Sunday, January 8, 2012
Lily Bart in The House of Mirth
I'm about halfway though The House of Mirth but I have to write something about Lily Bart. I think she's a fascinating character...I'm always interested in female characters who are trapped in stifling outward roles despite possessing a beautiful inner world full of original, interesting thoughts and a desperate desire to be free and to live a life independent of society's norms and restrictions.
Lily Bart is a beautiful woman with no parents and no money. She was born into the upper classes and made her debut in society, but at 29 she remains unmarried and reliant on her aunt's charity. She has a natural affinity for beauty and luxury...to me, her desire for a luxurious life does not seem superficial. I think Lily is very sensitive to the beauty in life and finds fulfillment, inspiration, and a kind of joie de vivre in lovely things. The world that fits her is a beautiful world in which dowdiness, passivity, and unimaginative day to day drudgery are unacceptable. Unfortunately, the only way that she can inhabit this world permanently is to marry rich.
I guess it could be said that one of the sad things in the novel is how Lily has many chances to change her life, but she never succeeds in doing this. If she can just (finally) make a choice and commit herself to a man, she can live comfortably for the rest of her life. But to do this would also be completely against her character. On the one hand, Lily wants an exquisite life in high society...but her strong sense of self, her desire to live freely, her repugnance at being possessed by a man like a brainless doll get in the way of her plans to marry rich. She cannot help but rebel, even when she is incredibly close to success.
To me this seems really amazing actually. Lily is very aware of her poverty and such a life of insecurity would cause most people to jump at the first opportunity of a comfortable, secure future. However, Lily is so resistant to having her sense of self, her identity, her freedom be swept away, tainted, bought that she refuses to bend even in the most dire times.
It's also interesting to note how most men in the novel are presented as oily, ignorant buffoons. They are easily manipulated by women and possess very narrow and shallow minds. The one exception is the man Lily genuinely loves but cannot marry because he is a lawyer (in this world lawyers are not rich enough - and they actually have to work - gasp!). He is an outsider who sees the high society world for the ridiculous theatrical performance that it truly is. He reads books, says witty things, and thinks his own thoughts. He seems to be a perfect match for Lily. He appreciates and admires her mind...he only becomes attracted to her after becoming the first person to enter her inner world and getting acquainted with her real thoughts and ideas. If this was a Hollywood movie, they would totally end up together...eating a candlelit dinner in his modest but comfortable apartment and having a witty conversation reflective of their equality. Alas, Lily needs luxury. And while that makes her sound selfish and shallow, Edith Wharton makes her so easy to sympathize with. I really hope the ending won't be too sad.
And now, more reading! And tea!