Elizabeth Byers Gaubert


Winner, 2011 Seaton Award

The charming yet complex Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth illustrates the destructive effects of a society that isolates the individual and places value in the power of money and social position. This alienation paired with Lily Bart’s self-defeating choices lead to Lily’s failure to survive.

Lily is a woman, but she is also child whose mother has left a legacy where Lily believes all of her self-worth is tied to her beauty and her ability to manipulate a financially and socially successful marriage. While Lily might find acceptance and compassion in the company of women, instead she finds herself exposed to the loneliness inherent in a society that lacks feeling or understanding of an individual’s situation.

Lily’s isolation extends to the only man whom she might trust and love. Lawrence Selden’s hesitance to risk an emotional connection with Lily drives her further into the solitude she detests and increases the confusion of her own mind and thoughts. Left alone and unable to control her willful impulses, Lily Bart becomes the master of her own demise when her internal conflict succeeds in dividing and separating her from being able to feel any sense of self-worth. As a creation of a self-serving social system and its inconsistent values, Lily feels powerless when she finds herself alone and trapped by its boundaries.

Lily Bart’s childhood established a pattern of luxury and privilege that was considered to be a right of old moneyed New York society. Mrs. Bart taught Lily that her greatest strength, her beauty, could be used in securing an advantageous marriage. Now alone, Lily often succumbs to frivolous and indulgent ways that distract her from her goal:

Ah, lucky girls who grow up in the shelter of a mother’s love, a mother who knows how to contrive opportunities without conceding favours, how to take advantage of propinquity without allowing appetite to be dulled by habit…it takes a mother’s unerring vigilance and foresight to land her daughter safely in the arms of wealth and suitability. (Wharton 95)

Lily’s mother was also an important figure in her life because of her lack of compassion or ability to form primary emotional bonds. The irony of this training is illustrated when Lily most needs comfort and human compassion to help guide her. Lily is unable to let go of the prejudices that would allow her to be saved. Of her dying father our narrator illustrates this lack of connection:

The filial instinct might have stirred in her: but her pity, finding no active expression, remained in a state of spectatorship, overshadowed by her mother’s grim, unflagging resentment. Every look and act of Mrs. Bart’s seemed to say: “You are sorry for him now-but you will feel differently when you see what he has done to us”. (Wharton 33)

While Mrs. Bart felt only bitterness, because Mr. Bart could not provide financially and therefore is of no use to her, Lily feels the beginning of a tug of war within herself. Her sympathy for her father’s suffering is in direct conflict with her mother’s ideals of preserving one’s social status at all costs. While Mrs. Bart’s wish was that Lily would use her beauty and charms to secure a position of status and comfort in the upper echelon of society, she neglected to help build the foundation of Lily’s self-worth to see her through the challenges of a material existence. “She [Lily] had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others” ( Wharton 339). Lily believes that she has no choice but to try to rise in and attain a place in the society she covets, but her alienation from this world and her conflicted inner-self have guaranteed that she cannot be a part of it.

Although Lily is surrounded by women of power and opinion, the friendship they extend to her comes with the condition of her appropriate behavior. Her Aunt Peniston, who has takes Lily in and helps financially support her, has no interest in emotionally supporting Lily: “Lily had no heart to lean on. Her relation to her aunt was as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs. . . . What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude but compassion holding its breath” (156). Aunt Peniston, unable to comprehend Lily’s extravagant, seemingly immoral existence, abandons Lily to her own fate when, upon her death, Aunt Peniston secures the payment of Lily’s current debts but otherwise writes her out of her will.

Judy Trenor, who appears to have genuine concern for Lily’s future, only understands the superficial dilemmas of Lily’s life. The nature of Lily’s desperation at facing poverty and Lily’s questioning of sacrificing her self-respect and happiness to marry are outside the realm of Judy’s understanding. Lily understands the duality of friendship in this society when she tells Selden, “My best friends-well, they use me or abuse me; but they don’t care a straw what happens to me” (7). Ironically, Lily does not see the contradiction of the one genuine friend who offers her counsel and a deeper understanding,

Gerty Farish is, in Lily’s view, unworthy of consideration. Lily’s prejudice to valuing only the power set means that she can’t commit to sharing something of herself with Gerty. Gerty must ascertain for herself what Lily is struggling against and plead with Selden,

“[b]ut now all the things she cared for have been taken from her, and the people who taught her to care for them have abandoned her too; and it seems to me that if some one could reach out a hand and show her the other side, show her how much is left in life and in herself”(286).

In the last days of her life, Lily experiences with Nettie Struther a profound “sense of human fellowship [that] took the mortal chill from her heart” (336). Lily’s moments with Nettie and her baby  temporarily leave Lily feeling satisfied and happy at having seen a family of modest means who shares love and contentment. Nettie’s sincerity and gratitude to Lily and her courage to start her life over after devastating circumstances have given Lily a sense of satisfaction and momentary possibility that Lily is capable of compassion and making a difference in someone’s life. Unfortunately, the reality of the encounter is jaded by the fact that Nettie views Lily as a celebrity, thus precluding her from Nettie’s world as well. Nettie does not understand the false illusion of Lily’s life and the mental and physical cost of such a lifestyle.

When Lawrence Selden first glimpses Lily at the train station in the beginning of the novel, he seems to contemplate as well as unconsciously understand the nature of Lily Bart. He speculates:

She must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly  people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external, as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness has been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine but that circumstances had fashioned it into a futile shape? (Wharton 4).

Selden appears to be the one man in Lily’s life who can grasp the cost of the game Lily is forced to play and offer her another alternative. His ideas of individualism are destructive, though, in the world in which Lily and Selden reside because they must be subservient to the values of the society they live in to fit in. Lily has seen firsthand the ugliness of her world and has been reticent to marry and construct a life as empty as her parents’ relationship. Selden’s “republic of the spirit” (70) is an answer for Lily of how she might make her own choices and obtain her own freedom. Though Lily asks for Selden’s friendship and even protects and risks her own downfall to save his reputation, Selden is never able to return a connection in a meaningful way. He is filled with doubt and judgment about her actions and is not willing to put any trust in her in which she might prove her true self.

The irony of their relationship is that while their unspoken romance provides some glimmer of hope that things could be different, this too is an illusion. Neither Lily nor Selden are willing to put themselves outside the security of their social existence. For Lily this means until the very end manipulating an opportunity for marriage and for Selden living off a social system that allows him to enjoy the privileges of membership but the aloofness of spectatorship. They are both doomed to suffer the consequences of a self-serving society that creates self-serving individuals.

Lily’s isolation is never more deeply felt than when she is alone with her own thoughts. She is a woman who cannot exist alone, because her sole purpose is to provide others a mirror for beauty and amusement. Lily feels trapped and confused when she is forced into moments of solitary reflection. “She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky; she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her” (63). Lily has been so conditioned to this existence that even she “could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume” (104). Lily is a conflicted character, she longs to acquire and

compete and readily “sells” herself as the decoration for a world that she will never be a part of, yet she is often divided and frustrated by the temptations that she faces and feels disgusted and overwhelmed by her own decisions.

Although Lily effectively wipes clean the slate of her life by settling her debts and freeing herself from any further obligations to the society that has damaged her, Lily’s death means that it will never be revealed whether she was capable of saving herself. Lily has come to understand, though, what it means to be a survivor, especially when she thinks of Nettie Struther:

The poor little working girl who had found the strength to gather up the fragments of her life and build herself a shelter with them seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence . . . but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff–a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss. (Wharton 339)

Ultimately, Lily meets her death alone. She held out hope for a false illusion of a life of ease and material comfort and has had to suffer the consequences inevitable when a classed society places more value in material possessions than in human beings.