Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Lily Bart, a fascinating, beautiful young woman sacrificed to the false ideals of New York social life, the belief that a “good” marriage is preferable to a happy one and that appearances must be maintained, regardless of the expense. Through the machinations of a jealous wife whose husband has fallen in love with Lily, the hapless woman is eventually brought to social disgrace, poverty, and death.
Lawrence Selden, an intellectual young bachelor lawyer in love with Lily. Although he prefers to remain on the outskirts of New York high society, he is popular and invited into many fashionable homes. Always in the background, he tries to steer Lily’s life for her, but he is too weak to marry her.
Gertrude Farish, called Gerty, Selden’s cousin, who lives alone in a modest apartment and is much taken up with philanthropy. In desperation, Lily goes to her for help, but Gertrude can offer her little solace.
Mr. Rosedale, a young Jewish financier who is trying to enter the upper brackets of New York society. At the beginning of the story, when Lily retains her position in society, he wants to marry her. Later, after her conduct has been questioned and she is willing to marry him, he is no longer interested.
Percy Gryce, a shy young man protected from designing...
(The entire section is 765 words.)
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Lily Bart is one of Edith Wharton's finest achievements. At the very center of Lily's character is a conflict between the desire to be free and the need to submit to the dictates of society — in this case of a society controlled by careless, manipulative people like the Trenors and the Dorsets. Lily never conceives of this conflict in terms of freedom and submission. Rather she applies the Victorian standard of the "nice girl" and the "bad girl" to her behavior. Raised to be a "nice girl," she repeatedly accuses herself of being bad: "a bad girl — all my thoughts are bad." This badness is the result of her submission to the debased moral standards of the Trenors and the Dorsets. Ultimately she rejects these standards, but by that time she has lost her chance for freedom. To secure her self respect, she literally bankrupts herself at the end of the novel.
The two main male characters represent the two poles of behavior available to Lily. Lawrence Selden, a bachelor lawyer, lacks the means to support a Lily Bart but appreciates her beauty and despises the materialistic society that Lily wants to be a part of. He represents an ideal of moral behavior that Lily aspires to; however, his moral superiority is achieved by a reluctance to participate fully in the dirty business of life. Selden comes close to proposing to Lily several times but always hangs fire at the crucial moment. At the end of the novel he recognizes that it was "cowardice" that drove him...
(The entire section is 368 words.)
As The House of Mirth opens, its heroine, Lily Bart, is an unmarried woman in her late twenties. Though Lily was born into New York society, the financial ruin of her father brought to an end her world of ease, luxury, and social stability. While she enjoys the comforts of home afforded by her wealthy Aunt Julia, Lily lacks the means to keep up with her circle of friends, who enjoy the finest objects and entertainment their wealth can bring them. As Lily scrambles to keep up with her mounting bills, she knows that her only hope to maintain her social position is to marry and marry well.
The House of Mirth traces Lily’s course as she unsuccessfully attempts to fulfill this goal. She is unable to marry any of the men who offer their hand because of her own ambivalence. Every time Lily comes close to winning a husband, such as Percy Gryce, she finds herself unable to follow through on her plan. Her attraction to Laurence Selden is partly responsible for her changes of mind, but so is her own recognition of the coarseness, dullness, and pettiness that inhabit many of her acquaintances. In marrying for money, Lily would join their ranks, and a stubborn core prevents her from doing so. Lily continues to maintain hold of her finer spirit by refusing to use Bertha Dorset’s love letters to Selden to blackmail her way back into society, and by denying herself a means to live by using her inheritance to repay Gus Trenor.
(The entire section is 376 words.)
Once Lily’s friend, Bertha becomes her worst enemy. Bertha is a married woman, who in the course of the two years the novel takes place, has several affairs, including one with Selden. In the midst of an affair and needing to keep her husband George occupied, Bertha invites Lily to accompany the couple on a trip to Europe. When her husband discovers the affair, Bertha sacrifices Lily to save herself by implying publicly that Lily has attempted to seduce George. Not content with destroying Lily’s reputation in Europe, Bertha also spreads rumors and gossip in New York, to the extent that Lily is completely cast aside by her former friends. Unbeknownst to Bertha, Lily holds power over her in the form of love letters that Bertha sent Selden. Lily refuses to capitalize on these letters, and when she burns the letters and dies, Bertha’s secret is destroyed at the same time.
Cuckolded husband George Dorset is married to a woman who disrespects him and is unfaithful to him. After he finds out about his wife Bertha’s affair in Monte Carlo, he turns to Lily for help. He asks her to help him prove Bertha’s unfaithfulness, and says if she does so, he will marry her, but Lily refuses his request.
Considered to be drab and colorless, Gerty Farish is a social worker. She represents the “new woman” of the early twentieth century with her economic independence and...
(The entire section is 1128 words.)