Lily Bart is 29 when House of Mirth begins. She's beautiful – in a show-stopping kind of way – and she, and everyone around her, knows it. On top of her looks, Lily has the social skills to parlay her beauty into a rich marriage and a life of luxury and ease. Throughout the novel, she has countless opportunities to marry eligible bachelors, including a smart and sexy lawyer, a rich and handsome Italian prince, a wealthy book collector, a would-be Wall Street divorcé, and a social-climbing man who is extremely rich.
And she throws them all away. One of Lily's biggest issues is pride, which we can blame for these failed marriage opportunities. She's too proud to talk to Rosedale, to let Bertha think that Selden came to Bellomont to visit her, to explain her side of the story regarding the Monte Carlo affair, or to marry a man like Selden who isn't dripping hundred dollar bills out of his pores. She can't even allow herself to be true friends with a caring woman like Gerty because she's too "dingy." Time and time again, Lily recoils from any sign of poverty (or anything that isn't elaborate or doesn't represent extreme wealth) as though it were physically contaminating.
Lily is "naturally fitted to dominate any situation in which she [finds] herself" (2.8.37). This adaptability is a key part of her character; Wharton writes that Lily is "supple," "a pliable substance [that] is less easy to break than a stiff one," and "inwardly as malleable as wax" (1.3.67, 1.5.6). Wharton is right to point out that Lily's adaptability can also be read as fickleness, which explains why she "works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic" (2.1.32).
Lily can't decide what she wants. Her life is full of contradictions, conflict, indecisiveness, regret, longing, and animosity. As readers, we're left with some rather weighty questions to ponder: why does Lily pursue marriages with men like Percy Gryce if, "at heart, she despises the things she's trying for," as Mrs. Fisher suggests? If she's so "malleable" and "adaptable," why can't she make it in the working class? And why can't she just marry Selden and be happy already?
Time to delve into Lily's character (it's going to be messy) and figure out this stuff. We'll even get to the big House of Mirth question that's on everybody's mind: what's going on with that overdose in the penultimate chapter?
The House of Mirth has its share of expensive, beautiful, and rare objects, from the gilded furnishings of the Brys' new mansion to the Americana that makes Percy Gryce so famous. In fact, Selden says of these rare-but-expensive volumes, "Your real collector values a thing for its rarity," and then adds in the next paragraph, "It seems to be the mere rarity that attracts the average collector" (1.1.91-3).
Did he just say the same thing twice? Why, yes, he did, which is your tip-off that this is important stuff. What in the world does it have to do with Lily? Lots, considering that Simon Rosedale will soon observe our heroine thus: "It [is] perhaps her very manner of holding herself aloof that appeal[s] to his collector's passion for the rare and unattainable" (1.10.10). Like Percy's rare Americana, Lily, too, is a rare object to be collected, admired, and publicly displayed.
Every man in the novel – even Selden – at one point or another views her as a nice decoration for his social mantelpiece. Think about the very first line of the novel: "Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart" (1.1.1). Lily recognizes what's happening to her when she realizes that she is "no more account among [her social circle] than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child" (2.6.1). Even at the end of the novel, when Simon has morphed into a likeable, kind man, he still offers to save Lily on account of her value as an object:
It was as though the sense in her of unexplained scruples and resistances had the same attraction as the delicacy of feature, the fastidiousness of manner, which gave her an external rarity, an air of being impossible to match. As he advanced in social experience this uniqueness had acquired a greater value for him, as though he were a collector who had learned to distinguish minor differences of design and quality in some long-coveted object. (2.11.25)
Poor Lily, right? A mere victim of men's chauvinism? Well, not exactly. A big part of the problem is this: Lily views herself as a mere object. She is willingly objectified by others and, in fact, objectifies herself. Think about the way she pursues Percy Gryce: "She determined to be to him what his Americana had hitherto been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it" (1.4.74). Or when she pauses in her walk to the church to sit in a picturesque setting in the hopes that someone will happen upon her and be struck by her loveliness. Or her reaction at Jack's wedding to the slew of gifts the bride has received: "They symbolized the life she longed to lead, […] in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting to her own jewel-like rareness" (1.8.18). Then, there's the living paintings party – Lily is ecstatic to have the opportunity to sit perfectly still and pretend to be a beautiful figure from a work of art.
What gives? Why doesn't Lily have any self-respect? In part, it's because of social determinism.
As you read through these "Character Analyses," you're going to hear us use the term "social determinism" a lot. It's not as scary as it sounds. It's just the idea that a person is born into a certain social position, and is essentially fated to fulfill a certain social role. For example, Lily is born into the social elite and is a beautiful, graceful person. Under the theory of social determinism, it's her social fate – or she is socially determined – to marry a rich man and be a beautiful trophy wife for the rest of her life. You might say that each character in The House of Mirth is born into a similarly prescribed role.
You should notice that the word "determinism" sounds Darwinian, and indeed it is. Not long before Wharton wrote House of Mirth, scientist Charles Darwin showed that living things are born with the tools necessary to function in a given role. For example, birds have wings; they're supposed to fly. A bird is determined to fly and not swim, exactly the same way, according to Wharton, Lily is determined to be a wife of a rich man and not an astronaut or a mechanic or a mathematician. She is only equipped for one outcome, and therefore unable to do anything else.
We're not making up this Darwin stuff. There are quite a few hints in House of Mirth that we as readers should think in this biological direction, starting in Part I, Chapter One when Selden observes Lily in the train station and is reminded of "argument from design," the idea that there is purpose and direction in a living being's nature (1.1.16). Argument from design goes on to conclude that there must be a God around to have given said purpose to the creatures, but the idea to focus on is, once again, determinism – the concept that Lily was made specifically for one and only one purpose.
Shortly after, Selden asks Lily, "Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?" (1.1.69). Wharton later writes, "[Lily's] whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in" (1.3.6). (We'll re-visited this line in Selden's 'Character Analysis," when he claims to be an amphibian who can breathe in more than one environment.) You've also got this Darwinist line right here, in reference to Lily's father: "He had become extinct when he ceased to fulfill his purpose" (1.3.53).
Now, just like her own objectification, Lily is well aware of this idea of determinism. She uses it to explain her failure to make it as a working class gal. Look at what she says 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." (2.4.36)
And, soon after, we have:
She could not hold herself much to blame for [her] ineffectiveness, and she was perhaps less to blame than she believed. Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird's breast? (2.11.30)
"Blood," "organism," "extinct," "specialized"…Wharton really seems to have been thinking along Darwinian lines while she was writing House of Mirth. Now that we've explored what social determinism means and how Lily embodies it, we can think about its implications in understanding Lily's character. As we claimed earlier, this social determinism goes a long way in explaining why Lily is so willing to objectify herself. She was taught to objectify herself. Her purpose in life is to be an object. It also explains why, though she doesn't really want to get married to a rich bore, she decides to do it anyway – because it would be against her nature not to.
Social determinism also goes a long way in explaining Lily's suicide, which we get to later. Lily concludes that she is "a useless person" when taken out of her environment – a cog without a machine. A fish can't breathe out of water, and Lily physically can't survive outside of society. Or, as Selden says, "She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate" (1.1.47).
One of the biggest questions to ask while reading House of Mirth is whether or not these social "manacles" can be broken, at least in Wharton's mind. We can't answer this just yet – we have to look at a lot of other characters and consider a lot of other examples of social determinism. In fact, in the end, there's no straight answer to this question; it depends on how you want to interpret people like Gerty Farish and incidents like Lily's suicide. Next time you read House of Mirth, try to find examples of this theory in the minor characters or even individual scenes. For now, keep in mind this working definition of social determinism – we'll hit it over and over again as we take you through this analysis.
While we're on the topic of manacles, let's talk about Lily's claim that she is a slave to society. It only takes four chapters for Wharton to hit us with this stunner right here: "It sometimes struck [Lily] that she and her maid were in the same position, except that the latter received her wages more regularly" (1.3.11). Now, at first we're inclined to think something along the lines of… "Puh-lease!", considering that Lily is living a life of luxury, ease, servants, 13-course dinners, and a complete and utter lack of any kind of work.
But then we remember that Lily isn't allowed to speak her mind, be herself, be independent, or visit members of the opposite sex in their apartments at the Benedick. Lily also makes a decent point when she argues that living with the rich is expensive – that she has to pay "taxes" on all the luxuries that appear to be free. She's working for the lifestyle she lives, even if it's not your typical 9-5. In Monte Carlo, for example, it's Lily's "job" to distract Dorset from his wife's affair. As Wharton writes, "that was what she was 'there for': it was the price she had chosen to pay for three months of luxury and freedom from care" (2.4.37).
Come to think of it, all the characters in House of Mirth have similar "jobs" or "responsibilities," even if it seems as though they're lounging around eating bon-bons and playing bridge. Singles like Lily Bart and Carry Fisher trade their social services for food and lodging. Men like Dorset and Trenor are responsible for working on Wall Street and keeping their wives happy, and meanwhile the wives are responsible for looking pretty and keeping their men in the upper crust of society's elite. Young guys like Ned and Lucius are supposed to keep the rich wives happy in exchange for living off their wealth. Everyone has a prescribed role (More social determinism…), everyone pays their way in some manner, and everyone is in some way trapped – just like Lily. The cage they're all in may be gilded, but hey – it's still a cage.
Now, the interesting questions to ask here are very similar to those we considered when talking about social determinism. Are the bars on this gilded cage breakable? Bendable, maybe? Lily's take on the matter is an interesting one. Take a look:
How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. (1.5.10)
It looks like the problem is a matter of perception. (Indeed, Selden's perception of the gilded cage greatly alters Lily's – see his "Character Analysis" for more.) Much of the "restrictions" Lily suffers are in fact self-imposed, which means escaping the bars is a matter of mindset, not of crowbars. "I'm sick to death of it!," she tells Gerty. "And yet the thought of giving it all up nearly kills me" (2.8.34). If Lily doesn't leave the cage, it's because she doesn't want to. (Or rather, from the social determinism perspective, she's not capable of wanting to leave, if that makes sense.)
Lily faces a series of difficult situations throughout The House of Mirth. Pursue a marriage with Percy for his money, or with Selden for love? Take money from Gus Trenor, or live in relative poverty? Pay Trenor back, or live under his debt? Testify as to Bertha's affair and have George to herself? Live off the help of Gerty Farish and Carry Fisher? Tough stuff. The real question is: what is the rubric by which Lily judges these difficult scenarios?
One rubric is that of the society – what is and what is not acceptable among the social elite in New York in the very late 1800s. It is not acceptable for a woman to have tea at a man's apartment in the late afternoon. It is acceptable for a married woman to enlist the help of a married man in speculating on the stock market, but not for a single girl to do the same thing. It is acceptable for Bertha to spend time alone with Ned Silverton, but not for Lily to do so with George Dorset.
Lily doesn't always follow these social conventions; she has tea with Selden alone at his place and takes money from Gus Trenor. If she's using a social rubric, then she's not using it very carefully.
So, how about another set of guidelines – a moral one, perhaps? In some cases, morality seems to align with social convention. By breaking the social rule and taking money from Gus, Lily compromises herself morally: he essentially propositions her for sex as a result. But, in other cases, social convention conflicts with morality. According to society, Lily ought to marry a man like Percy Gryce. But she doesn't love him – isn't it wrong to pursue him for his money?
Money certainly does complicate morality in House of Mirth. In fact, we would venture that there is somewhat of an antithesis in the novel between morality and wealth. The novel's poorest characters – like Gerty Farish or Nettie Struther – have the strongest moral and ethical fiber. The richest, like Bertha, whose "social credit [is] based on an impregnable bank-account," seem to be entirely without scruples. (More on that in Bertha's "Character Analysis"; remember that she sacrifices Lily's reputation and, in fact, life to cover up her affair with Ned Silverton. She also "delights in making other people miserable.")
So, where does Lily fit in on this spectrum? It depends on what part of House of Mirth you're looking at. Lily's transformation from the novel's start to its conclusion involves a loss of wealth and social stature, but, arguably, a strengthened moral core. Lily begins the novel with a limited, if at all present, sense of morality: "Hitherto Lily had been undisturbed by scruples" (1.2.4). Comparing herself to Gerty Farish, she says to Selden, "She likes being good, and I like being happy" (1.1.48).
At this point in the novel, Lily defines success both in words and in actions as personal gain, as financial success. To Selden she says, "Success? Why, to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose" (1.6.31). Selden recognizes the connection between money and moral corruption, which is why he wants to take Lily "beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition, and the corrosion of the soul" (1.14.18). (More on that later.) Lily's actions with Trenor, too, display her value system: money over morals: "She saw how absurd it would have been to let any primitive scruple deprive her of this easy means of appeasing her creditors" (1.8.2).
It's not until Gus propositions her that Lily faces a rude moral awakening (via one of our most important images in the novel, that of water – see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more):
Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the moral shame was one with the physical dread. It seemed to her that self-esteem would have made her invulnerable - that it was her own dishonor which put a fearful solitude about her. (1.13.67)
Notice that Lily turns to Gerty Farish for help afterwards – her poor but moral friend. She doesn't run to someone in society's elite, because, quite frankly, those with money wouldn't be able to help her with her moral crisis. She tells Gerty that "I can't bear to see myself in my own thoughts," but adds also, "I want money, yes, money, that's my shame, Gerty" (1.14.83).
In the Trenor trial, Lily chose money over morals, but she has a chance to redeem herself when it comes to George Dorset. This time, Lily chooses scruples over cash. She keeps her knowledge of Bertha's affair to herself, though it means financial and social ruin. Trial #3 comes in the form of Rosedale, who offers Lily yet another chance at the social big-time. Lily passes with flying colors once again by refusing this "temptation," as she calls it.
Of course, the problem with a discussion like this one is that to talk about morality at all we have to consider where these morals are coming from, and whether they're absolute or subjective. "It's wrong to pursue Gryce for his money" – according to whom? What do you mean by "wrong?" Morality in House of Mirth is particularly complicated because it is muddied by social convention, by social determinism, and even by necessity (if Lily needs money to live, isn't it OK for her to borrow it, even from a married man?). It's clear that Wharton, as the author, has the final say on what the novel considers to be moral, and we think we get a real glimpse into her own point of view with this passage here:
She was realizing for the first time that a woman's dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it. (1.15.12)
Of course, before we take this as the final word, shouldn't we consider that the socially elite Wharton, like Lily, is a determined product of her own social environment?
Choosing between money and morality isn't exactly easy – the decision nearly splits Lily in two. Check it out:
There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. (1.6.6)
She looked at him helplessly, like a hurt or frightened child: this real self of hers, which he had the faculty of drawing out of the depths, was so little accustomed to go alone! (1.8.52)
Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part. (1.12.17)
"Don't you like her best in that simple dress? It makes her look like the real Lily – the Lily I know." (1.12.21)
One of these Lilies is stuck in the gilded cage of society and knows she needs to marry rich and placate awful people like Bertha Dorset. The other Lily is in love with Selden and personal freedom, and chooses morality over money. So which one is "real?" Take a look at those quotes again.
Right – the moral, Selden-loving, free-spirit Lily is the one that Wharton chooses to consider "real." This is interesting in and of itself. Why is that Lily more "real" than the other? After all, Lily never does manage to completely rid herself of the chains of social determinism, and she is very much the product of her gilded environment. Why isn't that half of her considered a real part of her character? Is it too simplistic a choice to consider one part of her legitimate and the other false?
That's certainly a bone to pick with Wharton. Meanwhile, how does Lily deal with this difficult division of character? Let's take a look at the scene between her and Selden at the end of Book II, when she stops by his place on her way to the Dorsets':
"There is some one I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you – we are sure to see each other again – but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you – I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you – and she'll be no trouble, she'll take up no room." (2.12.40)
Lily's plan is clear: drop the moral Lily like a hot potato, blackmail Bertha with the letters, win back her place in society, marry Rosedale, and scheme her way to the top of the social elite.
So what the devil happens? Apparently "an imperishable flame" leaps up in between Lily and Selden, also known as "the passion of her soul for his," and reminds her that "she [can] not go forth and leave her old self with him: that self must indeed live on in his presence, but it must still continue to be hers" (2.12.44-5). That's when she decides to burn the letters – and, arguably, the materialistic Lily Bart at the same time. Who would have thought there was so much Jekyll and Hyde going on in The House of Mirth?
We're finally here: Lily's death. In order to talk about this ending, we have to use all that stuff we just covered in trying to understand Lily's character: Lily's beauty and willing objectification, her pride and pitfalls, social determinism and the chains of society, morality, and Lily's dual selves. We're going to use these factors to decide the Big Question for which The House of Mirth is so famous: does Lily intentionally kill herself, or does she accidentally overdose on the chloral? You can make a sound argument for either one.
Suppose you want to go with option #1: suicide. Lily has many reasons to end her life intentionally. She's just gotten her inheritance check from Aunt Peniston and written all of it away in a check to Gus Trenor. She has nothing: "she would have barely enough to live on for the next three or four months" (2.13.43). Lily has, at this point, lost whatever pride she had left, and we also know that, as she's getting older, her beauty is starting to fade. More than one character, including Rosedale and Selden, has commented on her looking sickly and tired. Lily has already admitted – to Selden – that she can't function outside of her role in society. Like a fish out of water, Lily is too socially determined to live any other way. Then, there's the idea of Lily's two different selves. She's finally decided to hold on to the "real" Lily, but she's facing some temptation to revert to her materialistic self. Look at this passage:
There was the cheque in her desk, for instance – she meant to use it in paying her debt to Trenor; but she foresaw that when the morning came she would put off doing so, would slip into gradual tolerance of the debt. The thought terrified her – she dreaded to fall from the height of her last moment with Lawrence Selden. But how could she trust herself to keep her footing? She knew the strength of the opposing impulses – she could feel the countless hands of habit dragging her back into some fresh compromise with fate. She felt an intense longing to prolong, to perpetuate, the momentary exaltation of her spirit. If only life could end now! (2.13.44)
If only life could end now. Well. That's some pretty sound evidence for the suicide argument. Additionally, Wharton wrote a letter to a doctor-friend while writing House of Mirth asking this: "A friend of mine has made up her mind to commit suicide, and has asked me to find out […] the most painless and least unpleasant method of effacing herself." Then she added that this "friend" was actually "a heroine [she] ha[d] to get rid of." She also asks, "What would be [the drug's] effects if deliberately taken with the intent to kill herself? I mean, how would she feel and look toward the end?" (source)
Of course, it might be cheating a bit to go outside the text. You could very much argue that it doesn't matter what Wharton intended – once House of Mirth was written, it stands on its own as a text to be interpreted. With that in mind, let's make an argument for option #2: accidental overdose.
When Lily leaves Selden's apartment, she tells him, "we are sure to see each other again" (2.12.40), hardly the words of a woman planning to kill herself. After she leaves Nettie Struther, her spirits are furthered buoyed: "the surprised sense of human benevolence took the mortal chill from her heart" (2.13.36). Now, let's look at the moment just before the overdose. Lily feels that she must shut out her worries "for a few hours," take just "a brief bath of oblivion" (2.13.53). In raising the dosage, "she kn[ows] she [takes] a slight risk […], but that [is] one chance in a hundred" (2.13.53). And here's the kicker: "She did not, in truth, consider the question very closely." Lily isn't thinking about suicide. She just wants to take a nap.
OK, now how does the interpretation you choose affect the way you view the novel? Great question. If Lily's death is accidental, it's a big waste. Lily finally got out of debt to Trenor, she finally made her peace with Selden – we know from the final chapter that he's decided to marry her – she's refused temptation twice, with regards first to George Dorset and second to Simon Rosedale, and she's found new hope in the possibility of a complete-if-poor life as embodied by Nettie Struther. She's even tapped into her maternal instinct, which is a possibility for new life, a new purpose for Lily, a new cause to which she can devote herself. (As a mother, Lily would no longer be a "cog without a machine," no longer a "useless person.") And then, she accidentally takes too much chloral and dies. This is yet another instance of bad luck in a long string of misfortune plaguing Lily Bart from start to end of House of Mirth.
On the other hand, if the death is intentional, Lily has some agency here – she's not just a victim at the mercy of fate or misfortune. This is the one time Lily has been able to make her own decision and, most importantly, choose her own destiny – one that is different from the life that society prescribed for her. You could also go the other way, and argue that an intentional death is even worse sort of ending than an accidental one. It means that Lily is hopelessly chained down by social obligations and incapable of escaping social determinism. It means that, from the start of the novel, she really only had two options: follow the rules (marry rich, be beautiful, butter up people like Bertha) or die. Not too much mirth in this house, it would seem.