The Inevitable Descent of Lily Bart
Lily Bart. Just the name itself implies beauty and grace. Lillies, as they are, represent purity and innocence. They even have ties to the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel. They have symbolized these qualities for thousands of years and have represented “ornamental-ness” for centuries. They are also, inherently, short-lived. As such, it’s no mistake that Edith Wharton gave her protagonist the name of Lily in her 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. It is this short life and the inevitable fall from grace that I want to focus on to the reader. Lily never really had a chance, given the social context of the society she lived in. She tried – oh, boy did she try. But she made mistakes. And as naturalistic literature tends to do, we find Lily’s story owns a plot of decline, and it doesn’t end happily. So for the reader of this blog/assessment (I’m assuming a target audience who hasn’t read the novel) – I’m focusing on Lily’s descent – from the beautiful, smiling girl we meet in the train station in Chapter 1, to the woman (2 years later) who finds herself in a dingy (of all things!) boarding-house room alone with her thoughts, perhaps shattered dreams, and possessing a means in which to relieve herself of all concerns. Lily Bart. The short-lived flower. Her gloriousness decreased. Her descent inevitable.
Edith Wharton introduces us to Miss Lily Bart from the outset of the novel, calling her “radiant” and “vivid”, with “girlish smoothness”. In probably the most striking metaphor we get of Lily, Wharton writes that “a great many dull and ugly people must…have been sacrificed to produce her”. So very quickly, we get the idea that Lily can turn heads – and this is without Wharton revealing really any other qualities as to her character, especially beyond the visible. As we read on, we learn of her childhood and how her mother raised her to reject “dinginess” and placed a high value on the aesthetic. Perhaps the elder Mrs. Bart reinforces this ideal a little too much, because to her “being poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace”, but we are most generally a product of our nurture – and Lily remains, at least in my eye, blameless for the adult she becomes. And so the adult emerges, as a young woman possessing every quality (outwardly) of “marriageability”, but also encumbered with habits of bad decision making, conspicuous consumption, and being obsessed with keeping up appearances, at all costs. It’s key to remember that this is Old New York in the late 19th century, where the rules and mores of society trumped most anything else. Lily was most definitely looking for a husband – not only for reasons of companionship and (arguably) love, but also for the financial security and standing a husband in society could provide. Lawrence Selden, Percy Gryce, and Sim Rosedale all represent men who become enamored with Lily but also are representative of the type of husband Lily could never have. Rosedale, the self-made man, doesn’t fit in with the nouveux riche of the day – and while he could provide for her and make her above all other women in society, she is forced to reject him. Lily also rejects, in kind, Gryce. An afternoon walk with Selden all but cemented her chances with Gryce, while he was equally turned-off by her gambling habits with the ladies she surrounded herself with. So we see Lily not as a woman without courters or opportunities. These opportunities are present, but the most complex relationship is with that of Lawrence Selden. He represents someone who is obviously interested in her, but cannot give her what she requires (financially speaking) in a husband. Selden meets most all other requirements, but that of money. Early in the novel he makes the point that he has nothing to give her and that it should be perfectly normal for him to “belittle the things” he can’t offer. But Lily is headstrong on marrying rich, and the relationship with Selden never materializes. With Rosedale even, who offers her the financial stability to dwarf that of other women, she cannot get past his physical characteristics and the fact that his money is made, not inherited or “old”.
So here we see Lily’s pattern of finding ways NOT to pursue what she wants – and the pattern progresses throughout the novel. We hear of her encounter with a man who is intent on marrying her, but she flirts with his step-son and that opportunity is missed. The overlooked husbands of her friends in society, Gus Trenor and George Dorset, are equally enamored with Lily, and Trenor even loans her money as to remain in the circle. My point here is that Lily had opportunities to marry and remain with her elite group of friends. But as her money dwindled and she one-by-one eliminated ways in which to reach her (financially secure) goals, you could see the end coming. Another point of her decline was when her “friend” Bertha Dorset remanded her from their circle, effectively removing her from life as she knew it. Being forced into trying to earn her own living, Lily quickly (and sadly) learned that she had no meaningful skills in which to support herself. Her one relative, an elderly aunt, had removed her from her will almost completely, and she owed $9000 to Trenor. And as dark as things seemed, Lily still had a few options left.
Remember when I said it was important to remember the context of this type of society living in Old New York? One of the aspects of this type of life was that of manipulation and power. Members of the elite social class used these powers to remain “important” or “relevant”. Call it being two-faced, or insincere, or selfish, or even blackmail – it was a method that individuals and families used all the time and it went pretty much unquestioned by the rest of society. Early on, Lily discovered that Selden had carried on an affair with Bertha Dorset and that letters between the two existed. After coming into possession of these letters, Lily all of a sudden had leverage to use against Bertha. And after Bertha cut the ties with Lily, Lily still could not bring herself to use the letters against her. Can you imagine what would have happened if she had? Bertha would have gone down in disgrace, supplanted by Lily. But the letters were burned, and Lily lost that crucial leverage that might have returned her into the circle she most wanted to be in. At this point, pride also becomes a factor. I don’t think Lily could necessarily bring herself to admit that all she wanted out of life was a rich husband. She had no skills and no ability to live on her own (not that society would have even condoned that!), save for her beauty. And even that, as the novel progresses, shows signs of decline. She has moments where acquaintances comment on how tired she looks, or how pale she has become. So, in a way, I don’t think she made a good decision in burning the letters. In a society where such a manipulative action such as “outing” Bertha wouldn’t have seemed that bad, I think she should have used them. Without them, her decline and eventual end was absolutely cemented, because at this point she had nothing else to bank on.
As the novel nears its conclusion, Lily resorts to becoming a “working girl”, finding employment at a hat factory. Once she learns that she is practically incapable of making the hats, she leaves the job and finds herself living in the boarding-house with not many options left. This is where the wealthy Mr. Sim Rosedale re-appears, and the offering of “rescue” seems imminent. As a reader, I thought she would eventually warm to Rosedale’s advances and marry him, “out” Bertha, and establish herself as the head of New York society. However, Rosedale’s reaction to Lily’s comment “I am ready to marry you whenever you wish”, is met with an icy rebuff. At this point, Rosedale even goes so far as to say that in his ascension in society, he has to be careful who he is seen with, and Lily no longer fits that bill. His comment “the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones”, smacks of irony and we see the lily, as it were, begin its last moments of life.
So, in her final rejection, Lily’s descent is final. She had opportunities to marry men like Rosedale, and Selden, and Gryce. She had opportunities to establish herself into society and edify her position if she had leveraged herself by using the adulterous letters. She could have repaid her debt to Trenor in a hundred different ways, but chose not to. Lily had men falling at her feet and yet none of them seemed to fit her reality in the end. Part of me thinks that Lily didn’t fully understand the context of the society in which she lived. Maybe she was too good-hearted, or maybe she was naïve to think she could have her cake and eat it too. But like I said, she systematically removed every opportunity she had – whether it was by her own undoing, or whether it was by what society dictated she must do. And to me, that makes her a tragic protagonist in this story.
But the final scene of the novel is powerful, when Lily comes into her small inheritance and writes out the check to Gus Trenor. And as she tips the bottle of her sleeping medicine a little too far back, we get a notion of what her situation has come to. Whether her act was intentional or not, the drug had its effect – one from which Lily never wakes up. Wharton leaves us with the vision of pretty Miss Lily Bart, beautiful now in perpetuity, who never quite realized the dreams she had for herself. And in her wake, I am sure there was sadness – that type of sadness that always exists with untapped potential and opportunity. However, in a larger sense, it’s fair to say that her decline was inevitable. She just made too many missteps along the way and you could see it coming. Lily Bart had too many restrictions placed on her (self-inflicted, societal, peers), of which she could not overcome. To this, I think death was probably preferable to a person like Lily. What could life at the end of a hallway in a dingy boarding-house give her? In my opinion, there was hardly a way for Lily to recover after so many consecutive missed chances. Edith Wharton, true to her craft, created and named her main character beautifully. And in the process, gave us as readers the gift of the lily, if even for a short time.