The Inevitable Descent of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth
The Gilded Age of the late 19th century saw the rise of extravagant hats, hairstyles, and high society. Subsequently, the Gilded Age was also host to an increasingly treacherous gap between the rich and the poor and stifling social restrictions against women as suffocating as their hourglass corsets. Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is tragically caught between the two worlds: the pompous social elite and the immobile underclass. Lily teeters at the threshold of the sweet life she believes she deserves and totters at the edge of the abyss of a life of “dinginess.” Due to her precarious position as an unmarried woman of the Gilded Age with no way to provide for herself, Lily is given several opportunities to save herself from an intolerable fate of discomfort and self-loathing. Yet her insurmountable pride and arrogance force her to align to a moral code inconsistent to both the social expectations of the era and her own personal agenda. This acute indecisiveness is the key to Lily’s final demise. Ultimately, Lily’s inevitable descent is a product of her inability to sacrifice long held pride or personal morality in exchange for a restored social position during her spiral downward, be it in the form of marriage with Lawrence Selden or vengeance against Bertha Dorset.
Lily’s story begins with her social stature is fairly intact, her vivid dream of a life beyond terrible inadequacy only a simple proposal away. Ten years prior, the death of Lily’s father and mother had been preceded by utter the loathing of impoverished lifestyle and the fostering of Lily’s beauty as her ticket to escape said poverty. These rapid, monumental events in Lily’s life swiftly remold her “view of the universe” and fit her to a precise, extreme social niche. Wharton describes her this way: “[Mrs. Bart] was especially careful to avoid her old friends and the scenes of her former success. To be poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace; and she detected a note of condescension in the friendliest advances. Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty,” (26).
Lily’s mind is effectively shaped to the superficiality of the Gilded Age, yet she lacks the money or husband to live such a lifestyle. In essence, Lily’s sole option is to utilize her only viable assets, her beauty and social skills, to acquire the opulent dream which she was denied at nineteen years old. Lily vehemently seeks money and social advancement over the well-being of all those around her, even at the cost of her own contentment. This relentless affinity for a life of wealth and bounty push the boundaries of Lily’s morality. As a result of her well-bred upbringing, Lily’s moral compass is marred and spotty, a conflicted mixture of genuine scruples and insatiable lust for money, the key to her freedom. She is repeatedly forced to decide between luxury through deceit and happiness through sacrifice. Lily, hopelessly trapped, bounces between the two as she falls from rung to lower rung on the social ladder.
Lily’s most inviting prospect of escape was marriage with beloved Selden, yet incapacity to tolerate a life that falls short of grand opulence and affluence pulls her from Selden. Lily’s resistance to her true feelings for Selden visibly erodes and crumbles as Lily’s social situation worsens. However, looming fear of dissatisfaction always causes Lily to rely on him as a friend and not a husband. Lily flatly denies the prospect of marriage at the Benedick yet succumbs at the tableaux vivants as her options and resolve both lessen. However, the key obstacle that severs the tie between the two had become apparent at their encounter at the Bellomont. “Success? Why, to get as much as one can out of life I suppose,” Lily weakly explains (54). Selden identifies the issue: Lily’s conception of success and happiness is cluttered by the premonition that money and status is required to reach such contentment. Rather than seek “freedom,” Lily is bent on life as the Gilded Age elite dictate it to be. Her love for Selden is genuine, yet her affixation to wealth and social power is equally real whether or not she realizes it to be so. This conflict of love and desire never allows Lily to fully abandon her “gilded cage.” She simply swings back and forth, unable to definitively choose.
Lily’s mortal indecisiveness is seen in similar fashion during her encounters with Percy Gryce and Simon Rosedale as well. Both men provide her a means of escape while trading love for luxury, Lily’s original lust, so she muses over the prospect of a dull marriage with each of them in some respect. Unfortunately for Lily, her reluctance is a self-destructive curse, and she remains helpless as one is married to another woman before her eyes and the other refuses her last resort partnership. Finally, at the end of her rope, Lily tearily confides in Selden: “Once˗ twice˗ you gave me the chance to escape from my life, and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward. Afterwards I saw my mistake˗ I saw I could never be happy with what had contented me before. But it was too late: you had judged me˗ I understood,” (250).
Lily herself realizes her crucial errors over the past months and regretfully laments over the life she has effectively thrown away. Lily’s reliance on the glitter and glamour of the era has divided her and Selden. This unyielding reliance, impressed upon her by the social standards of the day, forces Lily under a sea of despair with no loving hand to guide her in the end.
On the other end of the moral spectrum, Lily’s opportune moment to restore her social stature rests in Bertha Dorset’s letters, yet her core integrity forces her to refuse vengeance as a means of retribution, a questionable decision amid a violently manipulative social era. Rather than submit to temptations of wealth as she did in her decision to not marry Selden, Lily performs in an opposite manner and chooses morality over self-preservation. This choice effectively seals her social doom for the sake of her own conscience. Even more puzzling is the fact that Lily decides to do so despite the universal underhandedness of her peers. Sacrificing Bertha for herself makes sense considering such cruelty to be the social norm of the time period. However, truly fulfilling every aspect of her uniquely tragic social niche, Lily uncharacteristically acts out against the social norm. She simply laughs, “The whole truth? What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe,” (182). Lily is fully aware of the travesty and evil which runs rampant in her social circle, permitted freely by high society; she is therefore both a product and a victim of her time period. This clash between superficiality and humanity casts Lily into social limbo. She is unable to abandon her greed, yet simultaneously cannot ignore her honest feelings. Mindful of her helpless catch-22, Lily chooses to spare Bertha, forfeiting herself in a final display of charity.
Lily’s ultimate folly is the fact that she failed to capitalize on opportunities to escape her sordid position either through love and sacrifice or revenge and cruelty. She clings to her inklings of both genuine morality and vicious high society, yet commits fully to neither pathway. Unforgivingly, the Gilded Age has no patience for her indecisiveness and “the great machine of life” tosses her aside. A poster child to all the wrongs of the era, Lily’s story ends with her unable to cope with the crippling embarrassment and self-loathing of her mistakes, and she peacefully submits to an everlasting sleep.
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