An Overview: Donald Pizer’s “The Naturalism of The House of Mirth”

In “The Naturalism of The House of Mirth,” Donald Pizer argues that while “[i]n recent years” critics “often endorse” that “The House of Mirth can be best be read as a form of Naturalistic fiction” (241), there are some critical points “absent from almost all of this reexamination of The House of Mirth” (242). These are:

• “An effort to reconcile Lily Bart as naturalistic victim of her world” (242)
• And, “Wharton’s bold concerted attempt, at the close of her work to modify, an interpretation of this kind” (242)

Pizer further asserts, “The rediscovery of Wharton as a naturalist…has also led…to the redeployment of the critical assumption that American naturalism…is an unqualified representation of social determinism in action” (242). He challenges this assumption. To do so, Pizer first examines several examples of where Wharton uses social determinism within the text; he then argues that “[t]oward the end of the novel…Wharton juxtaposes this conscious deterministic theme of victimization by one’s familial social environment…with two striking alternative forms of belief and value” (242):

• Nettie’s “triumph” over the circumstances she is born to—representing “victim to victory” (244)

o Nettie’s “powerful will” in combination with “providential actuality of a man willing to take a chance on her” (244)

• Lily’s death

o Though Lily dies, when she goes to bed, “something live[s] between” her and Seldon, “like an imperishable flame…it was the love his love had kindled” (245)
o Lily dies imagining she is holding Nettie’s child (245)
o Seldon at Lily’s bedside, “it was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction (246)

Pizer asserts that these examples are textual evidence that Wharton is doing something not commonly done among the naturalists; Wharton’s The House of Mirth (Pizer also refers to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) concludes, “Life seemingly defeats the human effort to believe in a spiritual force in life, but in fact that belief transcends defeat both in its functional force during life and in its permanence despite the transience of life” (246).

• “The naturalism of The House of Mirth is therefore different from and similar to Wharton’s Principal naturalist contemporaries” (246-247)
• “Wharton was…not committed to a doctrinaire or prescriptive notion of determinism” (247). “She…is adding to this premise [human life is…conditioned]…men and women also gain strength and derive meaning from their desires, hopes, and faiths” (247)

Pizer’s argument is well laid out. He carefully follows each point of he makes with strong textual evidence and frames that evidence within the context Wharton wrote the novel in.
Question: Can you think of other examples from the naturalist works we have read that conclude belief “transcends defeat in life and in its permanence despite the transience”?


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