Lily Bart's Power
In the first scene of Wharton’s masterpiece The House of Mirth, Laurence Selden queries Lily Bart, “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?” Lily replies with a sigh, “I suppose so. What else is there?” This brief, simple exchange underscores one of the most crucial truths to the tragedy of Lily Bart. As the characters who populate Lily’s world accurately understand, a young woman’s sole calling at the turn of the century was to marry, and in Lily’s case, to marry well. In this era the country was firmly entrenched in “the cult of true womanhood,” which called for a woman to devote herself to her family and her home. On the whole, Americans had little use for an unmarried woman nor did they see reason why she should enjoy any measure of that which is so important to Laurence Selden (Lily’s male counterpart): “personal freedom.” Note that the only major female character who deviates from this pattern is Gerty Farish, for whom Lily feels pity.
In Lily Bart, however, Wharton creates a woman with sensibilities far more modern than those of her environment. Lily refuses to wholly submit to society’s gender roles, and is unable to marry a man who is beneath her simply to fulfill her expected purpose. Such incendiary behavior does not go unpunished, and Lily is ejected from society. However, she has been trained for no other direction in life than to ensnare a husband, and Lily comes to believe she has no options. She frankly tells Selden on the last day of her life, “I am a very useless person. . . . I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else.” Rather than model herself after other women she knows, perhaps Gerty Farish or even Nettie Struther, Lily chooses to give herself up to a deep sleep—which notably is the only place where she allows herself to give in to the “the soft approach of passiveness”—that becomes her final sleep.
Unlike traditional protagonists, Lily lacks the power to create her own life. She is not unusual in this respect, for Wharton clearly shows the reader a society in which women only hold power through the men they marry. Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset are both paradigms in society, but their power derives from their husbands’ wealth, not through any intrinsic value of their own. As the authorial voice notes, “Bertha Dorset’s social credit was based on an impregnable bank-account.” In addition to grasping power through financial prowess, power for women may be obtained through personal connection. This method is epitomized through the character of Mattie Gormer, an arriviste to old New York who nevertheless is able to ascend the social ladder through her friendship with Bertha.
For Lily, an orphan with little money of her own, marriage remains the sole means to obtain a firm place in New York society and become powerful in her own right. The only tool at her disposal is her uncommon beauty, whose value was exalted by her mother Mrs. Bart, a woman who, after her husband’s financial ruin, regarded Lily’s beauty as “the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian.” Thus, while still in her formative years, Lily became a prisoner of her own body. Further, when Mrs. Bart looked at Lily’s beauty she also saw a force of destruction, “some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance” against the society that did not accord her enough respect because of her lack of great wealth. Although Lily also recognized her unique physical attraction, she “liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.” Unfortunately, Mrs. Bart’s belief system reflected that of the world around her; since her debut at the age of eighteen, Lily had several chances to wed wealth, but as she reveals to Selden, a marriage such as her mother envisioned is, at its very core, “disagreeable.”...
(The entire section is 1705 words.)