The House of Mirth


Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Imagery 6 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Book 1: Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—White Oval:

Unable to sleep, Lily observes herself in a mirror in her bedroom at Bellomont. Her features are ghostly, obscured by the darkness that’s only broken with dimmed lights and candles. Wharton uses dramatic visual imagery to bring the unnerving scene to life for the reader:

She turned out the wall-lights, and peered at herself between the candle-flames. The white oval of her face swam out waveringly from a background of shadows, the uncertain light blurring it like a haze; but the two lines about the mouth remained.

The visual imagery in this passage paints a striking picture. It contrasts the white of Lily's face and the flickering candle flames with the darkness of the room. This juxtaposition aligns with the intensity of Lily's self-examination, as she confronts her own reflection in the mirror. The imagery in this scene is all stark contrasts: Lily’s white face and the black background, the sharp lines of her expression lines and the “uncertain” blur of everything else. This juxtaposition reflects what’s going on in Lily’s head. Everything, in her opinion, is either going to go perfectly or horribly, and it all depends on her social success.

The lines around her mouth are deep enough that although no other facial features are visible, she can still see them. This frightens her, as they’re an indicator that she is aging and becoming less and less marriageable by the day. Even at this early point in the novel, Lily has started to really feel the difference between herself and the wealthy women who surround her. She must act like she's one of them while concealing both her worries and her lack of funds. The imagery of her face swimming out from the shadows reflects this duality and the emotional turmoil that comes with it. It also emphasizes her isolation, as if her face were the only one left in a world that is otherwise dark and foreboding.

Book 1: Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Tableaux Vivants:

As Selden observes the performance of the tableaux vivants (people impersonating famous paintings) at a party at Bellomont, Wharton makes several allusions to art and history. As she describes the fabulously costumed and adorned high-society women, she also employs powerful visual and tactile imagery and satirizes the opulence and silliness of such activities:

The scenes were taken from old pictures, and the participators had been cleverly fitted with characters suited to their types. No one, for instance, could have made a more typical Goya than Carry Fisher, with her short dark-skinned face, the exaggerated glow of her eyes, the provocation of her frankly-painted smile. A brilliant Miss Smedden from Brooklyn showed to perfection the sumptuous curves of Titian's Daughter, lifting her gold salver laden with grapes above the harmonizing gold of rippled hair and rich brocade.

This passage is packed with visual imagery. Carry Fisher is described as a "typical Goya," with her "short dark-skinned face" and the "exaggerated glow of her eyes." The imagery emphasizes the intensity of Carry’s eyes and the distinctness of her facial features, especially when placed next to the pale, “frailer Dutch type” of Mrs. Van Alstyne. The "brilliant Miss Smedden" is described as lifting a "gold salver [...] above the harmonizing gold of rippled hair and rich brocade," allowing the reader to “see” the sumptuousness of her costume and the glowing gold of the “painting.” Every painting is a different explosion of color, Miss Smedden's being the "brilliance" of gold.

The tactile imagery of the passage also adds to its sense of realism. For example, the way Wharton describes the same Miss Smedden’s “tableau” suggests a variety of contrasting textures, from the metallic smoothness of the “salver” to the plush softness of her dress’s brocade. In contrast, Mrs. Van Alstyne is described as dark and dramatic, dressed "in black satin," and the girls next to her as being a riot of pale “sheeny textures” like pearl and marble:

[...] Mrs. Van Alstyne [...] with high blue-veined forehead and pale eyes and lashes, made a characteristic Vandyck, in black satin, against a curtained archway. Then there were Kauffmann nymphs garlanding the altar of Love; a Veronese supper, all sheeny textures, pearl-woven heads and marble architecture; and a Watteau group of lute-playing comedians, lounging by a fountain in a sunlit glade.

These tactile descriptions allow the reader to almost feel the textures of the objects and costumes described, enhancing their sense of immersion in the scene. Everything is expensive, elaborate, and ornate.

By alluding to famous paintings and painters such as Goya, Titian, and Vandyck, the author connects the characters to a wider cultural context. Works by these painters were—and still are—considered valuable and important. People who the reader already knows are wealthy are dressing up as priceless objects. The satire is twofold in this passage, and it’s folded into the allusions to the paintings the narrator makes. Firstly, Wharton is lampooning the ridiculous extravagance and shallowness of this brief entertainment—after all, the paintings aren’t being admired or interpreted in these tableaux. The evening’s entertainment is just an opportunity for the young women involved to be put on display in another way.

Wharton also satirizes Selden's academic and idealistic vision here. By focusing on how perfectly the women fit into the famous paintings and demonstrating his knowledge in identifying them, Wharton highlights Selden’s pretentious intellectualism and scholarly, distanced viewpoint. Tellingly, she also highlights his tendency to see women as objects rather than as individuals with their own identities. Even Selden isn't immune to certain upper-class social instincts, it seems.

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Book 1: Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—A Mild Beam:

In Book 2, Chapter 14, Gerty reflects on Selden’s attentions towards her. The narrator employs a metaphor of illumination to describe Selden’s effect on her, supporting this description with visual imagery of light and shadow:

Now she was the centre of a little illumination of her own: a mild but unmistakable beam, compounded of Lawrence Selden's growing kindness to herself and the discovery that he extended his liking to Lily Bart. If these two factors seem incompatible to the student of feminine psychology, it must be remembered that Gerty had always been a parasite in the moral order, living on the crumbs of other tables, and content to look through the window at the banquet spread for her friends.

This metaphor of a “little illumination” portrays Selden’s attention as a beam of light, not focusing on Gerty but casting light on her anyway. The visual imagery of partial illumination powerfully illustrates the intensity of Selden’s feelings for Lily. It also shows the extent to which Gerty is living in her shadow. It suggests that Selden’s kindness and attention make Gerty feel special, as though she is in the spotlight even though she isn’t.

This sheds light on the younger woman's character. She’s so used to being ignored that she revels in the smallest attention, even the “light” she gets as someone associated with Lily. The metaphor gives the reader insight into her longing for recognition and appreciation. However, the other metaphors in this passage paint Gerty in a less pleasant light. The narrator acknowledges that it might seem odd to the reader that Gerty would feel “illuminated” by Selden’s love for someone else. They go on to explain that it’s because she goes through all her life looking in from the outside of things. They describe her as a “parasite,” content to eat the “crumbs” of affection and attention that come from other people’s actions and relationships. Gerty only knows how to be an outside observer who lives on the scraps of a “banquet spread” for others. The image of her “looking through the window” and her status as a “parasite” indicate her lack of emotional depth. It also points to her exclusion, as a member of a lower social class, from the world that Lily and Selden precariously inhabit.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Waters Everywhere:

Gerty is overwhelmed when she realizes the depth of Selden's affection for Lily. In this passage, Wharton invokes the novel's motif of metaphors describing water and drowning to illustrate Gerty's extreme emotions. In addition to this, she uses vivid sensory language, invoking hearing and touch to represent Gerty's total lack of control over her romantic situation:

She tried to follow what he was saying, to cling to her own part in the talk—but it was all as meaningless as the boom of waves in a drowning head, and she felt, as the drowning may feel, that to sink would be nothing beside the pain of struggling to keep up.

The imagery in this passage evokes the scale and helplessness of a human body against the ocean. Describing Gerty's confusion and despair as making Selden's words as "meaningless as the boom of waves in a drowning head," Wharton allows readers to vividly imagine the sensory experience of drowning. As Selden speaks, readers feel Gerty’s disorientation and her struggle for breath. Auditory imagery of the “booming,” thunderous sound of crashing waves covers Selden’s speech. The language here is not only about what Gerty hears, but also about what she feels. The passage immerses the reader in the tactile sensation of water engulfing Gerty, allowing them to experience her struggle to comprehend this horrible news.

The motif of water appears throughout The House of Mirth and is intimately connected with the struggles of women to survive within societal constraints. Women not born into wealth "drown" under the weight of the expectations and limitations imposed upon them. They struggle to control their emotions and to maintain their individuality and personal desires against the relentless tide of societal norms and financial pressures.

The motif of rushing, powerful water appears in almost every chapter of the book. For example, in Book 1, the narrator describes Lily as a “water-plant in the flux of the tides.” By Chapter 13, Lily is subsumed by “the sea of humiliation,” and Mr. Trenor’s touch is “a shock to her drowning consciousness.” By Book 2, Chapter 13, Lily is dying and abandoned by society. Fittingly, she leans on a man’s shoulder as she is overcome by a “great wave of physical weakness.” Fighting against the current is fruitless in The House of Mirth. Wharton uses this repeated motif to enact a broader critique of the society she depicts. Gilded Age American high society might have been glittering, but it was also a place where women could be easily consumed by forces beyond their control.

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Book 2: Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Gleam of a Knife:

In Book 2, Chapter 2, Lily Bart and Bertha Dorset have a conversation on the yacht that touches upon a strained aspect of their relationship. The tension is palpable, and Wharton’s use of simile and tactile imagery help to convey the emotional undercurrents of the scene:

A chill of fear passed over Miss Bart: a sense of remembered treachery that was like the gleam of a knife in the dusk.

The visual imagery of the "gleam of a knife" serves to emphasize the sharpness and abruptness of Lily's recollection of Bertha’s treacherous behavior. The sudden image of a knife in the dusk is alarming, mirroring the unsettling tone of the conversation between Lily and Bertha. The past events that have caused a rift in their relationship are present in all their interactions, showing up like the unexpected “gleam” of a concealed blade.

Moreover, the phrase “a chill of fear” employs the sensory language of touch, making Lily’s emotions around Bertha tangible to the reader. The word “chill” relates both to the cold metal of a knife and the shiver that goes through someone when they are anxious or scared. Remembering Bertha’s treachery is startling, making Lily as anxious as glimpsing light reflecting off metal. This comparison underscores the sense of menace that Lily feels. Her past experiences with Bertha make her wary of any interactions with the other woman. Lily’s sense of unease in this scene reflects the presence of danger and unpredictability in their relationship.

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Book 2: Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—The Reynolds Dress:

As Lily unpacks her trunk in the boarding house, Wharton employs an allusion to the artist Joshua Reynolds, a simile evoking the glamorous evening of the Tableaux Vivants, and strong scent imagery to demonstrate Lily’s fall from grace:

Last of all, she drew forth from the bottom of her trunk a heap of white drapery which fell shapelessly across her arm. It was the Reynolds dress she had worn in the Bry TABLEAUX. It had been impossible for her to give it away, but she had never seen it since that night, and the long flexible folds, as she shook them out, gave forth an odour of violets which came to her like a breath from the flower-edged fountain where she had stood with Lawrence Selden and disowned her fate.

In this passage, Wharton invokes the reader's sense of smell with the “odour of violets.” Flower scents would usually be described as appealing, but the word “odour” implies otherwise. The smell is both pleasant and unpleasant because it acts as a trigger for Lily's memories, reminding her of a specific time and place. For Lily, this scent is not just a fragrance; it's a doorway to a past in which she was more hopeful.

Wharton adds more depth to the passage’s smell imagery with the simile she uses here. As Lily inhales the scent of violets, the narrator compares the scent to “a breath from the flower-edged fountain.” This comparison makes her memory of Selden and the moment Lily “disowned” her fate with him more tangible to the reader. The evocative, fresh scent imagery of this "breath" represents an escape from the confines of Lily’s less charming present life. It brings her back to a serene and idyllic moment, contrasting with her present state.

The passage also alludes to Joshua Reynolds’s painting “Mrs. Lloyd.” Lily posed as this painting wearing the violet-scented dress in the tableau vivant at Bellomont. This reference is not just a throwaway detail; it ties Lily to the image of classic beauty and aristocracy represented in Reynolds's painting. By reminding the reader of the grandeur of this moment Lily had in the spotlight, Wharton demonstrates how far she’s fallen from her old position of privilege.

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