Lily Bart’s Self-Redemption
The House of Mirth Book Review
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, is a touching story that ends in the death of the protagonist, Lily Bart. Born to an upper-class family that gradually loses its money, Bart barely escapes becoming a trophy wife many times to people grossly inferior to her in multiple ways. Her real dilemma begins when she meets Seldon, an attorney both her intellectual and spiritual equal. Inspired by Seldon, Bart’s endeavors to redeem herself leads to her being rejected by society, and she eventually dies sad, poor, and lonely. Edith, the author, strongly criticizes society for not providing opportunities for inspired females like Bart to redeem themselves.
Bart’s needs from redemption originates from the upper-class world in which she is brought up, where extravagance is the norm, and marriage a necessity. Her mother, for example, is “talked into” marrying her father for convenience. The absence of love creates an emptiness in Mrs. Bart that she unsuccessfully tries to fill with luxury. When her lifestyle of extravagance is threatened, Mrs. Bart repeatedly confronts Mr. Bart, asking whether he expected her to “'live like a pig'"(37). The empty relationship turns Mr. Bart into a bank account instead of a true father and husband, leaving Lily clueless as to what being a husband and father truly means. After Mrs. Bart’s excessive spending brings forth bankruptcy and ruin to the entire family, Lily is further poisoned by her mother’s wrong notion of life: "But you'll get it back — you'll get it all back, with your face"(37).
This poisonous notion of marriage for extravagancy complicates Bart and Seldon’s chance encounter and natural attraction. When Seldon spots the Bart in the crowd, “his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart”, and “an impulse of curiosity made him turn” (p. 3). However, they are precluded from becoming a couple according to upper-class rules. Bart is predetermined by society to be a trophy wife to a rich, upper-class person and spend the rest of her life in wasteful extravagance, while Seldon, an unfit match because of his poverty and social status, should not be even considered for marriage. Seldon, previously rejected by a previous lover for the same reason, also develops a strong sense of rationality to shield himself from further romantic involvements. For these reasons, their initial encounter is shadowed by bitterness when Bart feels it necessary to lie to Mr. Rosedale, concealing the fact that she had just visited Seldon, which leads to further misunderstandings.
While Bart tries to conceal her meeting Seldon to others, she is nevertheless drawn to him. Being her intelligent equal, Seldon comments frankly about Bart’s limitation of the purpose of life as an object: “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you are all brought up for?” (p. 11) The directness shows a certain level of mutual trust and understanding. Seldon then shares his life value: “My idea of success, is personal freedom. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit - that’s what I call success” (p. 91). Probably never hearing of such opinion before, Bart “leaned forward with a responsive flash. ‘I know—I know—it’s strange; but that’s just what I’ve been feeling today’ (p. 91). The fact that she feels spiritually connected is subtly shown in her body language and obviously demonstrated by her answer.
Once inspired, however, Bart’s previous habits and issues start to haunt her, including her excessive spending habits and playing bridge for money. By birth and rearing, like females her time, she lacks monetary management skills. Her ignorance to finance causes her to misjudge the money Gus Trenor pays her after she requests him to invest her money. She is naively unaware that Trenor actually invests his own money, pays out of his own account. When Trenor discloses that he has been secretly expecting “certain reward” from her, Bart is determined to repay Trenor in spite of her having spent all the money. This causes irrevocable harm to her reputation.
By describing the hostility Bart received from society after her new discovery of the purpose of life, Edith criticizes the society for a rigid gender role imposed on her. People get bored of Bart as she fails to act as a trophy wife as expected. When Bertha Dorset spreads rumor about Bart to hide her own unfaithfulness, the whole society stands with Mrs. Dorset and alienates Bart. Bart could have cleared her name using Mrs. Dorset’s love letter, but Bart’s integrity and unwillingness to implicate Seldon prevents her from carrying it out. Despite her nobleness and innocence, the whole society misunderstands her, distrusts her, and none of her previous relatives nor friends is willing to support her financially, mentally or spiritually. She is left to struggle in life alone and trapped in unpreparedness, helplessness and powerlessness.
However, Bart is brave and determined to redeem herself financially without anyone’s help by living a totally different life. She gets out of her addiction to extravagance and goes on to live alone in a poor neighborhood in poverty as a female worker. She even befriends working class female friend and feels “a sense of warm and returning life” (p. 428). Eventually, she repays all her debt incurred due to her financial ignorance and saves her reputation. However, she pays too high a premium as her devastated life in solitariness damages her mental and physical health irrevocably.
Eventually, Bart’s life burns out during redemption, and her appreciation of Seldon accompanies her last moments. Seldon alienates from her like everyone else, and fails as her last, best and actually the only hope, because his strong rational thinking style greatly overpowers his romantic side. Nevertheless, Bart treasures her encounter with Seldon till the end: “Do you remember what you said to me once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well-you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always helped me” (p. 419). For that moment, Bart is understood, seen, and heard for the first time not as an object for a trophy wife, but as an independent subject with her uniqueness, beauty, and value. In that moment, she feels truly trusted, tolerated and accepted despite her numerous imperfections and contradictions.
As her redemption, Bart experiences all these poverty, dejection and loneness with patience and peaceful mind. With her own inner strength, Bart finds her “penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure” before passing away and meeting her unforeseeable death (p. 438). This contrast between her gentleness and unjust death is a loud criticism to the society’s failure to prepare and accept awaken females to lead a new and meaningful life. Similarly, nowadays people awaken to American dreams deserve a realistic chance and way to realize their dreams through reasonable hard work, be them new immigrants, African Americans, or otherwise in relative disadvantageous situation.