A Fool’s Heart

March 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, the beautiful but helpless Lily Bart is never able to escape from the follies and superficialities of the society that she is born into. According to a verse in Ecclesiastics which the novel was titled after- “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Accordingly, Lily has the “heart of a fool” due to her actions that keep her continually conforming to society, the “house of mirth”. However, her strong morals repeatedly keep her from making decisions that, while are unethical, would certainly result in her promotion and are sure ways at dominating society. Consequently, although possessing a fool’s heart, Lily’s heart is actually one of self-aware purity.Lily Bart, essentially, is merely a sum of the influences of her world, a product of her time. Born into the “house of mirth”, her own mother, who married not for love, but money, continually urged Lily to use her beauty, a “weapon… for vengeance”, as “an opportunity for advancement” (32). Not only has Lily’s beauty been an integral part of her identity from an early age, but also the idea that it is her most redeeming quality. In addition, her beauty is quite the talk around town with many men making admiring comments about her looks. Even Lawrence Selden, who later is established as Lily’s “soul mate”, is a perpetrator of this objectifying behavior. The novel’s opening line is relevantly one where Selden is “refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart” (1). When even the man she is most compatible with views her as a visual glass of water on a hot day, it is clear she isn’t being valued for her brain. This association, which relates Lily’s perception of self-worth to beauty, has been engrained in Lily her whole life, effectively making her feel worthless and lost when aging and stress take a toll on her aesthetics. In addition, her father, who Lily “seldom saw by daylight”, was nothing more than a ghost (27). “Effaced and silent”, Lily’s father was anything but a strong male figure and his distant relationship with Lily’s mother was an even worse example of an adult relationship. Already born into the “house of fools”, Lily, with an unhealthy self-image and a lack of positive role models, knows nothing else but it and, consequently, sees no need for change. Lily, to her credit, eventually realizes her dismal role in society and her yearn to leave it. Nevertheless, Lily explains her inability to break free in an explanation to Gerty:Why, the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose- in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or no- I won’t blame anybody for my faults: I’ll say it was in my blood, that I 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 the Charleses! (216)This self-awareness is the first step for Lily to escape the “house of mirth”. Acknowledging that she’s aware of society’s wickedness, Lily could potentially make changes because she can recognize her hypocrisies and prevent them. Unfortunately, this proves to be too hard for her. As Wharton explains, “[Lily’s] whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in” (230). She knows no other way of life and is never ready to leave her comfort zone- the “house of fools”. Even after she is able to pay off her debt and has the opportunity to disregard society and restart her life, Lily does not view living poorly as an option and ultimately commits suicide.However, Lily is not entirely without merit and exhibits a blossoming sense of morality in the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Lily is not one who has many troubles with her conscience, even citing to Selden, “[Gerty] likes being good, and I like being happy” (6). Clearly, Lily does not initially see herself as “good” and also implies that in being happy, she has done “bad” things. Later, she even puts on a ruse to the fabulously rich and eligible bachelor, Percy Gryce, that she does not smoke in order to appear more attractive. Evidently not above stretching the truth and getting involved with a little gambling and smoking, Lily is no saint. Nevertheless, she does transform into a character with many internal conflicts as multiple opportunities that would guarantee her “success” in the “house of mirth” present themselves throughout the rest of the book. In love, she must decide between pursuing Percy, for a comfortable albeit boring life, or Selden, for a marriage of love but with the sacrifice of the many material assets she is used to having. Financially, Lily must choose whether to accept money from Gus Trenor and, later, whether to pay him back. Later, Lily even has to decide if she should try and save her reputation and testify about Bertha’s affair for George Dorset. The biggest dilemma Lily encounters, though, is what to do with the letters of Bertha and Selden that she has obtained. Caught between using them as blackmail to obtain money, releasing them publicly to prove their affair and disgrace Bertha, or keeping them to herself, Lily is faced with a decision that could alter her circumstances dramatically. By releasing the letters, Lily could clear her name, thus becoming accepted back into society, and go onto fulfilling her dreams of marrying a rich man. However, “knelt [by Selden’s fireplace] for a few moments in silence”, Lily burns the papers to protect Selden and her honor and ultimately sacrifices her most valuable bargaining tool, the key to a kingdom she had dreamed about her whole life (298). This act illustrates Lily’s metamorphosis from a girl whose sole ambition is of marrying a rich man to a woman who values her morals and recognizes the important things in life.Throughout the novel, it is clear that Lily Bart is never able to escape the “house of mirth”. From Europe to New York, Lily is plagued by the society’s hypocrisies that have been present in her life since birth. Although Lily is able to recognize these follies, she is never able to free herself from conforming to them due to her inability to give up her life-long dream of marrying rich. Despite always having a “heart of a fool”, however, Lily does become influenced by her newfound morality and, ultimately, becomes a conscientious fool.

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