The Significance of Lily Bart’s Death
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 ppear 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.
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 deathbed, drifting into unconsciousness, Lily struggles with the effort to speak, ‘she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden … if she could only remember it… everything would be well. ’ (p. 283) However, she dies with this word on her lips. 6 Lily lacks self-ownership because of her unmarried status. She cannot fully possess herself – could this be the meaning behind the word that is left unsaid?
Could the word she wanted to tell Selden be ‘freedom’? Earlier in the novel when walking with Selden in the park, Lily listens as he defines what ‘success’ means for him, ‘My idea of success,… is personal freedom… from everything – from money, from poverty… from all the material accidents’ (p. 60). It appears that both Lily and Selden were too late in realising that it was in fact this freedom they both desired. The withholding of the word ultimately denies the reader access to Lily’s dying thoughts.
However, it is this switch from omniscient narration to free indirect discourse that allows the reader to fill this “textual space”. Wharton manages to position the novel as psychological realism bordering on modernism. 7 Lily is repeatedly defeated. The aunt who should be there to rescue her disinherits her; her friend Bertha Dorset should be there for her, yet she throws her out in order to protect her own reputation; the man who should have faith in her, cannot trust her long enough to overcome his own emotional meticulousness.
We see Lily being taken from the heights to her death in an unrelenting fall. 8 Lily realises that her status as a lady does not exempt her from the sufferings of womanhood. We see this in her awareness of her own body as its ornamental features begin to weaken, her luxuriant hair begins to thin, her glowing features will become ‘dull and colourless’ in the millinery workshop (p. 247). Her hands are at first described as ‘polished as a bit of old ivory’ (p. 7). Yet, in her altercation with Gus Trenor, Lily becomes aware that these lovely hands are also ‘helpless’ and ‘useless’ (p. 30).
She realises that her hands are now that of a working woman, ungraceful and clumsy. 9 Lily lives in a society so insistently materialistic and self-serving that it carelessly destroys what is most beautiful and blameless within it. Lily is a heroine who is competent at making decisions and dealing with the consequences, yet, at the same time defenceless against an array of internal and external forces that constrict choice. Wharton conveys the source of Lily’s troubles not only in her personality, but also in the society that produced her.
This society discourages women like Lily from becoming independent identities, instead making them out to be nothing more than aesthetic objects. We see this in Lily’s performance in the tableau vivant scene. The scene underlines Lily’s creative potential but proves to be more problematic than victorious. She attracts the attention of Selden but at the same time she excites the aggressive sexual hunger of Gus Trenor, who later tries to gain sexual favours as repayment for the load she accepted from him. 10
The shifts in Lily’s personal fortunes parallel disruptions in society as shifting values and behaviours form new patterns of social inclusion and exclusion. After the Civil War, urbanisation, industrialisation and commercialisation – along with the arrival of new moneyed industrialists and entrepreneurs – Old New York’s social demography became altered. Lily struggles to settle in such an adjusted social landscape in which her assets – beauty and status – can not compete with her escalating social and financial debts.
Without any funds or wealthy husband it is inevitable that Lily can only descend the social ladder whilst the newly wealthy, can only climb. 11 In her meeting with Nettie Struther Lily sees herself emulated in her and her baby – Nettie’s accomplishments seem beyond any she had imagined for herself. Lily gives in to the desire for physical connection by holding her baby (p. 276). The scene of Lily on her deathbed hallucinating about holding the baby can be seen as both sentimental and regressive, or even as a sign of Lily’s retreat in to the safety of infantilism.
Moreover, the hallucination could speak for Lily’s stimulated sense of loving solidarity and community. We see how far Lily has come even in her death. She is an honestly awakened woman; she recognises her own position in the community of women workers. Her enlightenment is slow and distressing, ‘It was as though a great blaze of electric light had been turned on in her head… She had not imagined that such a multiplication of wakefulness was possible: her whole past was re-enacting itself at a hundred different points of consciousness’ (p. 82). 12 It is women like Nettie who represent the new working women of the future, women with independent needs to survive.
The fact that Nettie’s baby is a girl may signify that the future not only rests with a woman like Nettie, but more so in the new hope for the future for her baby. When Lily returns to her lonely room, she realises with ‘intense clearness’ her separation from the ‘solidarity of life’ from true association with others, that she is ‘mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence’ p. 279). Lily is strong enough to face deep realisation about her individuality, yet exhausted by what she has been through, she shrinks from ‘the glare of thought as instinctively as eyes contract in a blaze of light – darkness, darkness was what she must have at any cost. ’ (p. 282). Chloral brings Lily passiveness; it dulls and then eliminates the truth she has reached about her separate identity and connections she has never attained with others.
As a sense of ‘complete subjugation’ comes over her, Lily loses what Claire Kahane refers to as the “tenuous and fundamentally ambivalent struggle for a separate identity, the struggle with the maternal self that figures ‘the forces of life and death’”. 13 Throughout the novel we see that Lily never actually owns anything, apart from a diminishing supply of personal adornments. She always lives in borrowed spaces, and dies of ‘isolation’. Even Lily’s own room is a space that is owned, furnished and maintained by others. 14 Lily has class without money and thus manners without the social position connected to them.
It seems Lily is the only person with true class, everyone who has money has no manners. The result is devastating; Lily has to die among the people who disregard manners, and thus herself. 15 Lily’s end is as ambiguous as her beginning, with its double binds and sterile ideals. On one level her death serves to condemn a legal and social order that refuses women the “inviolable personalities” possessed by men.
The fragmentation that accompanies Lily’s death implies that the “real Lily Bart” may be nothing more than a fiction – a version of “personality” from which both the heroine and Wharton seek shelter. 6 One could see Lily’s death as a complete surrender, yielding to be nothing more than beautiful; she dies untouched, symbolically, as the flower whose name she bears. It is the wealth and status that Lily has so passionately desired which finally destroy her. She has not only become a victim of her society but an icon, symbolic of its essential cruelty and contradictions.