When Edith Wharton tells us that "it was the background that she [Lily] required," we understand that both Emma Bovary and Lily have a very important thing in common. They are first of all women in the nineteenth century society, fettered by social conventions to fulfill any kind of aspirations or ideals. A woman, as it is clearly stated in both novels, had no other means of being having a place in society than by acquiring respectability and money through a good marriage. To marry was the only vocation of a woman, as Wharton tells us.
Of course, there interferes a great difference between the two heroines here, because Madame Bovary, as her very title proves it, is already a married woman, while Lily in Wharton's book is in constant pursue of a redeeming marriage. But, essentially the frustration of the two heroines is the same, as Emma is as unhappy with her marriage to a modest and dull country doctor as Lily would have been had she made such a marriage. Both women were forced into this: Emma in her marriage, and Lily in desperately pursuing one.
The subject of marriage is what best defines the place of a woman in nineteenth century society. For both Emma and Lily the marriage is not merely a matter of attaining material stability or climbing the social ladder. What both of them actually need is a man's name since they can not have any freedom and any status or identity inside the society without it.
This is obvious in Madame Bovary's case and in the fact that the novel is significantly entitled this way, making use of the husband's name, and not merely "Emma," for instance:
Ah! you see," replied he in a melancholy voice, "that I was right not to come back; for this name, this name that fills my whole soul, and that escaped me, you forbid me to use! Madame Bovary! why all the world calls you thus! Besides, it is not your name; it is the name of another!" (Flaubert, 163)
Rodolphe's statement that "Madame Bovary" is a man's name fits very well within the typical dialogue that takes place between them as a result of his breaking social conventions of familiarity when calling her by her first name, Emma. It is in this issue regarding the names, where we see the way social conventions worked at that time. While keeping at distance familiarity, by not using the first name of a person during a conversation, society also kept at a distance the true identity of a certain individual, and this was even more so in the case of the women.
As we can see, in both novels, society places a great number of constraints on the two heroines, and the examples are very many in the case of Lily also. Even at the beginning of the first chapter of The House of Mirth we find Lily pressed by doubts and fears with regard to the seemingly innocent fact that she indulged in a nonconformist act: going by herself to her Lawrence Seldon's apartment and having tea with him. Thus, when upon going out of the latter's house, she meets on of her rich suitors, but whom she had rebuffed, she feels constrained to tell him a lie, which he subtly exposes on the spot. Even her encounter with the char woman on the stairs of Seldon's house is relevant, since Lily's fears regarding her will be later confirmed in the novel, when the woman forces her to buy some love letters from Bertha Dorset to Lawrence.
In every detail of the social life presented to us in Wharton's book we can sense the immense and incessant pressure that society was constantly putting on the personal life. The novel is full of the intrigues and gossip that constantly travel among the social circles and which affect the lives of all characters, not only that of Lily.
For example, Simon Rosedale refuses to marry Lily when she had finally decided upon it, being in desperate situation. The reason for his refusal is the fact that she had accumulated too much of the social disapproval, and too much gossip was associated with her name.
Nevertheless, he tells her that he will marry her, if only she would use the letters written by Bertha that she had bought, to clear her name in front of the others. It is plain to see, thus, the power that society had over the individual. In front of society, there was no defense for the individual.
Still, we do see that Wharton's novel places an emphasis on the fact that it was still worse to be a woman in this society. This is shown in the contrast between Lily's life and that of Seldon. The latter has far more freedom as a man, to live both in society and outside it. He has an Emersonian, transcendentalist view of life, but at the same time he shares some of the taste for luxury and society that Lily has:
Selden calls upon Lily to be a nonconformist. He argues that society (theirs in particular, in all its wealth) is in conspiracy against their selfhood. Society "distorts all the relationships of life," Selden -- in Emersonian voice -- proclaims to Lily; and in conforming to it, "so much of human nature is used up in the process" (70). Selden believes Emerson's proclamation (in "Spiritual Laws") that "What your heart thinks great, is great. The soul's emphasis is always right" (Essays: First Ser. 158); and in his conversation with Lily, he appropriates the mantle and majesty of Emerson's "The Transcendentalist." (Cahir, 99)
The conversations between Lily and Seldon are clearly in the Emersonian vein, blaming society for the chains that it lays on the true spirit and the true nature of man. But although this may be the truth about society, it is also true that the lessons on transcendentalism that Seldon showers upon Lily can not be of much use to her. He can afford to take up solitude rather than society, or to make a permanent swing between the two, but Lily, as a woman can not. He, as a man can work and support himself, although he is not rich. Seldon is a lawyer and has an apartment where he can arrange the furniture in however he wants to, as Lily observes:
daresay I could manage to be happy even in her flat. It must be pure bliss to arrange the furniture just as one likes, and give all the horrors to the ash-man. If I could only do over my aunt's drawing-room I know I should be a better woman." (Wharton, 6)
In her genuine and apparently so modest aspiration to be able to have the freedom to arrange the objects around her in the way she pleases, we see the full impact of social constraint. It is both a material constraint and a spiritual one, as the woman is not free even to use her imagination if she is not given the means to. Also, significantly, Rosedale is appalled when he sees Lily towards the end of the novel, being forced to work, which was one of the most degrading things in society, again, especially for a woman, who was confined to do the so-called base work, like sewing.
It is the same with Emma Bovary as with Lily, and thus we can understand what the common desires between the two to have a "background" of luxury. They are both beautiful women, almost strikingly beautiful, and what they need to fulfill is their secret aspiration for beauty, for the ornamental, which would be the only thing that would suit their own beauty.
It is true that both Emma's and Lily's aspirations seem material at first sight, since they both want to be surrounded by fairytale-like luxury. But they are actual two beautiful women in search for other instances of beauty, or for the right context in which their beauty would be displayed.
Both novels thus are very liable to a feminist reading, since their heroines are equally oppressed by the cruelty of the society they move in. In Emma Bovary's case, her desire to have a son, which does not materialize eventually, is very telling:
She hoped for a son; he would be strong and dark; she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an expected revenge for all her impotence in the past. A man, at least, is free; he may travel over passions and over countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most far-away pleasures. But a woman is always hampered. At once inert and flexible, she has against her the weakness of the flesh and legal dependence. Her will, like the veil of her bonnet, held by a string, flutters in every wind; there is always some desire that draws her, some conventionality that restrains. "(Flaubert,…