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One of the tragedies in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is that Lily Bart is unable to marry Laurence Selden and thereby secure a safe position in society. Their relationship fluctuates from casual intimacy to outright love depending on how and where Selden perceives Lily. Selden sees a beautious quality in Lily Bart that is not present in any of the other women in the novel. This mysterious beauty that is so often alluded to, in addition to her attraction for the other men, is best understood when Lily is conceived of as the goddess Diana. As Diana, Lily Bart hunts for the perfect husband but cannot marry, remains separate from the “dinginess” of society, and finally is crushed by a remorseless rejection that can even destroy a goddess.
Diana, the goddess of the hunt and of maidenhood, perfectly combines the traits that Lily Bart exhibits. Although never explicitly connected with the goddess, Wharton’s first description of Lily notes her “wild-wood grace” and “sylvan freedom”:
“She paused before the mantelpiece, studying herself in the mirror while she adjusted her veil. The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline, as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality” (15).
Not only the description invokes the image of Diana, but also Lily’s name. The lily-of-the-valley is Diana’s flower. Lily Bart later chooses to wear a plain white dress for her part in the Reynold’s painting, thereby choosing the color of Diana.
All of the scenes where Selden grows closer to Lily thus occur in the woods, indicating that he can perceive her Diana-like qualities when she is in her natural habitat. Even at the very beginning of the novel, we notice that Lily chooses Selden’s street because it is the only street that has trees on it, “some one has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade” (8). The most intimate conversation between them will occur while sitting in a beech grove after having walked through the woods. It is therefore safe to say that when Lily is in the woods her true nature emerges, the nature that Selden considers to be “real” and that he falls in love with. This explains why, during the theatrical presentation at the Wellington Brys’ party, Selden is so deeply affected by the portrait of Lily. She emerges wearing a white dress as part of a Reynold’s painting, “Mrs. Lloyd”, but captivates the audience with her naturalness: “Her pale draperies and the background of foliage against which she stood served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm” (142). Again we see a direct comparison with Diana. Selden is so taken in by this scene that he completely agrees with Gerty Farish when she says, “It makes her look like the real Lily – the Lily I know” (142). His love for Lily is strengthened by the fact that he and Gerty are the only two people who know what Lily really is like. Selden watches the other men judging Lily, and shares a his thoughts with the reader, making the beautiful analogy of Caliban judging Miranda.
Selden’s attraction to Lily is based on two conflicting perceptions: as Diana, Lily is firstly unattainable, and second, her affiliation to nature makes her most desirable when she is in her virgin element. The flirtations between the two characters seem to indicate that both are intimately aware of this paradox. Their walk through the woods culminates in an enigmatic exchange of emotions that can only be understood if Selden is aware that Lily will never marry. She asks him, “Do you want to marry me?”, to which he replies, “No, I don’t want to – but perhaps I should if you did!” (77). Selden, aware he cannot marry her, restrains his love for her and indicates that he would love her if she were able to marry him.
In spite of his knowledge that Lily cannot marry, Selden makes the mistake of thinking she will. After her Reynold’s scene at the Wellington Bry’s party, he sneaks Lily off to the garden in order to again view her with foliage around her, culminating in the only act of sexual exchange in the novel, a kiss.
“She hardly noticed where Selden was leading her till they passed through a glass doorway at the end of the long suite of rooms and stood suddenly in the fragrant hush of a garden. Gravel grated beneath their feet, and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the depths of foliage and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among lilies” (144).
This is Selden’s way of putting Lily back into the painting, now among lilies, and it allows him to view her in her “pure” god-like state. Unfortunately for Selden, Lily soon turns away from him with the cry, “Ah, love me, love me – but don’t tell me so!” (145). It is fine for him to love her, but he can never win her. This characteristic trait of running away will affect her relationships with all the other suitors in the novel.
Lily’s paradoxical behavior towards all the men wooing her is thus explained by the parallels between her and Diana. In the same way Diana represents the goddess of the hunt but simultaneously is the goddess of virgins, Lily will hunt for eligible men to marry yet never actually marry them. That Lily is hunting the men is made clear in the second chapter with Percy Gryce, and later in her conversation with Mrs. Trenor: “Why don’t you say it Judy? I have the reputation of being on the hunt for a rich husband?” (49). She is incredibly successful as well, getting every single eligible man (and even one ineligible man) to propose to her. However, in spite of her success, Lily is unable to commit to any of them. She indulges in a walk with Selden that ruins her chances with Percy Gryce. Later, while trying to choose between Rosedale and George Dorset, she rejects both of them by either literally running away or by mentally running away.
As Diana, Lily’s main motivation for not using the letters against Bertha Dorset is no longer a moral one, but rather one of marriage. Lily Bart has frequently been interpreted as the most moral character in a world of corrupt and shameless individuals who slowly destroy her. Her decline at the end of the novel is frequently explained as being the result of her high morals, morals that prevent her from using her letters against Bertha Dorset. However, this explanation fails on two points: can we really accept that Lily is the most moral character when she participates in the society as much as anyone else, and are morals enough to justify her failure to use the letters? It is inconceivable that a woman as intimately aware of the social codes as Lily is would not bring herself to attack Bertha Dorset as soon as possible. Furthermore, viewing Lily as the moral heroine of the novel first requires that her actions live up to such a label. This is difficult to justify given that she lies to Rosedale already in the first chapter, and by the next chapter we see that her interest in Americana is motivated purely so that she can win Percy Gryce. Later on, Lily is perfectly happy to be on the Dorset yacht, fully aware that she is there to distract Mr. Dorset away from his wife’s infidelities. Thus, the only major piece of evidence that could place Lily on a moral high ground relative to the other characters is her failure to use the letters. However, this can be better explained as resulting from her innate inability to marry rather than from any altruistic tendencies. She is twice tempted to make use of the letters, first by George Dorset and then by Rosedale, and both times rejects using them only when marriage is hinted at. Thus, when Lily meets George Dorset along the country lane, she indicates that she is being sorely tempted to consider marrying him, and it is this temptation that causes her to reject him. Her encounter with Rosedale progresses along similar lines. “And it was not, after the first moment, the horror of the idea [to use the letters against Bertha Dorset] that held her spell-bound, subdued to [Rosedale’s] will; it was rather its subtle affinity to her own inmost cravings. He would marry her tomorrow if she could regain Bertha Dorset’s friendship” (268). Lily seriously contemplates Rosedale’s proposed course of action until he goes on to say: “You can’t put the thing through without me; …and here I am, ready to lift you out of ?em tomorrow if you say so. Do you say so, Miss Lily?” (269). As Rosedale moves closer to her, Lily panics and jumps away from him, immediately disavowing the entire plan. Thus it is her inability to marry, not morals, that causes her to ultimately reject both Rosedale and Dorset.
Lily’s inability to marry allows her to be elevated above the mediocre society that she struggles to join. Wharton cleverly places Lily above the members of the elite New York society by describing her as Diana. As the only figure equated with one of the gods, Lily is able to remain somewhat distinguishable from the other, base characters. The story would be boring if she were the same as Bertha Dorset. Lily’s charm is that she seems to be fighting to enter the society and yet remains aloof from it. In order to accomplish this sense of distinction, Wharton cannot allow her heroine to marry. Were Lily to enter into a union with any of the men that are interested in her, she would lose the “sylvan freedom” that Selden so admires in her. Marriage represents a way of dragging a woman into society, and in the process it destroys the very part of her that is aloof from the society, her individuality. Rosedale expresses this when he tells Lily, “with a big backing behind you, you’ll keep her just where you want her to be” (269). In other words, by marrying Rosedale, Lily is forced to become the same kind of person that Bertha Dorset is, and she loses her separate identity in the process. The irony here is that marriage serves as an escape route for all the other young women except Lily, and in fact tends to lend them more freedom. Gwen Van Osburgh is the best example of this. After she marries Jack Stepney, her entire attitude towards life changes. “But [Stepney’s] wife, to his surprise and discomfiture, had developed an earth-shaking fastness of gait which left him trailing breathlessly in her wake” (192). We are given to understand that free from the Van Osburgh code of conduct, Gwen now is able to do what she wants to. Lily, however, does not fit this mold. Having not been brought up with a strict family code, she has developed a freedom that would be destroyed by marriage. In this way Lily is ironically forced to flee from marriage in order to be free.
The House of Mirth is a biting social analysis that Wharton brilliantly interprets through Lily’s downfall. Selden’s unrealized love for Lily Bart hinges on his realization that it is her Diana-like qualities that set her apart; yet it is this same distinct quality that will bring about her demise. Lily’s inability to resurrect her reputation and use the letters against Bertha Dorset is intimately tied to her inability to marry; her pattern of running away from each man that proposes to her plunges her into a downward spiral from which she cannot recover. It is not morals, but rather her qualities as the virgin goddess that ultimately doom her. By making Lily into a form of Diana, Wharton is able to condemn her society even more fiercely. She shows us that the society Lily lives in has the ability to destroy even a goddess.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Signet Classic: New York. 1964.
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