Oh Lily. Lily, Lily, Lily.
Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth might well be one of the most perplexing characters ever written. Is she a victim of circumstance and the hypocrisy of New York society at the turn of the twentieth century, or is she the willful agent of her own destruction? Is it true that
No one could hurt her as much as she was hurting herself
She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate
I’m still not sure I know.
Lily is a socially well connected, intelligent and beautiful young woman of limited means and her acceptance into and love for high society is her downfall. Raised to expect a life of wealth and ease, she imagines such an existence to be her right, even if the numbers don’t quite add up, and she looks down on anyone who leads a life outside of this rarified circle. To live as she would like, she must make a secure marriage and, in the end, it is her failure to accept this compromise that plays a heavy hand in sealing her fate.
The House of Mirth is a novel driven by ambiguities and missed chances. On one hand, Lily is a spoiled beauty with a sense of entitlement and on the other she craves love and companionship and although manipulative, cannot commit downright cruelty. Her circumstances fade in incremental stages, through both her own fault and through no fault of her own. She fails to snare her first potential husband Percy Gryce on the whim of spending the day with Lawrence Selden. Although she loves Selden, she feels she cannot marry him as he is not as wealthy as she would like and she passes on brash newcomer Sim Rosedale out of sheer distaste. She eventually regrets all these decisions and attempts to win back the situation fail. All the while she runs up gambling debts she can’t hope to pay.
Lily has her failings then, but she is also failed by those she considered friends. A financial investment turns out to be no more that a loan she can’t hope to pay back. She is the sacrificial lamb in a sordid love triangle, taking the blame for others misbehaviour and having her reputation tarnished, before losing the inheritance that could have saved her.
Wharton doesn’t spare any punches as she chronicles Lily’s fall from grace, contrasting her psychological insights with the external effects of her failures. It seems to me that Wharton sees Lily’s fatal flaw as being the fact that she knows herself too well. She is so aware of the fact that she must in some ways chose love or money, yet when she decides to chose money, at the last moment, her heart and her sense of right stop her from sealing her future security. She has the opportunity to destroy and enemy and redeem herself, but can’t bring herself to do it. The other characters in the book operate casually within the rules of their sex and class but Lily can neither accept these conventions nor fully shake them off. She hopes to exist in the space in between and as she cruelly learns, there is no place for her there.
Lily is an actor to all, giving them what they need from her at the time but never fully giving of herself. She asks herself,
Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artiface?
When it comes down to it then, Lily’s entire world is artifice, a house of cards that is quick to tumble and Wharton shows us exactly how women like Lily could be punished by the upper reaches of society, for having ideas above their station and for not knowing their place. For me this was less a tragic love story, although bad timing does play a horrible part in Lily’s fate, and more a tale of social exclusion and the savagery that can exist under the surface of the well bred and the wealthy. It has obviously dated, but Wharton is such a compelling story teller and has created such a compelling character that it remains an emotional and surprisingly thrilling read.
I know there are a lot of House of Mirth fans out there so I’d love to hear all your opinions on Lily Bart, who is one of the most intriguing literary characters I have come across in a long time.
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