11 July 2006

Maggie, Crane's girl of the streets, and Lily, of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, are very similar. Both are pretty young women with aggressive social agendas; the only significant difference is one of class. Maggie, we know, is from the slums. She is a pretty girl with a rotten home, and wants something better. Consequently, she takes up with Pete, who shows her a glitzy time, then takes advantage of her innocence and abandons her. She dies not long thereafter, having been unable to reconcile with her mother and return to the only home she knows.

Lily, likewise, wants something better. Lily is a pretty girl from the upper middle class, and she wants something better. Her intention is to use her looks to make a rich match; she uses them to join a group she can't afford to play with, and ends up in debt. Rather than sacrifice her virtue to pay the debt, she quits that crowd--but too late. Because of the debt, she is all but disinherited. She goes to work, as Maggie had done, in a sewing shop, and dies a short time later, immediately after writing the check to pay her debt.

That the only real difference between these girls is class should be obvious, as should the fact that all other differences spring from the difference in status. Even the fall of the heroine reflects this distinction. While Maggie pays for her good times with her body, Lily has another choice: $10,000. Since she always has the prospect of that much from the estate that was originally to be hers entirely, she is not compelled to do anything but pay her bill and not run up more debt. This can be done by leaving the expensive set and returning to a dull life, which she does. Maggie, on the other hand, was only grasping toward a dull life, and had nothing but her back to fall back on.

So the similarities are simple, and the difference is complex: the difference is one of circumstance. The characters are otherwise virtually identical. Perhaps Zola would see this as an example of the novel as experiment: what happens if a girl like Maggie and Lily goes on a date with William Kennedy Smith? What if she comes from the Vanderbilt family, and wants to see the captain of the football team: A character can be placed into many different settings; the author's choice of circumstances for the character then determines the story's outcome. At least, that's how it seems to work in naturalism.


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