid represents, symbolically, Lily, we can understand fully Lily’s relation to Nature, viewed in either sense. To represent Lily as an “orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere” hearkens back to Selden’s Romantic view of Lily as a physically natural being which needed to be in “Nature” to truly understand and free her “self.” Selden’s view, however, employed the idea of Nature as being external, un-artificial and benevolent. Wharton’s hot-house although benevolent, is artificial and does not exist in rural nature, although it does function within rural nature. In any event, Wharton states that the orchard’s (Lily’s) development was the “natural order of things.” Such a statement, in turn, reveals the dual ways of thinking about what is actually “natural.” Is an orchid growing within a hot-house, within a larger “nature,” truly “natural”? That, of course, depends on how you choose to view Nature, a view left ambiguous by the decidedly ambiguous nature of a hot-house.
Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a novel in the Naturalist tradition, but a novel which manages to express the endless complexities of Nature at work both in rural countrysides as well as urban jungles.
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