Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keeping a Free Foot

While reading The House of Mirth, I was drawn to the relationship between married couples vs. the interactions of the young and single.  We had a class discussion about married women being able to flirt, but the single ladies having to be reserved and stick to a certain code.  I was thrown off guard by this apparent power imbalance between romantic couples during this time period.

We talked recently in my Child Development class about power struggles in relationships.  In most relationships you will have throughout your life, there's going to be someone with more power and someone with less power.  The healthier the relationship, the less dramatic the imbalance and less power discrepancy between the two groups.   I found one passage in particular that really threw me off, when reading for this kind of interaction.

When Lily goes to the station to pick up Mr. Trenor, they drive back home and have a conversation about why Mrs. Trenor would have sent Lily.  She argues that she's the "safest person" for him to be with, and to this he replies, "It's because you wouldn't waste your time on an old hulk like me.  We married men have to put up with what we can get; all the prizes are for the clever chaps who've kept a free foot."

I'm trying to determine where the power lies in married couples.  Is it in the male, who has acquired the beautiful piece of feminine art and may now show her off to his society?  This passage made me question this belief and wonder about the power of the female in a married position.  Not only may she flirt with other men now, as we mentioned in class, but Mr. Trenor references the Mrs. as a sort of "ball and chain" by pointing out his lack of a "free foot".  She has a power over him, and I think that power is drawn from keeping him from occupying the art-collector role of the younger, single men in society.  In the idle rich lifestyle, this pleasure in the female form is one of the only pastimes, and it drives much of their interaction-- gossip, dinner parties, tableaus.  But what good is a husband, who has already acquired his essential piece of art?  And now his wife has access to his funds and is able to throw the elaborate dinner parties, plan travels abroad, and exert control over their husbands.

I believe this ties closely in to how and why Lily operates the way she does.  She wants that power, that freedom afforded by a wealthy marriage, but is not willing to play by the rules and constraints of being a proper, single lady.  I guess that's what makes Lily an especially compelling character to me, that she should life her life in such a binary of having the power to be manipulative and successful on her own, yet tries to fit herself into the box of matrimony that society has prescribed for her.

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