The House of Mirth Essential Quotes by Character: Lily Bart

Edith Wharton

Essential Quotes by Character: Lily Bart

Essential Passage 1: Book I (Chapter 3)

She was beginning to have fits of angry rebellion against fate, when she longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself. But what manner of life would it be? She had barely enough money to pay her dress-makers’ bills and her gambling debts; and none of the desultory interests which she dignified with the name of tastes was pronounced enough to enable her to live contentedly in obscurity. Ah, no—she was too intelligent not to be honest with herself. She knew that she hated dinginess as much as her mother had hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it, dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch.

At twenty-nine years of age, Lily Bart was unmarried and living with a widowed aunt since the death of her parents. For a lady in New York society at the turn of the century, this was paramount to failure in life. However, it is not that Lily has not tried. At this point, she is busy going from friend to friend, staying at their homes, enjoying their hospitality and social life in hopes of landing an acceptable husband (acceptable meaning rich and of high social standing). Her independent ways in the past has not yielded her as “marketable material,” yet she continues to make the effort. She is staying with her friends, the Trenors, and has set her eyes on Percy Gryce, an immensely wealthy yet shy man. She has little respect for him and even less in common with the bookish and socially awkward gentleman, yet he has shown an interest in her and thus has become a target for Lily’s matrimonial intentions. However, she sees the futility of this life. It is not what she wants. She would prefer to live independently of anyone’s expectations. Yet to do so would mean that she must give up her position in society, acquire a way to make a living, and living simply. This is something she absolutely cannot do.

Essential Passage 2: Book I (Chapter 6)

“I don’t know,” she said, “why you are always accusing me of premeditation.”

“I thought you confessed to it: you told me the other day that you had to follow a certain line—and if one does a thing at all, it is a merit to do it thoroughly.”

“If you mean that a girl who has no one to think for her is obliged to think for herself, I am quite willing to accept the imputation. But you must find me a dismal kind of person if you suppose that I never yield to an impulse.”

“Ah, but I don’t suppose that; haven’t I told you that your genius lies in converting impulses into intentions?”

“My genius?” she echoed with a sudden note of weariness. “Is there any final test of genius but success? And I certainly haven’t succeeded.”

Selden pushed his hat back and took a side-glance at her. “Success—what is success? I shall be interested to have your definition.”

“Success?” She hesitated. “Why, to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose. It’s a relative quality, after all. Isn’t that your idea of it?”

“My idea of it? God forbid!” He sat up with sudden energy, resting his elbows on his knees and staring out upon the mellow fields. “My idea of success,” he said, “is personal freedom.”

“Freedom? Freedom from worries?

“From everything—from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit—that’s what I call success.”

She leaned forward with a responsive flash. “I know—I know—it’s strange; but that’s just what I’ve been feeling today.”

Lily, spending the weekend at the home of her friends, the Trenors, is endeavoring to “catch” Percy Gryce and thus succeed at what is deemed the most important thing for a woman in New York society at the time—marriage with a rich man. She has definitely attracted is attention and his regard, thus seeming to have paved the way for an eventual relationship. Yet with the arrival of Laurence Selden, Lily begins to waver. Selden serves as her conscience and readily sees her for what she is, both the good and the bad. While she claims that success means a fortuitous marriage which will enable her to live in the style in which she is accustomed, Selden sees it as freedom from the two extremes, both in terms of finances and lifestyle. To him, success is freedom from shackling expectations of the world in which they both live. Lily...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)