Object or Owner: Navigating Identity through the Aesthetic in Wharton’s Fiction
Katie Williams, William and Mary
From Lily Bart’s extreme distaste for Mrs. Peniston’s furniture in The House of Mirth to Ralph Grancy’s abhorrence to the portrait of his young wife after her death in “The Moving Finger,” characters are consistently repulsed by physical objects in Edith Wharton’s fiction. Why do objects elicit such overwhelmingly powerful feelings for these characters? Wharton offers a clue when Lily is travelling home from Evie Van Osburgh’s wedding. Contemplating the humiliation of losing her potential husband, Percy Gryce, Lily lapses into “deeper self-disgust” (Wharton 99). Interestingly, as she does so, her attentions turn to the ugliness of Mrs. Peniston’s home and Wharton writes, “As was always the case with her, this moral repulsion found a physical outlet in a quickened distaste for her surroundings” (Wharton 99). Evidently, Lily’s repulsion towards her physical environment is intrinsically tied to her feelings about her identity and social standing in this moment. To explore this fusion of behavior and aesthetic, I will analyze when, how and why objects act as a “physical outlet” for disgust in both The House of Mirth and “The Moving Finger.” Indeed, both Lily Bart’s and Mr. Grancy’s repulsion towards specific objects reveal their greater feelings of internal disgust towards their assumed positions in a consumeristic society.
Firstly, the core of my analysis will focus on one of the scenes of strongest moral repulsion in The House of Mirth: the scene just after Lily is almost sexually assaulted by Gus Trenor at Bellomont. Here, Lily’s moral repulsion towards her own status as an aging, reproduced commodity finds a physical outlet in the ugly, mass produced, impersonal objects of Mrs. Peniston’s home. In order to fully analyze the significance of Lily’s repulsion towards Mrs. Peniston’s furniture after Gus Trenor almost violates her, it is first necessary to examine the scene of her near assault. Lily arrives at Bellomont under the impression that she is seeing Judy Trenor. Yet, Wharton soon cues the reader into the atypical nature of this visit when “instead of the expected footman… a shabby caretaking person in calico led her into the shrouded hall” (Wharton 141). Indeed, Lily soon discovers that Trenor sent the invitation himself, luring her to Bellomont to be alone in her company. Trenor’s “unusual excitability,” “flushed” face and frequent grabs for Lily’s hand, clearly suggest his malicious sexual intent.
Notably, Trenor’s dialogue in this scene is characterized by terms of financial exchange. He states, “Of course I know now what you wanted – it wasn’t my beautiful eyes you were after – but I tell you what, Miss. Lily, you’ve got to pay up for making me think so –” (Wharton 145). Angry at the fact Lily failed to acknowledge him at the party when he is the one paying her bills, Trenor feels it is his right to enjoy her in private (Wharton 142). As Deborah Barker argues in “Edith Wharton’s Portrait of a Lady in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Trenor “feels he has bought and paid for her” and thus, like a consumer, assumes a right to Lily’s objectified body (Barker 156). Barker further argues that Lily functions as a reproduced work of art in the novel, an identity that has damaging consequences for her social status. Trenor certainly views Lily as this kind of commodity. For example, when Lily says she cannot stay talking to him at this late hour, Trenor responds: “Gad, you go to men’s houses fast enough in broad daylight – strikes me you’re not always so deuced careful of appearances” (Wharton 145). Here, Trenor presumably refers to Lily scandalously leaving the Benedick in broad daylight after spending an afternoon with Selden. By suggesting that Lily is not “careful of appearances” Trenor points out her conspicuousness; by being seen with different men, Lily is over-exposing herself, which “threatens her market value” (Barker 148). As Barker articulates, Lily “…must seek out capital investors on the open market through public display. Her market value, however, is based on her exclusivity” (Barker 145). Here, “capital investors” implies potential marriage partners, and thus Barker depicts marriage as a system of financial exchange. Consequently, Lily’s open public display – or her mass-produced image, in a sense – threatens her worth as a potential spouse to these investors, since her value is based on her rarity and exclusivity.
Lily reacts viscerally to these insults to her worth. After Trenor tells Lily she must “pay up,” “a sea of humiliation” breaks over her, and her feelings of dishonor “…put a fearful solitude about her” (Wharton 146). Similarly, when Trenor comments on her lack of “careful appearance,” the narrator states, “the brutality of the thrust gave her a sense of dizziness that follows on a physical blow” (Wharton 145). Finally, when Lily leaves Bellomont, she shakes with “inward loathing” (Wharton 147). Thus, Trenor’s perception and treatment of Lily has a profound physical and mental effect on her; one associated with dishonor, humiliation, shame and self-disgust. Lily is not only morally repulsed by Trenor’s sexual advances, but also by what he accuses and brands her a: a mass-produced, worthless object.
Significantly, Lily’s moral repulsion to this status as a reproduced object manifests itself in her hatred towards Mrs. Peniston’s repurposed furniture, specifically the bed. When Lily finally escapes Bellomont, her thoughts immediately and curiously turn to her room at her aunt’s. As Lily leans against the side of her cab, the narrator describes this scene:
Her eyes fell on an illuminated clock at a street corner, and she saw that the hands marked the half hour after eleven. Only half-past eleven—there were hours and hours left of the night! And she must spend them alone, shuddering sleepless on her bed. Her soft nature recoiled from this ordeal, which had none of the stimulus of conflict to goad her through it. Oh, the slow cold drip of the minutes on her head! She had a vision of herself lying on the black walnut bed—and the darkness would frighten her, and if she left the light burning the dreary details of the room would brand themselves forever on her brain. She had always hated her room at Mrs. Peniston’s—its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers. To a torn heart uncomforted by human nearness a room may open almost human arms, and the being to whom no four walls mean more than any others, is, at such hours, expatriate everywhere. (Wharton 148)
Notably, much of Lily’s repulsion to her room at Mrs. Peniston’s in this scene centers on “the black walnut bed.” She imagines herself “shuddering sleepless on her bed,” frightened and alone in the darkness. It is also from her imagined place on this bed, that she thinks about the other objects in her room. Just as “the black walnut bed” syntactically lies in the middle line of this passage, so too does it act as a center point of Lily’s thoughts. Why does Lily so vehemently detest this specific piece of furniture in this moment? Interestingly, earlier on in Book I, Chapter Nine, the narrator first describes Lily’s room with attention to the bed: “… [her room] seemed as dreary as a prison. The monumental wardrobe and bedstead of black walnut had migrated from Mr. Peniston’s bedroom” (Wharton 109-110). Having migrated from Mr. Peniston’s bedroom, this bedstead is clearly from an earlier time, most likely the Victorian age of massive, solid furniture. In contrast to the more delicate, elegant Art Nouveau style that Lily so admires in her room at Bellomont – “silken bedsheets” “softly-shaded lights” an “atmosphere of luxury…a climate she could breathe in”– her room at Mrs. Peniston’s is overwhelmed by this black walnut monstrosity (Wharton 25-26). Its height and depth would have most likely encased its sleeper like a prisoner in a cage, which perhaps speaks into the comparison of her room to a prison in Chapter Nine. Notably, this bed also did not originally belong to Lily. It is repurposed and reproduced for its next user, probably as a part of Mrs. Peniston’s renewal project after Mr. Peniston’s last illness. Thus, this black walnut bed parallels Lily’s identity as a reproduced object; both lack rarity and exclusivity.
It is also noteworthy to point out the underlying corporeal connotations of a bed– a bed that Wharton distinctly assigns male ownership, since it first belonged to Mr. Peniston. While we know very little about Mr. and Mrs. Peniston’s romantic relationship, a bed is usually associated with the private intimacy of intercourse. Furthermore, the image of Lily sleeping in Mr. Peniston’s cage-like bedstead also depicts her body as a prisoner of male possession. Consequently, the fact that Lily’s loathing is directed towards this object after her near sexual assault at the hands of Trenor, reveals her deeper moral repulsion to her own status as a mass-produced commodity under assumed male ownership.
Secondly, Lily’s repulsion towards her identity as an aging, reproduced object manifests itself in her revulsion towards the “dreary details” of her room at Mrs. Peniston’s. Returning to the passage above, after Lily leaves Trenor’s, she recoils at the thought of spending the night alone, with “the slow cold drip of minutes on her head” (Wharton 148). This image of the dripping clock, and the earlier repetition of “hours and hours,” suggests that Lily is painfully conscious that time is passing by and that she is on her own. With this heightened awareness of her status as an aging, unmarried woman, she imagines herself lying alone on her bed at Mrs. Peniston’s, fearing that “…if she left the light burning the dreary details of the room would brand themselves forever on her brain” (Wharton 148). The narrator goes on, “She had always hated her room at Mrs. Peniston’s—its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers” (Wharton 148). Lily is clearly repelled by these “dreary details” that threaten to assault her mind.
What are these details that she finds so dull, ugly and impersonal? Notably, in the first description the reader receives of Lily’s room at Mrs. Peniston’s, the narrator notes Lily’s distaste for, “the magenta “flock” wall-paper, of a pattern dear to the early ‘sixties…hung with large steel engravings of an anecdotic character” (Wharton 110). While she tries “to mitigate this charmless background” Lily’s attempts are futile, and she is haunted “by a sense of physical ugliness” (Wharton 110). One can imagine that these are the decorative details that Lily’s mind dwells on in the cab after she leaves Trenor, and significantly, they also possess a dual quality of mass production and agedness. As the text notes, the steel engravings are “possibly an allusion to reproductions of admonitory scenes from Francis Quarles’s Emblems, published in 1635” (Penguin Classics Notes to The House of Mirth, 334). Whether these engravings specifically show the grotesque scriptural scenes of this work or not, steel engravings of this time were usually mass- produced and markers of an earlier Victorian era. Similarly, the flock wallpaper, “decorated with a pattern made by pulverized wood or applied to the paper” and “usually…deep in color and dismal in tone,” carries a similar quality of mass production (Penguin Classics Notes to The House of Mirth, 334). This dark, heavy wallpaper would have been formed from a series of repeating patterns or images. While these wall hangings were originally indicators of wealth and status in superior houses, they later became more commercialized products. By the late nineteenth-century these “dull monotonous walls” were “well and truly out of fashion” (“Flock Wallpapers”). Thus, this form of decoration again parallels Lily Bart; a similarly aging, overexposed and reproduced object that experiences a loss of market value. Consequently, the fact that Lily impliedly fixates on these details as she imagines herself looking out from her bed, reveals that these objects act as a medium for her emotion. While Lily does not expressly articulate her own repulsion to her status as a deteriorating, reproduced object, it is encoded within her distaste for her physical surroundings. The fact that Lily fears that these “dreary details” will “brand themselves forever on her brain” perhaps more acutely speaks into her fear that what they represent – degradation, worthlessness, senescence– will be her permanent identity marker.
Lily’s hatred towards the impersonality of Mrs. Peniston’s home also represents her moral repulsion to her own lack of self-connection. Interestingly, just after Lily leaves Trenor’s, filled with shame and “inward loathing,” the narrator states: “She seemed a stranger to herself, or rather there were two selves in her, the one she had always known, and a new abhorrent being to which it found itself chained” (Wharton 148). Here, Lily feels as if she does not know part of herself. Who is this vile and unknown being she is manacled to? Why does she experience this divided self at this moment? And how does her room, in response, become a site for her displaced morality? Returning to my central passage to answer these questions, Lily hates the room’s “impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers” (Wharton 148). The narrator goes on, “To a torn heart uncomforted by human nearness a room may open almost human arms, and the being to whom no four walls mean more than any others, is, at such hours, expatriate everywhere” (Wharton 148). By suggesting that a room can “almost open human arms,” the narrator emphasizes Lily’s profound connection with the objects that surround her. They can have as much value and meaning as a living person. Yet, unlike the “atmosphere of luxury” that she can “breathe in” at Bellomont, these four walls are unspecialized (Wharton 25-26). They mean nothing to her and, as a result, the narrator considers her an “expatriate” suggesting Lily’s foreigner-like status. Like an organism whose environment does not suit her, Lily is left unrooted, which speaks to the texts underlying naturalism. The abhorrently impersonal nature of this room perhaps also stems from its mass-produced quality, since the more produced something is, the less character, individuality and uniqueness it has. With its repurposed bedstead and reproduced decoration from a bygone era, Lily’s room embodies mass production and consequently, a lack of personal connection. This correlates with Lily’s own internal disgust and fear. Repulsed by her identity as a reproduced object, Lily feels like a stranger to herself. She becomes an “expatriate everywhere” since the more produced, objectified or commercialized she is, the less personhood she too possesses. Thus, Lily’s hatred of her impersonal room in this scene more deeply speaks to her horror at her own lack of individuality.
This repulsion on the part of a character towards their physical surroundings is not isolated to The House of Mirth. Abhorrence to a produced object also surfaces in Wharton’s “The Moving Finger,” speaking more deeply into how Ralph Grancy sees himself. After Grancy’s wife dies, he is devastated by the loss and leaves home to spend five years in Europe. While he is travelling, he begins to feel his wife’s presence closely until she seems as real to him as when she was alive: “…the mere thought of her grew warm as flesh and blood” (Wharton, “The Moving Finger” 221). In a sense, Grancy reforms the image of his wife while he is away, producing an image more attractive to him. However, when Grancy returns home, he is confronted by his wife’s portrait. Painted by his friend Claydon before Mrs. Grancy’s death, the portrait shows a “young and radiant woman” –– not the image Grancy believes his wife should look like now (Wharton, “The Moving Finger” 221). He in fact grows to detest “the strange woman” he sees in the portrait: “At times, as I sat here, I almost grew to hate her; for her presence had driven away my gentle ghost, the real wife who had wept, aged, struggled with me during those awful years…It was the worst loneliness I’ve ever known” (Wharton, “The Moving Finger” 220-221). Here, this portrait clearly takes on human characteristics, as Grancy blames “her” for shattering the illusion of his wife’s presence.
On one level, Grancy’s aversion to this humanized picture may be indicative of his profound grief. This portrait is a constant reminder of all that he has lost, and speaks into the power of objects to destroy an envisioned reality. However, to gain further insight into his repulsion to this produced object, it is also important to consider the language Grancy uses to talk about his wife and her portrait before her death. Grancy explains to his friend, the narrator of the story, that he rejoiced in the portrait when Mrs. Grancy was alive. He would joke to his wife, “‘You’re my prisoner now – I shall never lose you. If you grew tired of me and left me you’d leave your real self there on the wall!’” (Wharton, “The Moving Finger” 219-220). Grancy’s jarring reference to his wife as “my prisoner” suggests his sense of ownership over her, and the controlling, oppressive quality of his gaze. Since he possesses her image and can look at her whenever he chooses, he believes she is in his control. Thus, Grancy’s repulsion to the portrait when he returns from Europe, perhaps represents his deeper abhorrence to his loss of assumed power over his wife. Her portrait does not match the image he has produced of her in his imagination. It stands in direct contradiction to his presumed ownership, negating the authority of his subjugating gaze. Thus, just as Lily detests the produced objects that embody her identity as a commodity, so too does Grancy abhor the produced object that challenges his identity as a possessor. Grancy then asks Claydon to repaint his wife as an older woman –– in a sense, to reproduce his mental image of her to reassert his possessorship. When her portrait is changed, he is elated, feeling he has “regained” Mrs. Grancy (Wharton, “The Moving Finger” 221). Indeed, just like the consumeristic Gus Trenor, Grancy assumes a right to a woman’s objectified body. Furthermore, characters emotions towards their physical surroundings speak into their perceived social position as object or owner.
In conclusion, objects in Wharton’s works are directly linked to the way characters express their emotions regarding their identity. Physical surroundings act as a medium for expression, as behavior and aesthetic consistently come together. Lily experiences a constantly displaced morality, as her repulsion towards her own status as an aging, reproduced commodity finds a physical outlet in the mass-produced, impersonal, Victorian objects of Mrs. Peniston’s home. Lily detests these objects, because she sees herself in them. Grancy’s hatred of his wife’s original portrait also speaks into his repulsion towards his loss of assumed power and ownership over her. He detests this object because it undermines the way he sees himself. Furthermore, how characters react to their physical surroundings speak into their conceptions of their own identity, and the greater fear of losing status in this consumeristic society – be that declining to the level of a commodity, or being stripped of one’s position as that commodity’s possessor.
Barker, Deborah. “Edith Wharton’s Portrait of a Lady in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2000.
“Flock Wallpapers.” Victoria and Albert Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, 15 May 2013,
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Penguin Classics, 1993.
Wharton, Edith. “The Moving Finger.” The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, Digireads.com, 2011, pp. 215–224.