Assignment one – Discuss the significance of Lily Bart’s death at the end of The House of Mirth. You should consider the implications both for the protagonist’s social milieu and for women in general at this point in American history.
The significance of Lily Bart’s death.
As a writer looking towards the twentieth century Wharton faced the challenge of telling the history of women past the age of thirty. The age of thirty was established as the threshold by nineteenth-century conventions. The conventions of ‘girlhood’ and marriage ability; a psychological observation about the formation of the female identity. Wharton shared Freud’s pessimism about the difficulties of change for women. In his essay ‘femininity’, Sigmund Freud (1933) claimed that women’s psyches and personalities became fixed by the time they reached thirty. 1 The House of Mirth begins in New York’s grandiose gateway that is Grand Central Station; it ends in a dark, shabby hall bedroom. Twenty-nine year old Lily is poised between worlds – a staid old society and unknown new one. She slowly descends by class, and dies by suicide. Wharton lightens this melodramatic ending by not quite allowing Lily to actually commit suicide, instead she is portrayed as simply not caring enough about life to count her sleeping drops correctly.2
Lily Bart is neither the educated, socially conscious or rebellious New Woman. She does not find meaning for her life in solitude and creativity. Her skills and morality are those of the Perfect Lady. She rises to the occasion quite superbly whenever there is a crisis – when her aunt disinherits her, Simon Rosedale rejects her and Bertha Dorset insults her. Her would-be New Man Lawrence Selden is who she turns to for friendship and faith. Selden criticises her for being ‘perfect’ to ‘everyone’; but demands extra moral perfection that can only ultimately be fulfilled by Lily dying.3
Lily’s story progresses against a paradigm of what was expected of the ‘proper’ young lady. The conventional arrangements for a leisure-class lady were a social debut, followed by courtship, engagement and a wedding. However, the novel opens with ‘tea at a bachelor’s flat’ which at first may appear quite trivial, yet, it is the start of a fatal sequence. Such things were warned of in etiquette books, even in the new twentieth century. Lawrence Selden assures Lily at the beginning of the novel, ‘Oh, I’m not dangerous’ (p.6). However, by judging her, behaving intimately then distancing himself and interfering every time she is about to act upon securing her future welfare, he turns out to be quite dangerous. Somewhat indirectly, Selden could ultimately be considered responsible for Lily’s death.4 Selden does not realise that Lily could have saved her failing reputation by simply disclosing Bertha Dorset’s letters to him. He never does know that she possessed and destroyed them. In Lily’s death he has lost forever the opportunity to learn that she may have sacrificed herself in order to preserve his reputation and his memory of her.5 We can almost see through Lily’s uniqueness, the lonely quest of ladylike manners in the midst of crudeness and spite; making us feel that she is the last lady in New York, the ‘lone and solitary’ survivor of a bygone age. Wharton decides that Lily cannot survive, that the upper-class lady has to die in order to make way for the modern woman who will work, love and give birth. Lily’s ladylike self-silencing reminds us of her incapability to rise above the evasions that confine her conversations with Selden. In her search for a husband it is, in a sense, an effort to be ‘spoken for’. However, she has the opposite effect and is ‘spoken of’ by men. Although Lily has such a great desire to tell Selden the truth about herself, she is only capable of making hints which he is unable to comprehend. All of her tears, body language and gestures are wasted on him. Even as she is on her...
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