Comparison Of The House Of Mirth With
The Sun Also Rises Essay, Research Paper
Society often paints a picture of helpless females, who must depend on men in order to survive. This stigma has influenced literature throughout the centuries, and can be seen very clearly in both Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The main female characters in both novels function in a society where they need to manipulate men in order to survive. Both Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) and Lady Brett Ashley (The Sun Also Rises) are women trapped into a society where they are dependent upon males for their livelihood. These two women see the pursuit of a male caretaker as their job, and this causes them to use manipulative actions to survive. While manhood is depicted differently in the two novels, (with Wharton concentrating on money and Hemingway focusing on sex) male dominance still prevails to create two female characters whose behavior is extremely similar. They both feel the need to pursue male affections with a certain eagerness and desperation characteristic of women looking for a lifeline. However, despite this similarity, there are still mass differences between Lily Bart and Brett Ashley. Lily Bart has moments of clarity in which she becomes a more fully realized character. Brett Ashley, on the other hand, remains the same throughout the entirety of the novel.
Lily Bart is part of New York’s upper crust society, where power is directly determined by the size of one’s bank account. In this circle of the extremely wealthy, women make a career out of marrying well. Lily depends on her good looks, and is more than willing to mold herself into a specific male’s vision of the “perfect” woman. In order to maintain an opulent lifestyle, she seeks a man who can afford her. Society traps her into behaving like a piece of art work; idle and beautiful, as well as owned. Lily Bart, whose funds are limited and who has a self-proclaimed dependency on luxury, sets out to find a husband to provide for her:
The certainty that she could marry Percy Gyrce when
she pleased had lifted a heavy load from her mind, and
her money troubles were too recent for their removal not
to leave a sense of relief which a less discerning intelligence
might have taken for happiness. Her vulgar cares were
at an end. She would be able to arrange her life as she
pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where
creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns
than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset?
And she had no doubts as to the extent of her power. (65)
She is extremely mechanical in her views on marriage, and one can see that she views the institution as a business deal. She is emotionally detached from this union and seeks only financial gain. Lily is conscious of the game that she is playing and realizes that she must manipulate Mr. Gyrce’s affections in order to have stability in her life. She woos him by setting aside her personality, and concentrating solely on his interests. She is willing to throw aside her essence to stroke Percy’s ego.
Lady Brett Ashley also depends on her good looks and charisma to manipulate men. However, she lives in a more Bohemian society, where she does not necessarily need to marry a man, in order to be taken care of. Brett Ashley is the product of a later generation, in which promiscuity will not ruin her reputation, and she takes full advantage of that fact. While men do provide financially for Brett, that does not seem to be her main intention. She travels in decadent and gluttonous circles, where an excess of food, drink and sex determine the days activities. To immerse herself in this culture, Brett plays off her good looks and charm, conforming to societies moral vacancy. Instead, she seeks emotional gain, and draws men to her, only to desert them quickly, leaving them shattered and despondent. She approaches the manipulation of men like a game, and racks up male affections without ever giving of herself. She has an on going relationship with Jake Barnes, and she proclaims that she loves him several times. However, due to a war wound he is unable to perform sexually, and Brett uses this as an excuse to hold him at bay. Jake realizes that her affection for him may not be genuine and says, “I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have.” (39) Brett’s perception of happiness is based on the notion that she is wanted by men. She takes pains to maintain Jake’s interest in her, without a genuine concern for his feelings. She thoughtlessly comes to Jake Barnes time and time again to set her up with other men, and to help her get out of self created adverse situations.
Lily Bart claims to need a man to get her out of an adverse financial situation, however, she constantly ruins relationships that would result in a financially sound arrangement for her. One gets the sense that she is holding out for some sort of emotional connection, regardless of what she claims to want. There is one man who engages her mentally and captures her sentiments, however, he does not have the resources needed to maintain Lily’s position in society. This man, Selden, is able to open her eyes to the trivialities of the world that she is caught up in:
That was his secret way of adjusting her vision. Lily,
turning her eyes from him, found herself scanning her
little world through his retina: it was as though the pink
lamps had been shut off and the dusty daylight let in. She
looked down the long table, studying its occupants one
by one, from Gus Trenor, with his heavy carnivorous head
sunk between his shoulders, as he preyed on a jellied
plover, to his wife, at the opposite end of the long bank of
orchids, suggestive, with her glaring good-looks, of a jeweler’s
window lit by electricity. and between these two, what a
long stretch of vacuity! How dreary and trivial these people
were! (P. 70)
In spite of this epiphany, Lily Bart still remains unfaltered from her course of marrying well. She considers propositions from several wealthy men, even contemplating a union with Simon Rosedale and George Dorset, both of whom she finds tedious and distasteful. It is not until she becomes utterly impoverished, due to a complicated series of events, that Lily realizes that she should have accepted Selden’s love from day one. Once the door of desolation is thrust upon Lily, she is able to see clearly. However, she has been manipulating males for too long, and has blown her chances with the man she only now realizes she loves.
Brett Ashley never sees the fruitlessness of the game that she plays. Instead, she only becomes more immersed in manipulation during a trip to Pamplona. Brett is already away with three men who she has had relationships with, and who continuously fight over her. Oblivious to the harmful nature of her actions, Brett decides to take up with a nineteen-year-old bullfighter. Brett tells Jake, “I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.” (p. 187) However, Hemingway displays her careless and detached nature through an incident in Pamplona:
The bull who killed Vicente Girones?was killed by Pedro
Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear
was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero,
who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief
belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along
with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in
the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the
Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona. (P. 203)
This is extremely important because it is symbolic of Brett’s entire outlook on men. She has an affair with Pedro Romero, however, she doesn’t respect him or his art work. By leaving the bull’s ear in a nightstand, her whole character comes to light. She pushes men aside in the same manner, without a second thought to who she is hurting. She quite clearly seeks emotional gain and the love of men to make her feel good about herself. Never once though, does Brett exhibit true emotion. Throughout the entirety of The Sun Also Rises Brett Ashley remains the same manipulative, self centered character.
Lily Bart and Brett Ashley behave in much the same manner. They habitually manipulate men who they do not care about, in order to achieve personal profits. Lily Bart’s desperate dependence on wealth and luxury, force her to manipulate men, in order to achieve a financial stability. However, due to a scandal beyond her control, Lily is propelled out of the society that controls her. Because of this, Lily achieves a clarity of thought, and sees all the falsity that has been surrounding her for so long. She was unable to give up her fear of poverty, and follow her heart. However, she eventually understands her mistakes, and tragically it is too late for her to make amends. Brett Ashley, on the other hand, manipulates men, not for financial gain, but for amusement. She too has men support her and buy her gifts, yet that is not her main goal in her unions. She tends to be preoccupied with sexual affairs and men’s desire for her. This too is tragic, because she never experiences true human emotions. These two characters are products of a society in which women need men to define themselves either financially or emotionally. While their behavior manifests itself in extremely similar manners, what drives that behavior is different.