Oh, Lily: The House of Mirth



Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, has a way of driving readers and viewers crazy.  Whenever the book or its 2000 movie adaptation (directed by Terence Davies, starring Gillian Anderson) comes up in conversation, I tend to find myself almost the sole defender of its hapless heroine.

People complain that Lily blunders from crisis to crisis with no sense of self-preservation—sometimes, apparently, with no sense at all. Blessed with assets that should make her a success among the upper crust of the late 19th-century New York (beauty, charm, innate elegance, and just enough money and connections to establish herself among the elite) she seems determined to throw it all away with both hands.

As Jonathan Franzen wrote in the New Yorker, “Again and again, at the crucial moment, Lily blows up her opportunities to trade her beauty for financial security, or at least for a chance at happiness.” *

All this is perfectly true. Nevertheless, I love Lily. I can’t help it. I’ve loved her since the first time I read her foolish, tragic story.

Few novelists have been better than Edith Wharton at highlighting both the good and bad in her society’s system of values. And few heroines have better embodied both the good and bad than Lily Bart. She is bound by the rules of society from the beginning, when she considers marriage to impoverished lawyer Lawrence Selden impossible, though she is fonder of him than of any other man. “You can’t possibly think I want to marry you,” she tells him in a frank, even friendly, way. “You know I am horribly poor—and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.”

So she’s striving to catch a rich man instead. But at the crucial moment in that negotiation, Lily cannot bring herself to close the deal. And here’s where we’re first faced with the great paradox of Lily’s character, and of our reaction to her.

Jonathan Franzen puts it this way: “When Lily, by taking a long romantic walk with Selden, is ruining her chance to marry the extremely wealthy but comically boring and prudish Percy Gryce, with whom she would have the bleakest of relationships, you may find yourself wanting to shout at her, ‘You idiot! Don’t do it! Get back to the house and seal the deal with Gryce!’”

It’s like that all through the story, as Lily is driven by two conflicting forces: the desire for security and comfort and her own deep-seated integrity. This is why people react so strongly to her. We can easily be drawn to root for the good deeds of a hero; and, alas for human nature, we can often just as easily be drawn to cheer on a villain, if the writer makes them appealing enough. But watching in despair as the heroine’s better nature keeps asserting itself at the last minute, and hoping desperately that maybe, just this once, she’ll compromise her principles—that’s what Lily Bart does to us.

The reason for this goes back to what I said earlier, about how well Wharton draws both the virtues and the flaws of that long-vanished society. Shallow, false, and unfair as it could be, there were things in that society truly worth having, and these are the things that Lily wants so much. She has a genuine “artistic intelligence” and loves everything beautiful and luxurious, but realizes all too well only the rich can have these things. When she hears of Percy Gryce’s engagement to the “dull and dumpy” Evie Van Osburgh, she wonders impatiently, “Why should this clumsy girl be put in possession of powers she would never know how to use?”

Beyond that, Lily was never taught to take care of herself and seems utterly incapable of learning it now. Here again we see the restrictions of her society at work in her, a society in which certain things, like the ability of a woman to snag a man who will provide for her, are taken for granted. Her blunders in that department undermine her social standing to the point where supposed friends, such as the backstabbing Bertha Dorset, turn against her to boost their own status. At a critical moment, Lily turns to Selden’s cousin Gerty, a social worker, for friendship and support. But she is no more capable of living Gerty’s rough, independent life than a tone-deaf person would be of conducting a symphony.

Given her way of clinging to an old-fashioned system even as it mercilessly beats her down, and her inability to free herself, it’s very understandable that Lily frustrates people. There’s a moment in the 2000 film that encapsulates that frustration perfectly.

Throughout her increasingly grim story, Lily has had one ace up her sleeve: she has come into possession of letters written by Bertha Dorset to Selden proving they had once had an affair. She could use them to blackmail Bertha and make enough money to save herself from ruin.

So, of course, at the climax of the story, Lily burns the letters.

In the novel Selden never learns what she has done. In the movie, he does find out, leading to the moment I just mentioned. On discovering the charred remains of Lily’s last hope in his fireplace, Selden (played by Eric Stoltz) shouts, “Oh, Lily!” in a tone that makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time—a tone that’s half horror, half exasperation. In many films it would be over the top but here it fits perfectly. In a word, it’s just so… Lily.

But what Selden comes to understand, as the story draws to its tragic close, is that Lily has achieved her own kind of triumph—that, as Wharton writes, “she had saved herself whole from the seeming ruin of her life.” Underneath all the warped values of her society, underneath her own petty surface standards and ideals, she has held onto something good and real. Her moral sense, guided by her growing feelings for Selden—“I needed the help of your belief in me,” she tells him before leaving him for the last time—has transcended her circumstances. The helpless, self-centered girl, with very little aid or understanding from those around her, has turned into a mature woman and a true heroine.

Honestly, what’s not to love? ♥

* Feb. 13/20, 2012



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