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					Forces vs. Choices: Lily Bart‟s Culpability in The House of Mirth



                          Elizabeth Macy
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       The lives of the exceedingly wealthy are often lavish and privileged. When people are

sufficiently affluent, they have no need to work and can fill their time with leisurely,

inconsequential activities. Money is of no object to them, and they can spend their wealth

without thought. This opulent lifestyle is often envied by the lower classes that do not have the

luxury of unlimited time and money. Lily Bart is a character who is by no means a member of

the lower class, but she strives to reach the social level of the members of the highest class. She

is a beautiful, “restless flower of New York high society” (Killoran 25) who is affected by the

social values that surround her. She is “inwardly as malleable as wax” (Wharton 42) and her

decisions are shaped by the pressures that govern the lives of the wealthy. Unfortunately, Lily

loses her money and must try to win it back by marrying a rich man. However, she is

unsuccessful in finding a husband because her conflicting desires cause her to ruin all her

chances to marry. She then declines in social status, becomes very lonely and unhappy, and

tragically kills herself. Lilly transforms throughout the novels and “begins as indeed a foolish,

superficial heroine,” but after the loss of her social statues and any chances for wealth, “must

move, through pain, humiliation, and rejection to a kind of bitter wisdom by the end of the

novel” (Wershoven 44).When Lily “can‟t go on much longer” and is “nearly at the end of [her]

tether” (Wharton 216), she finally learns the important values in life and takes action to improve

her mistakes. Lily Bart‟s tragic end is a result of her own irresponsibility and inconsistencies,

but through distancing herself from the forces that have corrupted her, Lily gains a clearer

understanding of herself and the world. Wharton uses this epiphany as devastating social

criticism to reveal the corruption of high society and to warn people of its debasing values.

       For Lily, the possession of money is her most ardent desire. She knows that with money

comes social power, a lavish lifestyle, and happiness (or so she believes). She was raised in a
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household that spent exorbitant amounts of money without any thought of the consequences. As

a result, Lily comes to understand that her family‟s opulent lifestyle is the standard, and she

learns “very little of the value of money” (Wharton 24). Lily‟s is never exposed to any example

of frugality until she is nineteen when her family goes bankrupt. For instance, she wants to

spend twelve dollars per day on flowers and does not see why this is unacceptable until her

father explains that they are financially ruined. However, Lily does not learn much from this

incident and continues later in life to spend money she does not have.

       As an adult, the people Lily consorts with have a similar view of money as the Barts

before they went broke; the members of high society spend excessive amounts of money without

any thought. To the members of Lily‟s social group, money is the most important thing in life.

Money gives them the high social status they enjoy, and it allows them to live very expensively

without having to worry about finances. As stated by Diana Trilling, “The House of Mirth is

always and passionately a money story. Money rules where God, love, charity, or even force of

character or distinction of personality might once have ruled” (Wershoven 55). People are only

as good as what they are worth in dollars, and the more money a person has, the more important

he or she is. Unfortunately for Lily, she does not possess the great wealth that the other people

in her social group do, but she desperately wants to fit in with them. In order to be accepted by

the members of high society, she must participate in activities that she cannot afford. For

instance, she plays bridge with them even though she does not have the money to support it

because the game is “one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality” (Wharton

20). The other women like Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor can afford to lose large amounts of

money in a single game because they have rich husbands who pay for them, but Lily cannot

because she is unwed. In this wealthy and powerful social group, “one of the conditions of
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citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is

to have a great deal of it” (Wharton 55). Lily must spend lavishly and act like she does not think

about money in order to appear that she has a great deal of it, even though she does not. She

feels great pressure from her peers to spend freely because she must show little regard for money

in order to be one of them.

       Lily knows that she “can‟t afford any of the things [her] friends do” (Wharton 66), but

she buys them anyway out of her need to feel accepted by the rich. She cannot associate with

members of the high class without behaving as if she has money, so she pays a high cost to be a

member of the upper class. Lily understands that living with the rich is a “privilege we have to

pay for” (Wharton 216) and that she cannot survive long in the upper class world without wealth.

The realm of the upper class is “a world in which money is the only standard by which all other

virtues and values are judged” (Wershoven 43) so without money, Lily has no value or

substance. Money does not only make people wealthy and able to afford expensive things, it

also gives them a high social status and the ability to affect the social fate of people around them.

Lily is very aware of the social and political power that money gives, and she knows that “money

stands for all kinds of things- its purchasing quality isn‟t limited to diamonds and motor cars”

(Wharton 55). Because Lily does not have as much money as her friends, she therefore does not

carry as much social weight and does not have the same power or influence over her friends as

her friends have over her. She feels that “it is not always easy to be quite independent and self-

respecting when one is poor and lives among rich people” (Wharton 145), so part of her

motivation to gain more wealth is to increase her social statues and to gain influence over her

peers. At least, Lily wants to escape from the social power her peers have over her. The
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pressure to gain money for Lily is extremely strong because the acquisition of money affects not

only her finances, but her social status and independence as well.

       In addition to desiring money, from an early age Lily is taught to take great pride in her

appearance and to highly value her beauty. She learned that her beauty, if cultivated and used

effectively, could be very powerful. Mrs. Bart is the first and primary influence on Lily in regard

to the value of appearance, and she is “a mother who…transforms her daughter into and artistic

commodity” (Fedorko 32). After Lily‟s family loses their money, Mrs. Bart is determined to use

Lily‟s beauty to gain back their lost wealth, and she tells her daughter that she will “get it all

back-you‟ll get it all back with your face” (Wharton 22). Because Lily is “matchless” (Wharton

174) in her beauty, society deems her fit to marry a rich man. Mrs. Bart plans for her daughter to

marry a very wealthy man so that Lily can be rich again, and in order to do this, she breeds Lily

“to be a beautiful object, worthy of purchase in the social system of exchange, scheming to sell

herself to the highest bidder (Fedorko 32). For Lily, her beauty is as good as money and social

power; her looks will allow her to marry a wealthy man which means that she will have money

and high social rank. Her beauty becomes a kind of currency with which she can “buy” a rich

husband. Because she is exceptionally beautiful, she has the “purchasing power” to afford a

richer husband than a more plain-looking girl.

       To Lily‟s mother, her daughter‟s beauty is not only “a tool to gain social acceptance and

the financial security that an approved and wealthy marriage will bring” (Wershoven 43), but it

also becomes an obsession. The Barts are in “perpetual need” (Wharton 23) of money, so Mrs.

Bart becomes desperate to win back their wealth with Lily‟s beauty. In financially trying times,

for Lily‟s mother “only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily‟s

beauty”. She studies it “with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly
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fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which

their life was to be rebuilt” (Wharton 26). Lily is constantly exposed to her mother‟s zealous

reaction to her beauty, and this causes Lily to treasure her beauty as well. While Lily‟s beauty

gives her mother hope that her daughter can “fight her way out of [poverty] somehow” (Wharton

28), she fails to realize the detrimental effects her obsession has on Lily; Lily too becomes

obsessed with beauty and cannot not live without it. She loves not only her own beauty, but she

craves beauty all around her, and it is for this reason that she wants to be a member of high

society. People of high class can afford to surround themselves with beautiful houses, beautiful

clothing, and beautiful material possessions. Whereas “a dull face invited a dull fate” (Wharton

132), a beautiful face would allow Lily to associate with people who want to surround

themselves with beautiful things. Lily constantly seeks to be a part of the high-class social group

because being around wealthy people “gratifies her sense of beauty and her craving for the

external finish of life” (Wharton 19). She feels that she “was not made for mean and shabby

surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in the

atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could be in”

(Wharton 19). Lily is unable to function outside wealthy and beautiful surroundings as a result

of the teachings of her mother, and this becomes a terrible problem for her when she can no

longer afford to live with the members of high society.

       Lily plans her whole life relying on her beauty to win her a rich husband because

marriage is the only option for women of Lily‟s desired social status. Getting married is the only

way for a woman to gain wealth and value in society‟s eyes because women “are encouraged not

to be independent and are prohibited from having careers” (Peel 252). Women of a high class

will not be socially accepted if they try to earn their own money, and therefore must be
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financially reliant on men. Lily is very aware of her fate to become a wife, and “she knows that

her literal survival depends upon marriage to any man who can provide the appropriate money

and family status” (Killoran 25). While unwed, Lily does not have a sufficient or stable source

of income and she eagerly anticipates the day when she finds a husband because she feels that

once she is married, she will be able to “arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that

empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate” (Wharton 39). Wifehood offers women

financial freedom and social stability, but since marriage is the only way to obtain security in

life, they (including Lily) desperately seek marriageable men.

       In order to attract a satisfactory husband, women must make themselves appealing to men

according to what their patriarchal society considers attractive. Men want women who will

make good wives and who will advertise their social status, and Lily tries to “live her life based

on the patriarchal means of being female” (Fedorko 32). For instance, Lily tries to appear

“gently domestic” by gracefully handling the tea on the train because she wants Percy Gryce to

view her as a potential wife (Wharton 14). Even though Lily finds Gryce to be a bore, she is

interested in him as a husband because he can support her financially. She is prepared to “submit

to more boredom” and be “ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities” (Wharton 19) in

order to win him over. Because Lily especially needs to find a husband to win back her lost

fortune as her mother taught her, Lily earns “the reputation of being on the hunt for a rich

husband” (Wharton 36). She must “calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if [she]

were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw [her] hopelessly out of

time” (Wharton 38) in order to win a husband with sufficient funds and rank. However, she does

not like having to put her femininity on display and does not want to be confined to patriarchal

views; she laments that a women‟s forced role of wifehood is a “hateful fate” (Wharton 19) and
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regrets that “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself” (Wharton 8). They are

“expected to be pretty and well-dressed till [they] drop” (8) so that men will find them attractive

and want to marry them, which Lily feels is unfair. She is very aware of the sexism and the

power of men in her society; she declares “what a miserable thing it is to be a woman” (Wharton

4) who cannot be independent and live on her own in her own flat. Lily values independence,

but she can never attain it in her society. She knows that a woman‟s only role in society is to get

married and states that “a girl must [get married], a man may if he chooses” (Wharton 8).

Although Lily hates the sexism in her society, she feels immense pressure to conform to it

because “everyone at Bellomont, male and female, accepts the premise of male authority and

female submission” (Goodman 54). If Lily tried to renounce the social convention of female

dependence on men, she would be rejected from the society that she so desperately wants to

belong to. She cannot survive as a member of the upper class without conforming to their social

rules.

         Lily has been trained to desire wealth and to marry for his money; she has been perfectly

fashioned for a life of wealth and status, yet this fate never transpires for her. Despite the lessons

to value a frivolous lifestyle, Lily has some innate desires that conflict with what she has learned.

She knows she is obsessed with money and social status; she explicitly states, “I want

admiration, I want excitement, I want money-yes, money!” but she also admits, “That‟s my

shame” (Wharton 135). She is also aware that she is trapped into marrying a wealthy man if she

wants to live lavishly, but she “would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely

rich: she was secretly ashamed of her mother‟s crude passion for money” (Wharton 27).

Although Lily appears to have inherited at least some of her mother‟s passion for wealth, unlike

her mother, Lily is ashamed to put such strong emphasis on material desires and knows that her
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true values should be less superficial. Also, Lily holds her “friends” who idolize money in

contempt; she calls them “dreary and trivial” and thinks they are “merely dull in a loud way”

(Wharton 44). Lily acts as though she is a member of high society who is willing to marry for

wealth, but she actually has “contempt for the prize she had been trained to work for”

(Wershoven 44). Because she has more substantial desires like love and respect, Lily sabotages

any chances she has to marry a rich man.

       Many wealthy men want to marry Lily so “she might have married more than once- the

conventional rich marriage which she had been taught to consider the sole end of existence, but

when the opportunity came she always shrunk from it” (Wharton 126). By nature, Lily wants to

be valued as a person and wants to marry a person she loves, and “at heart, she despises the

things she is trying for” (Wharton 152). As Lily‟s friend Carry Fisher says, Lily “works like a

slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but on the day she out to be reaping the harvest

she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic” (Wharton 152). Because Lily feels so much

pressure to marry for money she works hard to do so, but then she constantly “jeopardizes her

social standing and chances for marriage” (Wershoven 43) due to the fact that she does not love

any of the wealthy men. Lily‟s personality and innate desire to be valued as a person conflicts

with the materialistic values she has been taught, and this makes it impossible for her to whole-

heartedly pursue a wealthy marriage. Lily wants to marry a man she loves and not merely one

who can pay her way through life.

       If Lily truly wanted to marry a wealthy man who could fulfill her desire for money,

Simon Rosedale would be the ideal candidate. He is extremely wealthy and is in search of a

beautiful wife who can showcase his wealth. Rosedale has accepted the social standard of

marriage as a business transaction to gain more money or wealth, and he says he‟s “got the
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money…and what I want is the woman- and I mean to have her too” (Wharton 143). He has all

the money he wants, and now he needs a woman to show people how much money he has in

order to raise his already elevated social status. To Rosedale, “money doesn‟t seem to be of any

account unless [he] can spend it on the right woman” (Wharton 143). He wants a woman who

will “hold her head higher the more diamonds [he] put[s] on it” and who will “make all the other

women feel small” (Wharton 143). A wife is a status symbol for rich men like Rosedale, and a

wife‟s role is to let society know how wealthy her husband is which would increase his (and by

association, her) social status. Elevated social status would inevitably bring more wealth, and

Rosedale knows that “to be seen walking down the platform [at the train station] at the crowded

afternoon hour in the company of Miss Lily Bart would have been money in his pocket”

(Wharton 11). Rosedale would appear to be the ideal husband for the wealth-hungry Lily, yet

she rejects his proposal of marriage.

       Lily is fully aware of the money and financial freedom a marriage to Rosedale would

bring, yet she turns him away because she does not love him. Rosedale is overly friendly with

people he is merely acquainted with, and he is a “man who made it his business to everything

about everyone” (Wharton 11). He constantly scrutinizes people and has the “air of appraising

people as if they were bric-a-brac” (Wharton 10). Rosedale is “perceived as vulgar and

materialistic” (Bauer 119), and Lily does not like his nosy, judgmental personality; she does not

want to marry a man with these qualities. Rosedale is also Jewish which Lily also finds to be an

unattractive quality (Bauer 117); anti-Semitic feelings were strong in the society and time in

which the novel takes place. However, Rosedale is aware that Lily does not love him and his

proposition of marriage is a “plain business statement” (Wharton 144). He knows they would

both financially and socially benefit if they got married; he would have a beautiful wife who
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could display his wealth and increase his social status, and Lily would have someone to finance

her expensive lifestyle.

       As Lily falls deeper into debt, Rosedale becomes more attractive to her, or at least she no

longer “despises” him (Wharton 194). Lily‟s inheritance from her aunt will barely cover what

she owes to Gus Trenor, and she still needs more money. She begins to feel that a “marriage

with Rosedale seemed the only honorable solution of her difficulties” (Wharton 201). With little

financial income and lots of expenses to pay, Lily contemplates marrying Rosedale if only to

have relief from all her financial pressures which begin to take a heavy toll on her. Even though

Rosedale‟s money is very attractive to Lily, especially in light of the large debt she owes Gus

Trenor, Rosedale “grew increasingly repugnant in the light of Selden‟s expected coming”

(Wharton 144). As Lily thinks of Rosedale in comparison to Selden, she knows that she cannot

marry him because she does not love him; she is in love with Selden. Lily ruins her chances for

marriage with Rosedale when she denies his proposal; she wants more in life then to be a mere

trophy wife, and the desire to love and be loved prevents her from accepting Rosedale.

       In addition to destroying her chances for marrying Rosedale, Lily also rejects other men

and further ruins her chances of getting married. For instance, Mrs. Fisher tells the story of how

an Italian prince wanted to marry Lily because she is so beautiful. As a prince, he would have

been very capable of financially supporting Lily, but she sabotages her chance to be with him by

flirting with another man. Another man who could have restored Lily‟s lost wealth is Percy

Gryce. Lily plans to marry him even though she finds him boring and thinks he has a lack of

imagination. She tries to appeal to him by asking him about “Americana” and showing him how

wifely she is by demonstrating her skills with the tea on the train. However, she does not

actually like him and only wants to marry him for his money, similarly to Rosedale. When Lily
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must choose between going to church with Percy and taking a walk with Selden, Lily abandons

Percy to spend time with the man she actually loves. Lily ruins her chances with Percy Gryce by

spending the afternoon in the woods with Selden, even though she does not consider Selden to be

an eligible husband because he is not rich enough. Once again, Lily must choose between

marrying a man who can financially support her and one whom she loves. Lily constantly rejects

the wealthy men because she does not like them, but she will not commit to the man she does

care for because he is not wealthy enough. Because Lily will not commit to either man, she can

neither fulfill her financial wants and needs nor her desire to be loved. Lily cannot choose one

over the other, and as a result gets nothing.

       The man Lily is truly in love with is Lawrence Selden, and Selden loves Lily in return.

She is very attracted to him and greatly enjoys his company. Unlike other men who may be

potential husbands for Lily, Selden is a “friend” who “won‟t be afraid to say disagreeable

[things]” (Wharton 6) to Lily, and she appreciates this. Other men only “say pleasant things” (6)

to Lily, but Lily wants a man who will be open and honest with her like Selden, not a man who

compliments her with the intention of courting her. Also, Selden‟s personality complements

Lily‟s very well, and “everything about him accorded with the fastidious element in her taste,

even to the light irony with which he surveyed what seemed to her most sacred. She admired

him most of all, perhaps, for being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest

man she had ever met” (104). Lily likes Selden‟s ability to act as a member of the high class

even though he does not have the wealth to truly belong. Because he is not a true member of

high society, he is able to avoid becoming frivolous, selfish, and materialistic as people of actual

high rank. He has a “certain social detachment” (Wharton 86) and an “air of friendly aloofness”

(104) that separates him from other people. He is not at the social or financial mercy of anyone,
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and Lily wishes this for herself. She wishes to be successful by Selden‟s definition which is

freedom “from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents”

(Wharton 54). Lily feels this when she is with Selden, and she “admires Selden‟s notion of

success in life as freedom from all of life‟s exigencies in a „republic of spirit‟ because she has

similar pretensions to live without responsibility and vulnerability” (Fedorko 38). Part of the

reason Lily likes Selden so much is because he is free and independent as she wishes to be.

Selden allows Lily to feel this sense of freedom when he is with her, and he encourages her to

become a better person. When Lily and Selden discuss true success and the “republic of spirit,”

Lily sees that he “despises [her] ambitions” and thinks them “unworthy of [her]” (Wharton 57).

He disproves of her search for a wealthy husband and wants to take her beyond what society

expects of her (Wharton 129). Selden tries to help Lily rise above societal influences and gain

the freedom she wants by encouraging her to let go of the material desires that haunt her.

In society‟s eyes, Lily is “regarded as a beautiful object when she wishes to be regarded as a

complex person” (Peel 251), and Selden sees this in her. Lily knows that Selden is the one man

who values her as a person rather than an object of beauty, yet if she did marry him, she would

have to forfeit the life of luxury that she has been trained to want. Because of Lily and Selden‟s

attraction and feelings toward each other, they “play with the idea of their marriage. But as they

come close to an outright declaration, both back away. The intimacy is over” (Wershoven 47).

Neither person will make a serious attempt at a romantic or courting type of relationship because

they are both so aware of Lily‟s desire for money. As much as Lily loves Selden, she feels that

she cannot marry him because he does not fit the type of man that society says she is supposed to

want. Her desire for wealth prevents her from committing to Selden because he is not wealthy

enough. Lily may have turned down several rich men because she did not like them, but it also
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“seemed incredible that Lily should wish to be Selden‟s wife. Lily might be incapable of

marrying for money, but she was equally incapable of living without it” (Wharton 131). The

desires and greed that society has instilled in Lily as well as the financial pressures that come

with being in the upper class in prevents her from committing to the man that she loves and

finding happiness with him.

        Lily‟s demise is ultimately the result of her inability to choose between two things that

would make her happy. She could either marry a wealthy man which would allow her to live

expensively as well as relieve her debts and free her from financial stress. On the other hand, she

could marry a man she loves and feel happy, content, and personally fulfilled with her husband.

Lily cannot have both because there is no man whom she cares about and who is also rich. So

she must sacrifice one future or the other, but she cannot do this because she feels that she cannot

give up either one. Though she feels “sick to death” of the trivialities of the upper class, the

“thought of giving it up n early kills [her]” (Wharton 216). She cannot “efface her personality

and blend into her surroundings” because the pull toward that love and freedom that Selden

offers is too strong. To avoid the kind of loneliness and unhappiness Lily experiences at the end

of the novel, Lily must choose between wealth and love, and she could have had either.

Throughout the novel she could have married a variety of men who could have fulfilled one of

her goals, so there are “many opportunities for Lily to take charge of her life. But Lily prefers to

live in fantasy” (Killoran 39). Lily deludes herself into believing that she can have both money

and love, and she keeps waiting for the opportunity to arise, but it never will. Lily never accepts

the responsibility for the choice she has to make, and because she chooses neither love nor

wealth, she fails to attain either.
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        Lily is trapped between the two paths her life could take, but she takes no action or

accountability for the control she has over her fate. Instead, she blames outside forces for her

circumstances. For instance she blames her polar desires for material and emotional fulfillment

to be “a matter of heredity and environment, as she reflects that she has inherited from her

parents two opposing natures” (Gerard 411). Rather than accepting that she has control over her

situation and taking action to better her life, she blames it on an unchangeable factor: her

genetics. She says that “it was in [her] blood, that [she] got it from some wicked pleasure-loving

ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at

the court of Charleses!” (Wharton 183). Since Lily believes her troubles are inherited, she feels

that she has no control over them. Because she feels that her problems can‟t be changed, she

doesn‟t even try to improve her life. In addition to blaming her ancestors for her apparently

helpless situation, she blames society and the way she was raised. She says the beginning of her

material and marital desires was “in my cradle, I suppose- in the way I was brought up and the

things I was taught to care for” (Wharton 183). She also faults the society in which she lives and

says that she “was just a screw or a cog in the great machine called life” (Wharton 250). What

Lily doesn‟t realize or accept is that she makes choices that lead to her final desperate, desolate

situation.

        As Lily fails in the eyes of society by rejecting all potential husbands, losing all her

money, and falling in social status, Lily tries to isolate herself from the society that she blames

for her demise. However, the farther she removes herself from her former situation, the more

clearly she sees the people she once considered her peers. In the process of “los[ing] more of the

luxury and status she once craved”, she “gains…insight into herself and the world” (Wershoven

44). Lily begins to understand how materialistic the upper class is and how petty their behavior
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is. Lily realizes that she is a product of the people and forces that she has allowed to influence

her, but she now understands that they are influences that she should have avoided. She

attributes her downfall to the people she once considered friends, and says that she has “always

had bad people about [her].” This time however, Lily does not fully blame them and wonders “is

that any excuse?” (Wharton 134). She accepts some credit for her situation instead of merely

blaming the immoral people that surround her. She is thankful she became a true member of

high society and realizes that she owes nothing to “a social order which had condemned and

banished her without trial (Wharton 244).” Lily could never truly assimilate with the upper class

because she wanted more than what Carl Van Doren calls “their idiotic game” (Killoran 27).

Wharton uses Lily as a lens to look at debased workings of high society; as Lily gains a clearer

view of the reader also comes to a better understanding of the truth about high society.

Wharton also uses Lily as an example to show the detrimental effects that societal forces can

have on a person‟s life. By the end of the novel, Lily can‟t sleep feels “tired and confused”

(Wharton 232). She has been so battered by financial stresses socially disgraced by her shallow

“friends,” that “lines of worry and disappointment and failure” (Wharton 215-216) appear on her

face and sabotage her beauty. Wharton shows how the anxiety and pressure of trying to conform

to a corrupt society will eventually ruin those who try to join it. Lily is poisoned by the greed

and materialism of her peers, and when she cannot attain the financial and marital goals society

has set for her, the society that instilled these values in her immediately rejects her. She is left

“at the end of her tether” (Wharton 216) with nothing but the “emptiness of renunciation”

(Wharton 260), and she dies “a victim of her own lack of moral courage, which is to say, a

victim of the social environment that created in her such a lack” (Gerard 410). Lily serves as a

warning to demonstrate the dangers of conforming to senseless societal expectations.
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       Throughout most of the novel, Lily blames outside forces such as her heredity and

upbringing for her desire for money, but as she falls in status and gains insight into society, she

realizes that she does have control over her actions and responses to the forces that surround her.

For the longest time, Lily felt “all the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away

from each other in some wild centrifugal dance” (Goodwyn 66). The lives Lily and her friends

lived had little substance, meaning, or order and their actions had little value or consequence.

However, after visiting Nettie Struther and holding her child, Lily witnesses a life that is on the

brink of poverty but is fulfilled because it is full of love; Nettie and her family have very little

money, but they love each other and value things that are more important than material objects.

Seeing this kind of success (in the sense of Selden‟s “republic of spirit”), Lily gets her

“first glimpse of the continuity of life…in Nettie Struther‟s kitchen” (Goodwyn 66). Lily sees

that “the poor little working girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life,

and build herself a shelter with them, seemed…to have reached the central truth of existence”

(Wharton260). It is not among the upper class where Lily has been searching where she finds

meaning and happiness, but in the lowest, poorest class. The lower class was once a position

Lily despised and refused to be a part of, yet people from the dregs of society are able to show

her what is truly important in life. Through Lily the reader learns that people‟s value is not in

how much money they are worth, but in the love and forgiveness they share with others.

       Once Lily gains a better understanding of society and learns that she has control over the

choices she makes, she takes responsibility for her actions. For instance, she visits Selden and

discusses her relationship with him. She recognizes that as her world fell apart as a result of her

gambling debts, she wanted to find “a moment‟s shelter” (Wharton 141) in Selden‟s love and

“his love was her only hope” (Wharton 141) for “love is what she needed” (Wharton 141). She
                                                                                                Macy 17


also thanks him for helping her, for keeping her from mistakes, and for “preventing [her] from

really becoming what many people have thought of [her]” (Wharton 250). His disapproval of

her money chasing caused her to “scare off of wealthy potential husband after another” and

prevented her from descending to the “dark possibility” (Goodman 56) of joining the upper class.

Lily also apologizes for rejecting Selden; she tells him, “once-twice-you gave me the chance to

escape from my life, and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward. Afterward I saw my

mistake- I saw I could never be happy with what had contented me before” (Wharton 250). Lily

finally realizes that Selden could have given her refuge from the forces she was fighting and that

she could never have been happy merely pursuing the upper class lifestyle. She accepts

responsibility for the mistakes she has made, and though it is too late to remedy them, Wharton

shows how Lily as moved from an irresponsible materialism to a sense of accountability as a

result from distancing herself from high society.

       Lily takes action in another area of her life after her visit to see Selden and Nettie

Struther. As her last act, Lily takes responsibility for some of her financial indiscretions and uses

her inheritance money to repay her debts to Gus Trenor. She finally asserts her power over the

events in her life and does something to better herself. With a “clearness of the vision” that

“seemed to have broken through the merciful veil which intervenes between intention and

action” (Wharton 261) Lily writes the cheque for Trenor. After everything Lily has suffered in

losing her money and social status, she is finally “confronted with her fate” (Wharton 261) and is

able to see her situation clearly. It is no longer “from the vision of material poverty that she

turned with the greatest shrinking.” Lily now understands there is a worse fate than financial

poverty. She now feels “a sense of deeper impoverishment- of inner destitution compared to

which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance” (259). Lily‟s loneliness, lovelessness,
                                                                                            Macy 18


and depression are all much worse than any material lack, and her financial problems pale in

comparison. She needed to experience for herself the “clutch of a solitude heart” (259) to learn

that money is not the purpose or necessity in life, but meaning relationships formed with loved

ones and responsibility for one‟s actions are what lead people to success.

        Lily is a character who learns from her experiences and changes her perceptions and

values as she loses what is important to her. She has “the imaginative potential for

transcendence, but [her] outlets of individual expression have been so limited by her materialistic

upbringing and environment that she has become shallow, inconsistent, and self-centered”

(Gerard 412). The values she was taught in her upbringing and the influences of the people

around her prevent her from fulfilling her true potential and gaining what she truly wants from

life: love and freedom. In the face of these pressures, the “challenge in place for Lily…is to

transcend her desire for status as a social object by attaining subjectivity through means other

than material” (412). However, Lily never successfully gives up her material desires and spends

her life ignoring her problems and refusing to take action to fix them, when “half the trouble in

life is caused by pretending there isn‟t any” (Wharton 187). She never learns the insignificance

of material things until she is forced to relinquish them. Only then does Lily take some

responsibility for her choices and attempt to remedy her mistakes. Sadly, Lily learns the

significant and meaningful values of life too late, and she perishes nevertheless. Yet, Wharton

uses Lily‟s tragic story to reveal the debased workings of high society and to warn people of

falling victim to its corrupting trap.
                                                                                      Macy 19


                                        Works Cited

Bauer, Dale M. “Wharton‟s „Others:‟ Addiction and Intimacy.” A Historical Guide to Edith

       Wharton. Ed. Carol J. Singley. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 115-149.

Fedorko, Kathy A. Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton. Tuscaloosa: U of

       Alabama P, 1995.

Gerard, Bonnie Lynn. “From Tea to Chloral: Raising the Dead Lily Bart.” Twentieth Century

       Literature. 44.4 (Winter, 1998): 409-427. JSTOR 11Nov. 2009

       <http://www.jstor.org/stable/441591>.

Goodman, Susan. Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals. Hanover: UP of New England,

       1990.

Goodwyn, Janet. Edith Wharton: Traveler in the Land of Letters. New York: St. Martin‟s Press,

       Inc., 1990.

Killoran, Helen. The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton. Rochester: Camden House, 2001.

Vita-Finzi, Penelope. Edith Wharton and the Art of Fiction. New York: St. Martin‟s, 1990.

Waid, Candace. “Building The House of Mirth.” Biographies of Books: The Compositional

       Histories of Notable American Writings.” Eds. James Barbour and Tom Quirk.

       Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1996. 160-186.

Wershoven, Carol. The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton. East Brunswick:

       Associated UP, 1982.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Dover, 2002.

				
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