Sense And Sensibility And House Of Mirth: How Society’s Expectation Define Relationships

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), a novel on society and manners, follows two sister Elinor and Marianne Dashwood’s attempts to love and marry. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905), focuses on New York City’s high society as well as the struggles of Lily Bart, a wealthy socialite. Both novels examine the essential themes of marriage, society, women. Even though the novels were written almost one hundred years apart, they share many similarities in their social systems. Both the protagonists are ultimately married, which is the ultimate goal of both. In this way, the authors offer a critique of societies that limit women.

Both novels show that wealth is more important than love in marriage. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility demonstrates the importance wealth plays in marriage. Austen writes that Edward and Elinor faced a dilemma. “Edward had two thousand pounds and Elinor one…and neither was in love enough to think that three hundred fifty dollars a year would afford them the comforts of living.” In fact, wealth is seen as the most important factor in relationships. This seems reasonable when you consider the setting where the novel was written (early 20th century). Because they couldn’t own property, women in this time were under severe financial pressure. British society of that time had many restrictions, including the fact that women were dependent on men. According to census data, there were significantly more women in the 19th century than men. It was difficult for women to find a rich partner. Wharton’s House of Mirth portrays this same attitude through Lily Bart, the protagonist. Lily represents the typical woman from this era. Even though it was set a century before Sense and Sensibility and is much more symbolic, Lily is a representation of Lily. This is clearly illustrated by Lily at Bellomont. Chapter 3 opens with Lily discussing the necessity of her marriage to acquire wealth. Wharton describes Lily’s walk through Bellomont’s grand halls.

Wharton then states that Lily feels pressured to seduce Percy Gryce. A rich and eligible bachelor (but uninteresting), to marry her.

Wharton also picks the characteristics of a woman with ‘fresh compliants and adaptabilities,’ which is what men expect from women in this age period. Elinor sees a woman as polite, poised and impressive. This is the ideal image she has of her. When Elinor discovers that Lucy is in a relationship with Edward, she suppresses her emotions. Michal Beth Dimickler suggests that Austen favours Elinor’s sense of self-possession. While this is an interesting viewpoint, it is also possible that Austen was supportive of the suppression or suppression of female intense emotion. Marianne is not. It is possible that Austen used Elinor in order to criticize the society for suppressing emotion for male advantage. Marianne is therefore the antithesis of what society would expect young ladies be. Marianne is full of emotion and luxuriates in her own love language, which Dinkler backs.

But it can be argued that Lily’s desire for a wealthy marriage is more than just a social objective. Wharton makes this clear by using third-person narration. Wharton allows the reader to get a glimpse of Lily’s true thoughts and feelings. Her whole body was filled with luxury, which suggests that Lily can’t live in a luxurious environment without her husband. Wharton uses the words’mean,’shabby, and’squalid’ to describe her lack of wealth. This is both disgusting as well as unfair. In the novel, Lily is clearly conscious of her need to have wealth.

Elinor, on the other hand, is shown in Sense and Sensibility as someone who only wants enough wealth to live a comfortable and stable life. Marianne and Elinor discuss this, with Elinor explaining to Marianne how she grew up not realizing the importance of having wealth in her lives. Elinor asked Elinor what wealth and grandeur had to do about happiness. Elinor responded that Grandeur has little but that wealth has a lot to do …’. Elinor’s more mature approach to wealth and marriage shows Elinor’s understanding of the practical necessity to provide for their needs.

Wharton also makes wealth a bigger factor in marriage than love, and Lily ends up rejecting Lawrence Selden. Selden is a man she is in love from the beginning. Selden may be wealthy, but he’s not the most rich man Lily has ever been involved with. Because of this, she finds him not a suitable partner. Despite her initial disappointment at Percy Gryce’s uninteresting nature, she now recognizes that Selden has changed her perspective on the world. However, she is unable to let go of her feelings for him. Lily…saw her world through Selden’s eyes. It was like her pink lamps had been switched off and her inner world was lit by the dusty sunlight. Wharton emphasizes Selden as light and realization, which is how Lily feels about him. As opposed to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Lily’s true love, Selden, who leaves her like Marianne leaves Willoughby, Lily just chooses not to be together with Selden. This highlights the difference in their attitudes. Lily believes she should have a wealthy partner to sustain her lifestyle. However, being financially secure, she doesn’t feel pressured to marry Selden.

Austen uses another example to emphasize the importance of wealth in marriage. Willoughby marries Miss Grey because she is wealthy, despite her true love for Marianne. Mrs Jennings details Willoughby’s sudden engagement with Miss Grey. …Fifty-thousand pounds! Austen’s repeated exclamatory statement ‘fifty thousand pound!’ emphasizes the relationship’s wealth. However, it is possible to argue that Willoughby’s decision to marry for money makes him unhappy. The novel ends with Willoughby’s intense romanticization of Marianne, who he says he’made his secret standard for perfection in women’. His unhappiness is further revealed by the fact that ‘Willoughby couldn’t hear of her marriage without a pang’. Austen employs a third-person omniscient narration to provide a detailed and clear insight into Willoughby’s thoughts and feelings. Austen is criticizing 19th-century society by making Willoughby unhappy at the end. Willoughby had chosen to marry for wealth and ended up unhappy. Marianne and Elinor, on the other hand, are happier because they rejected society’s expectations of marriage.

Sense and Sensibility shows Austen’s belief that love and marriage are more important than money. Austen illustrates the concept through Mrs Dashwood. She is content with Edward Ferrars because of her affections for Elinor. Austen describes how this is illustrated in Austen’s description of Mrs Dashwood’s character. She expresses her satisfaction with Edward Ferrars solely on the basis of his affections for Elinor. Austen also reveals her willingness to have Elinor with Edward. He was too shy to fully understand himself. After his shyness subsided, Edward was able to show that he is open to being loved and understood as a person. Austen also demonstrates that, although wealth is an important aspect of marriage, love is the main factor. Austen shows Mrs Dashwood as a kind, open-minded character. Austen also states that Edward’s quietness in his manner shattered all her preconceived ideas about what a young man should address. This is a clear indication that love can overshadow society’s expectations for men, perhaps because they are expected to be handsome, wealthy and well-mannered.

Both novels depict women living in male-dominated societies. In addition to the woman’s desire to marry a wealthy man to provide a comfortable lifestyle, there are other social pressures on women that come from patriarchal societies. Lily describes in The House of Mirth’s first chapter the benefits men enjoy over women. Selden’s apartment is where she takes her tea. It’s a horrible thing to be woman! Wharton’s repeated exclamatories reveal Lily’s desperate need for freedoms. Selden states that women can have flats too, but Lily counters by saying that only respectable women would. Austen uses the triplet to express her irritation at society’s expectations of women and makes it clear that Austen believes that girls should be portrayed as being marriedable. This is the result of society’s constant expectations for women and their inability to have freedom. After the discussion about Gerty Farish (the only woman they know) Lily states that Gerty Farish isn’t a marriageable woman. This is evident in her living conditions. Lily’s obsession with whether a woman is’marriageable’ or ‘not’ reveals how much pressure she feels. Wharton gives the reader a glimpse into men’s and women’s interactions and opinions. The majority of this section is dialogue between Selden, Lily and Wharton. This allows them to focus on the limitations women faced. Wharton sometimes uses narration in this section. This is usually to reinforce the message of Selden & Lily’s conversation. Wharton portrays Lily’s judgmental attitudes as a result her being conditioned and influenced by the patriarchal society.

Lily is aware of the male-dominated society of The House of Mirth and she further illustrates it. From the beginning, she explains to Selden how men view women and what their worth is. Lily suggests that Selden could marry to gain wealth. Selden responds by saying that he won’t. “Ahh, there are differences – girls must marry for wealth,” says Lily. Wharton’s choice of the modal verb (‘may’) in comparison to the imperative ’must’ reinforces the limited options and freedoms women have within this society. Wharton continues to ask Lily why her coat is so shabby. But who cares? You are still welcome to go out for dinner. I wouldn’t want to be shabby if anyone asked me. A woman is often asked for her clothes just as much as she is for herself. The clothes are the background. This society is characterized by the objectification and dehumanization of women. Selden, like almost all men Lily encounters, sees her primarily in this way. Actually, the novel’s opening line is actually a surprise. His eyes had been renewed by Miss Lily Bart’s sight. This is how the Lexis choice of refreshed’ depicts it, mainly because Lily is an object rather that a person. This is Wharton’s first novel. It sets the stage for the patriarchy which dominates society. Lily is shown to be more than a victim of her society. She is also presented as self-aware. It was one way she paid for their hospitality.

You can say that Lily, despite the patriarchy reducing women to objects, allows it to some extent. Cynthia Wolff, literary critic, states that “The House of Mirth” is about Lily Bart’s disintegration. She also points out that Lily has taken her society’s views of women literally and narrowly. Lily is a skilled artist in making herself exquisitely decorative objects. Lily was able to enjoy the ‘exhilaration” of displaying her beauty in a new way. It showed that Wharton presented Lily Bart, who Selden described as a “wonderful spectacle”, and that she is also objectified by others. This suggests that Wharton is trying to present female characters from the era in order for them to be objectified and support the rigid patriarchal society in which they were born. Debbie Lelekis presents a different view. She says that this performance creates a ‘inversion in gender roles’. ‘Through Lily’s display of beauty, Lily manipulates audience and temporarily seizes authority. This is interesting considering Wharton’s status as feminist writer. It allows the audience the opportunity to question whether Lily is a product or subtly questioning her ruling patriarchy.

It is clear from the beginning that Sense is dominated by men. While women were not allowed to own property in The House of Mirth’s context, it was illegal in Sense and Sensibility before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. This is one example of subtle differences between the contexts in which women were placed in society in the 19th and 20th centuries. Austen’s novel takes places in a society without many roles or opportunities for women. Their future lives depend on their marriages, which is why women are expected to be attractive to potential husbands. The novel opens with the characters having to give up their land and other possessions after the family patriarch died. The female characters were forced from their home because of the death of the family patriarch.

It is evident that women’s roles in society did not change much, despite the subtle differences in Austen’s and Whartons works. Marianne and Elinor are all a reflection of the hopes and struggles of women. And the ultimate expectation for them: to get married. Austen’s novel ends with Marianne being able to see society’s victory. By the end of Austen’s novel, she has found stability and wealth. Diane Shubinsky, a critic, presents the idea that Marianne learned the mistakes of her ways and acknowledged the greater suitability for the older and more secure man. This is in contrast to her initial portrayal of Marianne as the ultimate’sensibility,’ which was impulsive and immature in her love goals. Elinor, however, can be seen to rise above social conventions that make women marry for their wealth. She ends up with Edward Ferrars, whom she truly loves.

The House of Mirth’s ending is very different from Sense and Sensibility. Instead of Lily becoming happy and married, she commits suicide. Wharton’s critique of patriarchy, which leaves women with no choice but to commit suicide, is reflected in this tragic ending for a character who has struggled openly with society’s plans. It is possible that Lily died from the pain of being unmarried and in poverty. Wharton’s third party narration suggests that Lily was unable to bear the thought of age fast approaching. Debbie Lelekis defends this conclusion, stating that Lily is not willing to give in to wealth and that she must tell Selden. Lily’s story is that she fell asleep and said that she needed to tell Selden something. Wharton’s decision that the novel be ended in this fashion reflects Lily’s final struggle. She is struggling to find love and wealth. This ultimately leads to her demise and social downfall. Both novels have different endings, which highlights the differences in society in which they are written. Austen, as a struggling author, was compelled to write happy endings for her characters. Wharton could, however, depict their final fates in the manner she wanted, nearly a century later.


  • rosssaunders

    Ross Saunders is an educational blogger and professor, who has written extensively on topics such as education reform, online learning, and assessment. He has also spoken on the topic at various conferences and universities.

rosssaunders Written by:

Ross Saunders is an educational blogger and professor, who has written extensively on topics such as education reform, online learning, and assessment. He has also spoken on the topic at various conferences and universities.

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