Dr. C. G. Jung Visits The House of Mirth

by Ali H. Abureesh

August 1, 2006


Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) presents psychological disintegration in the characterization of the novel’s beautiful heroine Miss Lily Bart. This paper applies a Jungian analysis to study the causes and effects of Lily Bart’s psychological disintegration. It divides these causes and effects according to Jungian archetypes and motifs. Through such divisions, the paper reveals Lily’s inability to achieve self-realization; and how this inability gradually brings her fatal end. To demonstrate this, Lily’s use of her persona/shadow, the mother archetype and its effect on Lily, and the child motif and its connection with past are scrutinized in depth.



After his visit to the United States and his meeting with Edith Wharton, Henry James, in a letter dated the 26th of October, 1900, persuaded Edith Wharton to the "study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it" (James 32). Two years later, in another letter dated 17th of August, 1902 in which he praised Edith Wharton’s The Valley of Decision (1902), Henry James repeated his inducement that she should try to write about America. He says, "I mean while you’re in full command of the situation---admonish you, I say, in favour of the American subject" (James 43). At the time of Henry James’s first letter, Edith Wharton was working on a novel on the American subject, especially the New York society. This work was to be entitled "Disintegration." In fact, Edith Wharton "put it aside" (Benstock 16), but after Henry James’s second letter she went back to work on it. After "writing seventy pages of the story before abandoning it" (Benstock 17), she started writing her best-selling work The House of Mirth (1905). Twenty years later, she completed the abandoned work embodying it into The Mother’s Recompense (1925). What is interesting here is that disintegration1 as a theme is carefully interwoven throughout both novels. Both works show how harmful irresponsible pleasure seeking can be --psychologically and sociologically-- and how it can cause personality and family disintegration. Psychologically, The House of Mirth illustrates the disintegration theme in the characterization of Miss Lily Bart the beautiful heroine of the novel. In A Feast of Words: the Triumph of Edith Wharton Cynthia Griffin Wolf says "The House of Mirth is about the disintegration of Lily Bart, about the psychological disfigurement of any woman who chooses to accept society’s definition of her as a beautiful object and nothing more" (106). Wolf just mentions the disintegration issue, but she does not discuss it any further or look at it either from an analytical psychology or from a psychoanalytic point of view. Although there are a few psychological studies2 of the novel, yet, throughout the huge body of criticism of The House of Mirth, there is not a single study that looks at the novel from the Jungian approach.

     A Jungian analytical psychological profile of Lily’s personality, as dramatized throughout the novel, will show the causes and effects of Lily’s disintegrated personality. From the beginning of the novel, the reader sees Lily as a person without identity and without a fully developed personality. A developed personality, from a Jungian standpoint, is an integrated personality; to have an integrated personality is to have achieved individuation. Jung defines individuation as

    becoming an "in-dividual," and, in so far as "individuality" embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as "becoming to selfhood" or "self-realization." (7: 173)

To develop "self-realization" or to become "one’s own self" is to establish a harmonious relationship between the consciousness and the unconsciousness, between the ego and the self. Focusing on Lily’s personality, we see only a one-sided personality, a beautified exterior, that she is conscious of; she always projects that side to the world around her in order to win her way. She ignores and represses the other sides, which must be realized to fulfill "selfhood." Lily, using one side of her personality, is alienating herself in favor of playing an external role by which she hopes to win a rich husband and to live luxuriously, far from poverty and dinginess. From a Jungian point of view Lily, throughout the novel, is consciously putting on a persona, which is the mask of her beauty. She is presenting that mask to the world, all the while repressing the shadow (the poverty and the dingy way of life) into the unconscious. I shall discuss these two in depth later.

     As the novel opens, the reader sees Lily through Selden’s eyes, "wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose"3 (5, emphasis mine). Selden perceives this same mask in the second half of the book through the "glare from the jeweller's window, [that is] deepening the pallour of her face, gave to its delicate lines the sharpness of a tragic mask" (167). The repetition of the word mask at the beginning of Book One and in Chapter Three of Book Two shows Lily’s journey through the novel. It begins with "the mask of a very definite purpose" of achieving a luxurious life and ends with the consequences of the "tragic mask," that is her death. It is the mask that Selden perceives as he "stood looking down on the sleeping face which seemed to lie like a delicate impalpable mask over the living lineaments he had known." It is "the little impalpable barrier" (253) that stood between Lily and Selden. This mask is the one side of her personality, one created by Lily’s conscious attitude toward her beauty. To have a "conscious attitude," according to Jung is "to be ready for something definite… [it] is synonymous with an a priori orientation to a definite thing" (6: 414). In fact, Lily went through an "a priori orientation" during her upbringing. After Lily has been disinherited, Gertrude Farish asks her "what is your story Lily?" Lily tries to evade questions, but Miss Farish insists on knowing the complete story: "I want you to tell me exactly what happened from the beginning" (176). Lily responds:

    the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose--in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or no--I won't blame anybody for my faults: I'll say it was in my blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of the Charleses! (176)

Lily's response to Miss. Farish indicates that Lily’s story did not actually begin as the novel opens. In other words, her descent neither begins - as she has been disinherited by her aunt, Mrs. Peniston - nor when Lily was twenty-nine at the beginning of the novel. In fact, being disinherited is the climax of her descent, as well as the result of her upbringing. When Lily, by the end of Book One, goes to her aunt to ask for money to pay back Gus Trenor, Mrs. Peniston excoriates Lily’s upbringing, saying "I suppose it’s your foreign bringing up—no one knew where your mother picked up her friends" (137). Parents and friends, i.e., the social circle, in fact play a great role in shaping Lily’s personality.

     Jung, in The Development of Personality, states that parents are the first trainers of their children’s personalities; he describes the parents as "half children themselves" (17: 168). These parents impel their children "to achieve their parents’ most dismal failure" (17: 171). Lily receives her early training from her mother alone, for her father, as seen through her recollection of her childhood, appears as a "hazy outline of a neutral-tinted father" (25). Lily does not remember seeing her father during the day, for he was out all day to bring money home in order not to let his wife "live like a pig" (26), a way of existence that Mrs. Bart abhorred.

     After Mr. Bart’s bankruptcy, he became "even more of a stranger than in the nursery days" (29). By contrast, "the vigorous and determined figure of a mother still young enough" (25) stood out in Lily’s memories. This recollection shows that Lily, up to her teens, is closely attached to her mother. During these years and until her death, Mrs. Bart brought up her daughter "in the faith that, whatever it cost," (26) Lily must live a luxurious life.

     The craving for such a life is the only thing that Lily is trained to achieve. Her mother repeatedly infuses her with the hatred of poverty and dinginess. Mrs. Bart convinces Lily that to be poor is "a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace" (29). After her husband’s death, Mrs. Bart and her daughter "wandered from place to place" (29), a way of living that Lily follows until shortly before she dies. Moreover, when Lily dies at the end of the novel, like her mother, she dies because of her inability to live and flourish in any soil or weather, other than rich and easy life. She is portrayed as "not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in" (23). Not only that, just hearing the word comfortable "was more eloquent to Lily Bart than any other in the language" (63).

     To find the right environment, Lily, for the seventeen months of her life that the novel encompasses, has to move from one social circle to another. This movement is foreshadowed from the beginning of the novel by Wharton’s metaphorical use of the train and its station as point of arrival and departure. Lily transitorily moves to the Trenors’ and leaves after Mrs. Trenor’s harsh criticism of her behavior, a behavior that made Percy Gryce, whom Lily is planning to win as a husband, flee from her. Mrs. Trenor tells Lily: "he’s thoroughly frightened. He has run straight home to his mother, and she’ll protect him" (61). Lily goes back to her aunt’s house and leaves after her aunt indirectly blames her for losing her chance of marrying Mr. Gryce.

     She accepts a sudden invitation from Bertha Dorset, who is her enemy. Leaving the Dorsets’ Lily "‘proposed’ herself for a weekend at Bellomont;" she also receives Judy Trenor’s "telegraphic ‘come by all means’ seemed to assure her of her usual welcome" (102). Then she accepts an invitation to participate in the Welly Brys’ tableaux vivants. This event parallels the opening of the novel where Lily displays herself as she "stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street" (5).

     In tableaux vivants, too, Lily stands on the stage away from the crowd. After these two public presentations, Lily is caught up in two difficult situations. The first is when Mr. Rosedale catches her off guard as she is getting out of the Benedick, the building in which Selden lives and that Mr. Rosedale owns. Lily "shrank from it [the situation] slightly, and then flung herself into precipitate explanation. ‘Yes—I came up to see my dress-maker’" (15). The second situation is when she goes to the Trenors’ as she gets a note "from Mrs. Trenor, who announced that she was coming to town that afternoon for a flying visit, and hope Miss Bart would be able to dine with her" (109). There, instead of Mrs. Trenor, Mr. Trenor welcomes her and tries to rape her, but she manages to escape. However, this escape is not without harmful consequences, for just as she is leaving the Trenors’ house, Selden, who coincidentally is in the neighborhood, sees her and flies in disgust, thinking that Lily is having an affair with Gus Trenor.

     At the same time, Wharton shows us that Gerty, out of jealousy, as she is "on her bed sleep would not come, and she lay face to face with the fact that she hated Lily Bart" (128). On this note, Lily, in a helpless state, rings Gerty’s doorbell. Lily spends the night with Gerty; and in the morning, leaves for her aunt’s house. There, Lily faces another problem when her aunt refuses to give her the money to repay Gus Trenor. More helpless than before, "Lily went up to her own room and bolted the door. She was trembling with fear and anger--the rush of the furies' wings was in her ears. She walked up and down the room with blind irregular steps. The last door of escape was closed--she felt herself shut in with her dishonour" (137-8). Lily remembers Selden, whose "love was her only hope" (138). In Book Two, Lily escapes these harsh realties of life as she goes off with the Dorsets on their "cruise in the Mediterranean" (142). There, too, she goes through another difficult situation, even though she is "usually so nimble at handling social difficulties" (Howe 100).

     Throughout the novel, we see Lily confused, helpless and disoriented; these symptoms as seen from a Jungian point of view are symptoms of inflation. According to Jung, inflation means "an identification with the collective psyche…as a result of extended consciousness" (Samuels, et al. 81). Lily’s collective psyche is her beauty, of which she is fully conscious. Inflation is an issue that Jung touches upon in almost all of his writings. In "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious," he writes that when a person is attracted to the "power of a collective image …can cause such a high degree of inflation that the entire personality is disintegrated" (7: 147). Lily’s beauty is an instance of the collective image of which Jung speaks. Lily feels and uses her beauty as a power to influence people. "She liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste" (30). Furthermore, "She felt she could trust it [her beauty] to carry her through to the end" (41). In Psychology and Alchemy Jung writes:

    every increase in consciousness harbours the danger of inflation….An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. (12: 479-81)

Lily does not learn from her past experience. We are told that:

    Miss Bart had in fact been treading a devious way, and none of her critics could have been more alive to the fact than herself; but she had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without ever perceiving the right road till it was too late to take it. (101)

Lily does not like to sit alone and review her actions and dealings; she always wants to escape her reality either by talking or regaling herself over luxurious scenes that delight "her sense of beauty and her carving for the external finish of life" (22). This eagerness for escaping her reality is clearly noticed immediately after she runs into a difficult situation and feels that her power has left her. After Mr. Rosedale sees her leaving the bachelors’ building where Selden lives, Lily gets into the train and starts looking for anyone to talk with so she can "get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew" (17). In Chapter Three, after she loses a game of bridge, she decides to go to her room to sleep, but "feeling no desire for the self-communion which awaited her in her room, she lingered on the broad stairway" (22), to enjoy the luxurious panoramic view of the hall. A "self- communion" is Lily’s only way to integrate her self; it is the only way that she starts the process of in-dividuation. Through this "communion with one’s self" (14: 497) she establishes a communication between the conscious and the unconscious; a communication between the persona and the shadow. But Lily is not trained to have a full-developed personality; she is not trained to achieve self-knowledge. Therefore, these moments of escaping the communion with her self are necessary, inasmuch as she comes into the world equipped only with her beauty, that she cares only for and examines in the mirror from time to time. Edith Wharton writes, "she sat before the mirror brushing her hair, her face looked hollow and pale, and she was frightened by two little lines near her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of the cheek" (25).

     Being ugly or being associated with ugliness scares Lily; her fear becomes very clear when Gerty says to her:

    "But you look so tired: I'm sure you must be ill---"
    Miss Bart set down her cup with a start. "Do I look ill? Does my face show it?"…. It's enough to make one ill to be told one looks so! And looking ill means looking ugly." She caught Gerty's wrists, and drew her close to the window. "After all, I'd rather know the truth. Look me straight in the face, Gerty, and tell me: am I perfectly frightful?" (207)

Here Lily expresses the fear of the ugliness that her mother had warned her of. Lily keeps repressing this ugliness in her unconscious, an ugliness that Lily feels superior to because of her unique beauty. Her beauty is remarked on by everybody. She is called the "beautiful Miss Bart" (153). Lily’s beauty becomes a collective image that her mother felt

    as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instill into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved (31).

Here we find Mrs. Bart training her daughter to achieve what Mrs. Bart herself failed to accomplish after her husband’s bankruptcy and death. Mrs. Bart keeps telling Lily that only by Lily’s beauty they can regain the life they used to have: "after they had lost their money, Lily’s mother used to say to her….‘But you’ll get all back—you’ll get all back, with your face’" (25, emphasis mine). In addition, Mrs. Bart realized that the only way of regaining their past luxurious life is by landing her daughter on a rich husband. She pushes Lily to go out to be seen; she tells her "People can’t marry you if they don’t see you—and how can they see you in these holes where we’re stuck?" (31).

     This type of training plays a double role in Lily’s life. First, it makes her identify with her mother. Second, it inspires Lily to develop a very strong persona. Jung warns that to identify with one’s mother is a complex that might hinder the growth of the personality. In "Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype," Jung says that any woman

    who is so identified with the mother…. can never find herself at all, not even approximately, without a man’s help…. She must play the role mapped out for her for a long time and with great effort, until she actually comes to loathe it. In this way she may perhaps discover who she really is. (9. I:97, emphasis mine)

Prior to this, he says, such a woman "does not know a thing. She is so inexperienced, so terribly in need of help" (9.I: 90). Lily’s need for help and her inexperience are presented throughout the novel in various shades and degrees. Gerty realizes that "Lily was simply some one who needed help" (129). Lily appears helpless, a childlike figure that is indeed in need for help. Edith Wharton repeats this childlike figure many times in the novel. In Book One, Chapter Eight the narrator describes Lily as "She looked at him [Selden] helplessly, like a hurt or frightened child" (75). Another instance is after Lily’s performance in the tableaux vivants, she and Selden meet in the garden, in an atmosphere described as the "strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone" (108). It is a type of "solitude" that parallels the one in the "republic of the spirit" scene. Lily, we are told, "raised her eyes with the beseeching earnestness of a child" (108) and says to Selden "you promised once to help me;" he replies "The only way I can help you is by loving you" (109). Because he loved her, Selden has tried many times to help Lily. However, Lily is not willing to receive Selden’s aid, because Lily, as she affirms: "I may still do credit to my training" (219). If Lily accepts Selden’s help, she will not continue to "play the role mapped out for her." She has to acknowledge and accept that she is poor. She knows that if she accepts help from Selden, she will not live the luxury life she was trained for. She admits that Selden tried to help her; she says to Gerty: "he tried to help me. He told me--he warned me long ago--he foresaw that I should grow hateful to myself!" (132). During their last meeting in Selden’s apartment, shortly before she dies, she tells him: "Do you remember what you said to me once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well--you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always helped me. But the moment is gone--it was I who let it go" (241).

     Lily’s need for help goes hand in hand with the child motif that is connected to her throughout the novel. "The child motif" Jung says "represents the preconscious, childhood aspect of the collective psyche" (9.I: 161). By this he means the stage before the ego shapes its power of consciousness — a problem-free stage into which, Jung says, "Every one of us gladly turns away from his problems" (8: 389). He points out that most people to some extent adhere "to the childhood level of consciousness, a resistance to the fateful forces in and around us which would involve us in the world (393). Lily’s connection with the child motif comes into existence when she faces a social problem. Lily becomes a childlike figure only when things do not go as she wishes and when she is near Selden. As early as the beginning of the novel, in Selden’s apartment, Lily, after expressing her wishes of having a place for herself, says, "How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self!" She also realizes and admits how "poor, miserable, marriageable" (8) a girl she is.

     With this realization, "she sat gazing up at him with the troubled gravity of a child" (9). As it represents an escape from the harsh realities of life, the child motif connects the person to the happy past of childhood. To Lily "Everything in the past seemed simple, natural, full of daylight" (117). In the present, the child motif functions "to compensate or correct, in a meaningful manner, the inevitable one-sidedness and extravagances of the conscious mind" (Jung 9.I: 162). This appears clearly when Lily and Selden are together.

     In his presence, Lily always feels that the "stir of the pulses which his nearness always caused was increased by a slight sense of constraint" (74). Lily does not pretend or put on her mask when she is with Selden; as she confesses to him, he shows her "how poor and unimportant… [her] ambitions were." After saying this, Lily looks at Selden "helplessly, like a hurt or frightened child: this real self of hers, which he had the faculty of drawing out of the depths, was so little accustomed to go alone!" (75, emphasis mine)

     This "real self of hers" is the self that Lily does not like to make evident in public. It is the self that is repressed in the unconscious. This self needs realization, and is ready to be realized. Insofar as the child motif is concerned, Jung says it "signifies the potential anticipation of an individuation process which is approaching wholeness" (9.I: 166). Lily consciously is not eager about the realization of "this real self of hers" for she would have to give up "the role mapped out for her for a long time and with great effort" (9.I :97).

     A psychological justification for Lily’s unwillingness to accept the signification of the child motif as that the conscious mind regards it as "dealing with an insignificant content that has no releasing, let alone redeeming character." This is because the "conscious mind," Jung points out,

    is caught in its conflict-situation, and the combatant forces seem so over-whelming that the ‘child’ as an isolated content bears no relation to the conscious factors. It is therefore easily overlooked and falls back into the unconscious. (9.I: 170)

On the contrary, the child is endowed with powers that the conscious mind is incapable of comprehending. Jung explains that the child manifests itself with "ways and possibilities of which our one-sided conscious mind knows nothing" (9.I: 170). The child makes its presence felt at the end of the novel. It comes to Lily in the shape of Nettie Struther's child, whom she holds in her hand and clasps against her. Such a close contact and realization of the presence of the child infuses Lily with strength and happiness. "As she reached the street she realized that she felt stronger and happier: the little episode had done her good" (246).

     Then again, this happiness and strength do not last long, for as she reaches her room she begins to reminisce about her past luxurious life. In this last scene of her life, Lily is caught up between two opposing forces. Such a conflict, Jung explains, "is not to be overcome by the conscious mind remaining caught up between the opposites" (9.I: 168). Therefore, Lily decides to sleep with the fantasy of the child’s nearness. Sleep is Lily’s last escape from facing the real self of hers. Psychologically speaking, sleep is "rather like an old shadowy memory of that unsuspecting state of early childhood, when there is as yet no oppositions to disturb the peaceful flow of slumbering life" (Jung 5: 326).

     Lily’s lack of self-realization is dramatized by her inexperience that was also caused by her identification with her mother, as Jung mentioned earlier. We are told that she "had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines; to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure sweep by her unregarded" (234). She fails in any job she tries; her failure comes either from an inappropriate choice as with Mrs. Norma Hatch, or because of her ineffectiveness as "she finds herself [in Mme Regina’s millinery shop] physically and psychologically unfit for work" (Joslin 64). In spite of Lily’s identification with her mother, she does not even acquire her mother’s management abilities. Mrs. Bart’s friend spoke of her as " ‘wonderful manager.’ Mrs. Bart was famous for the unlimited effect she produced on limited means; and to the lady and her acquaintances there was something heroic in living as though one were much richer than one's bank-book denoted" (26). By contrast, Lily "knew little of the value of money" (27) and "she was always helplessly puzzled by figures" (91). Nonetheless, she is playing "the role mapped out for her:" the role to be a beautiful object; to be "ornamental" (232).

     To be ornamental is to have a beautiful face and to care about beautiful things and the externality of life. Lily’s attachment to the externality of material things is emphasized many times in the novel. She has a strong desire for "the external finish of life" (22). When she is compared to other women, the only things "distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external" (7). Lily’s external orientation is due to her ego’s identification with the mask or the persona that she is adapted to and which is seen and approved by her society: "Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man's heaven; and at present it was turning its illuminated face to Lily.... [and gave her] the self-assurance which at times was so like obtuseness now seemed the natural sign of social ascendancy" (41). It is the mask that is required for social conformity. "Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest, and that to convert it into success other arts are required" (30). One of these arts is to have a persona, which is "only a mask of the collective psyche, mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks" (Jung 7: 157). The other arts are her sophistication and maneuvers for attracting others’ attention to her. We see her as she gets into the train, after accidentally meeting Mr. Rosedale, "She had just time to take her seat before the train started; but having arranged herself in her corner with the instinctive feeling for effect which never forsook her, she glanced about in the hope of seeing some other member of the Trenors' party" (17, emphasis mine). In fact, her sophistication and maneuvers are the act of the persona that her ego identifies with.

     Having the ego identified with the persona causes the self and other aspects of the personality, especially the shadow, to reside in the unconscious and this creates the imbalance in the personality. Jung looks at the self "as the totality of the psyche. The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness" (12: 41). This means that other aspects of the unconsciousness are parts of the self, i.e., shadow, anima, and animus, as the persona is part of the consciousness. And when any part of the unconsciousness is repressed by "the exclusive identity of the ego-consciousness with the persona" (Jung 7: 158) causes

    alienations of the self, ways of divesting the self of its reality in favour of an external role or in favour of an imagined meaning. In the former case the self retires into the background and gives a place to the social recognition; in the latter, to the auto-suggestive meaning of a primordial image. In both cases the collective has the upper hand. Self-alienation in favour of the collective corresponds to a social ideal. (7: 173)

Lily, for "the social recognition" and the "primordial image," is alienating her self. She feels that by using her beauty as "a primordial image," created by her early training, she will achieve "social recognition." In fact, her beauty brings her social recognition, but it does not bring her self-realization. Her true reality is that she is beautiful and poor. Being poor connects her to dinginess. Poverty and dinginess contradict her upbringing and her attitude toward her beauty. Therefore, Lily has to repress every idea that will associate her with dinginess and poverty.

     Jung calls the repressed side of the personality the shadow. The shadow simply is "the thing …[the person] has no wish to be" (16: 262). Lily does not want to be looked upon as poor; she does not want to live, in her mother’s phrase, "like a pig" (26). Lily fears poverty and dinginess. Edith Wharton tableaus this attitude in two ways: through Lily’s inner thoughts and feelings and verbally when Lily is with those characters who do not belong to her rich social circle. This presentation coincides with the functions of the shadow. Jung classifies the shadow as part of the personal unconscious. The latter "contains lost memories, painful ideas that are repressed (i.e., forgotten on purpose)" (7: 66); in another work, Jung says, "the personal unconscious is the shadow and the inferior function" (14: 199). Lily intentionally forgets that she is poor and every time she encounters this painful idea, she recalls her mother’s warning and the memories of her mother’s attitude toward poverty and dinginess. "She knew that she hated dinginess as much as her mother had hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it, dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch" (23). To Lily, "as to her mother, acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity" (70). By the end of the novel, Lily faces her reality and realizes that "she could not count on her continuity of purpose, [the "definite purpose" (5) that she is wearing a mask for]…. Her danger lay, as she knew, in her old incurable dread of discomfort and poverty; in the fear of that mounting tide of dinginess against which her mother had so passionately warned her" (230-31). This emphasizes the strength of her identification with her mother and her persona.

     Lily verbalizes this fear and hatred when she is in the company of one of her friends who does not belong to the rich social circle that Lily associates with. In Selden’s apartment, near the beginning of the novel, when she acknowledges that she is poor, Lily tells Selden "‘How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self!’" Selden tells her that he knows "‘a girl who lives in a flat.’" Lily, in a distasteful and disgusted manner replies with a critical smile "‘you mean Gerty Farish.’" Then she describes Gerty’s apartment as "‘a horrid little place’" (8). She feels that "other girls [the poor ones] were plain and inferior from choice" (70). Lily has a sense of superiority over these poor girls. Lily sees them as associated with ugliness and poverty.

     Lily’s feeling toward them is presented as a double standard; she appears as their superior while in certain situations she finds her real self with them. Lily’s feeling of superiority toward the poor and her abhorrence of their lives are only reflections of her reality. Jung would diagnose Lily’s behavior as a projection. As a part of the shadow, "Projections," Jung says, "change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face" (9.II: 9).

     This means that whatever in the person and what (s)he does not feel and/or wish to present to the world is projected on to other people, especially those "of the same sex" (Sharp)4. This is clear in Lily’s projections throughout the novel; she projects her shadow on the female characters of the novel; she never projects it on Selden or any other male character. This projection comes out in Lily’s criticism of the life of other women whom she feels superior to. At Selden’s apartment she luxuriously leans back "into one of the shabby leather chairs" (8, emphasis mine), without complaint, and starts criticizing Gerty’s way of living. Lily says that Gerty has "no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know" (8).

     Later on, at her cousin Jack Stepney’s marriage to which Miss Gerty Farish is invited too, Lily’s views of the latter "wavered between pity for her limitations and impatience at her cheerful acceptance of them" (70). Lily then criticizes Gerty’s clothes and the way she dressed; she contemplates, musing that "it is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful" (71). Miss Gerty Farish is not the only object of Lily’ s shadow projection. In Chapter Eleven of Book One this projection is on Miss Grace Stepney, Lily’s cousin. We are told that Miss Stepney "had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose and red eyelids, who lived in a boarding-house" (96). This boarding house is the one in which Lily will spend the rest of her life.

     Such projections are "fostered by the conscious attitude" (Jung 13: 67) to strengthen the ego-persona identification, but these do not compensate for the repressed shadow, inasmuch as the shadow will never be annihilated. In this respect Jung says:

    despite the exclusive identity of the ego-consciousness with the persona the unconscious self, one’s real individuality, is always present and makes itself felt indirectly if not directly. Although the ego-consciousness is at first identical with the persona—that compromise role in which we parade before the community—yet the unconscious self can never be repressed to the point of extinction. (7: 158)

Edith Wharton characterizes the working of the shadow many times in the novel in the shape of Lily’s other self. At least four times in the novel, Wharton brings together Lily’s conscious and unconscious selves. This characterization comes gradually showing the working of the unconscious. Three times of the four, the author compares and contrasts the conscious and the unconscious. These three times occur in Book One while the fourth occurs in Book Two, where Edith Wharton finally shows the conflict between them.

     First, Lily’s two sides of the psyche are described as "exterior" and "inward" in Book One Chapter Five. Edith Wharton says, "Her intentions in short had never been more definite; but poor Lily, for all the hard glaze of her exterior, was inwardly as malleable as wax" (44). The use of the adjectives "hard" for describing the exterior and "malleable" for the interior emphasizes Lily’s strong persona that gained its strength from her early training and the willing adaptation. Nevertheless, her shadow is "malleable," with a readiness to be recognized and accepted by the consciousness.

     Second, this "malleable" self is activated as it starts to make its presence felt. But this is at an early stage of shaping its power; it is only trying to breathe. This image takes place in Chapter Six of Book One during Lily and Selden’s afternoon walk. As they sat down, Lily

    was throbbing inwardly with a rush of thoughts. There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive's gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight. (52)

In this chapter, Lily is close to freeing her repressed feelings and gaining access to "the republic of the spirit" (55). Lily is close to self-realization, but she is chained to the strong persona, and to the conscious "thinking about money…[and having] a great deal of it" (56). Therefore, Lily forces the other self to remain in the "little black prison-house of fears," fears of looking "hideous in dowdy clothes" (59). Selden’s "republic of the spirit" is Lily’s way to self-realization and the integration of her personality. Some critics look at the "republic of the spirit" as "Platonic ideals" (Dixon 214) and as "an alienated theory of society" (Shulman 15); however, the "keynote" of Selden’s "republic of the spirit," to use R. W. B. Lewis’ words, "is freedom" (155).

     The "personal freedom" (55) is the freedom from being constrained to one side of the personality. It is the balanced development of the self. Or as Selden puts it, "It is a country one has to find the way to one’s self" (55). To find one’s self is to give independence to the repressed sides of the personality, to "spend a good deal of your time in the element you disapprove of" (56). Thus, Jung points out that the freedom of the personality is only achieved by the acknowledgement of the repressed functions. It is only by acknowledging the repressed sides of the personality that "freedom is compromised, and without it the building up of a… free personality is equally impossible" (6: 77-78).

     Is Lily willing to achieve the freedom of her personality? Of course not. How can Lily achieve freedom while she knows that she is not free? At Selden’s apartment, as the novel opens, comparing herself with Gerty, Lily tells Selden: "But we're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. Besides, she is free and I am not. If I were, I daresay I could manage to be happy even in her flat" (8). Lily does not want to be free. She wants to be inside "the great gilt cage" (45). She wants to enjoy what Jung calls the ego’s "subjective feeling of freedom" (9.II: 5). This kind of freedom, which only the ego enjoys, will not last long. Jung continues,

    as our free will clashes with the necessity in the outside world, so the subjective inner world, where it comes into conflict with the facts of the self. And just as circumstances or outside events ‘happen’ to us and limit our freedom, so the self acts upon the ego like an objective occurrence which free will can do very little to alter. (9.II: 6)

This is what happens to Lily every time she feels that there are two selves within her.

     The third time Wharton compares and contrasts the conscious and the unconscious is after Mr. Trenor attempts to rape Lily; we are told that Mr. Trenor’s "touch was a shock to her drowning consciousness" (116, emphasis mine). As Lily gets into the cab, she moaned, "I can’t think—I can’t think." Then Lily "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" (117). Here the repressed parts of Lily’s personality make their presence felt inasmuch as the ego, since it is part of the self, becomes weaker every time the outside events limit its "subjective feeling of freedom."

     This other self is the shadow that she keeps in her unconscious. Instead of constellating her shadow and her persona, Lily escapes again into the past. She relies on the happy, carefree past, in which everything "seemed simple, natural, full of daylight--and she was alone in a place of darkness and pollution.--Alone! It was the loneliness that frightened her" (117). Lily is not used to being alone with her complete self; she is used to being the center of attention where she displays her power of beauty. The darkness that she is experiencing is her shadow. Jung points out that

    When we must deal with problems, we instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness. But to penetrate the darkness we must summon all the powers of enlightenment that consciousness can offer. (8: 389)

Lily’s consciousness can offer nothing but her beauty and her craving for luxury. As has been mentioned above, she was not trained, as Selden points out to her, to have her lungs "work in another air" (56). This is why she has to come face to face with darkness, her shadow, again for the fourth and the last time.

     The fourth time of the conscious and the unconscious comparison and contrasts is, as Lily fails in her work at Mme. Regina’s millinery shop and is dismissed; she realizes that she cannot "remake her life on new lines" (234). Lily feels that there "were the two antagonistic forces which fought out their battle in her breast during the long watches of the night; and when she rose the next morning she hardly knew where the victory lay" (235). It is the shadow’s fight; it is the shadow’s victory over the persona. Jung explains this type of fight and victory as: "Whenever contents of the collective unconscious become activated, they have a disturbing effect on the conscious mind, and confusion ensues" (8: 314-15). Lily, from this point until she falls asleep and dies, is totally a disturbed person: she "had lost sense of time" (253). She loses her power tool that she used to put to use to attract attention to her. As Lily "took refuge in a little restaurant in Fifty-ninth Street…. [where]…the room was full of women and girls….Her eyes sought the faces about her, craving a responsive glance, some sign of an intuition of her trouble. But the sallow preoccupied women…were all engrossed in their own affairs….Lily alone was stranded in a great waste of disoccupation" (235). This is what happens when the ego, or to use Jung words, "the conscious mind loses its power of leadership" (7: 161).

     Lily refuses this leadership. She finds herself "in a state of highly-wrought impressionability, and every hint of the past sent a lingering tremor along her nerves" (247). Nonetheless, after writing the check to repay Mr. Trenor, she comes "face to face with bare unmitigated poverty" (255). Lily hates poverty. Her mother warned her against poverty. Therefore, Lily keeps her persona as a shield against poverty. Lily feels that

    Her beauty itself was not the mere ephemeral possession it might have been in the hands of inexperience: her skill in enhancing it, the care she took of it, the use she made of it, seemed to give it a kind of permanence. She felt she could trust it to carry her through to the end. (41)

In addition to this realization, "there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years" (248), by "disintegrating influences" (248). These are the main causes of her situation now. Lily is in a "delirium" (250), a state of mind, which is, as Jung points out, a kind "of panic, a letting go in the face of apparently hopeless complications" (7: 162). This panic state, Jung further explains, is "preceded by desperate efforts to master the difficulty by force of will; then came the collapse, and the once guiding will crumbles completely" (7: 162). During the last minutes of her life, Lily is psychologically torn between the

    strength of the opposing impulses-she could feel the countless hands of habit dragging her back into some fresh compromise with fate. She felt an intense longing to prolong, to perpetuate, the momentary exaltation of her spirit. If only life could end now--end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world! (249)

Such a conflict between the conscious and the unconscious is not a minor matter. Inasmuch as the "unconscious contents break through into consciousness" (Jung 7: 162), it will bring the person to a temporary state of mental confusion and clouded consciousness. Lily "felt herself more strangely confronted with her fate. The sensation made her brain reel, and she tried to shut out consciousness by pressing her hands against her eyes. But the terrible silence and emptiness seemed to symbolize her future--she felt as though the house, the street, the world were all empty, and she alone left sentient in a lifeless universe" (250). This is the moment of the "collapse of the conscious attitude" that Jung clarifies (7: 163). Lily immediately reaches out for the drug and takes an overdose to escape the collapse, but, as Jung points out, "the collapse meant a catastrophe that destroyed life" (7: 163). In a delirious state of mind, Lily destroys her life. We see her corpse on the bed with a face that looks "like a delicate impalpable mask" (253, emphasis mine). The mask that Lily’s upbringing created, the mask that stands as a barrier between Lily and Selden. The mask impedes Lily’s achievement of self-realization in becoming one with her self.  


End Notes

1 All psychological terms, throughout the paper, will be in italics.

2 The following studies are based on psychological argument.

3 Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth: Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism, A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Elizabeth Ammons, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. All textual references will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

4 Under the definition of Projection, Sharp writes, "The projection of the personal shadow generally falls on persons of the same sex." Check http://www.psychceu.com/Jung/sharplexicon.html

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Ali H. Abureesh "Dr. C. G. Jung Visits The House of Mirth". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/h_abureesh-dr_c_g_jung_visits_the_house_of_mirth. July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 10, 2006, Published: August 1, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Ali H. Abureesh