First of all, I don’t know what kind of a sick sadist Edith Wharton was, creating a character as delicious as Lily Bart, making her stumble down the steps of high society until she sprawls in the dismal, dingy depths of poverty, allows her a moment of shining self discovery and then promptly kills her. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant piece of literature, but really Edith, you’re breaking my heart.
The House of Mirth is a novel, which through the eyes of its clearly flawed, but completely lovable protagonist, allows the reader to notice and criticize his or her perception and dependence on money. Lily is physically dependant on money and wealth, which technically we all are. You can’t survive without food. What do you need in order to obtain food? That’s right everyone who said money. Those of you who said a rifle are somewhat right because they bought that rifle with MONEY! This sort of physical dependence is not entirely congruous with Lily’s. In the presence of wealth, Lily’s vitality is fueled, “The glow of the stones [we mean gemstones here, not river rocks] warmed Lily’s veins like wine.” (89) As Lily has less and less money her health also deteriorates. It is partly this physical dependence that allows the reader to sympathize with Lily’s desire to remain in the upper class, even when the ugliness of that world is revealed. Lily possesses the moral strength which her other upper class “friends” do not, however she does not lack selfishness that her luxurious upbringing taught her to be acceptable.
Though this novel has the initial impression of being very gossipy and petty, the realistic portrayal of humanity is unparalleled. The conversations between characters are particularly vivid and recognizable. With our classic duo, star-crossed lovers whom fate has determined to keep apart, Lawrence Selden and Lily are constantly involved in a sort of give-and-take argument that is familiar if you have ever been at odds with someone you love. It’s clear that if one of the two would set aside their pride, they could have found love, yet Selden is unwilling to show Lily sympathy or trust, while she is unwilling to allow herself to be vulnerable to him. The novel’s ending rivals Romeo and Juliet in terms of tragic irony. For all lovers of the drama and decadence of The Great Gatsby, The House of Mirth is certainly similar in that sense. However, the protagonists could not remain more different.
While Nick remains somewhat separate from the high society world, Lily is a slave. It is that desperation that makes The House of Mirth such a tragic, yet also satisfying novel. Right before her death, it seems that Lily is completely certain of her identity, while throughout the novel she is constantly acting as the person that everyone would like her to be. It is this realization that allows the reader not to wallow in misery, but to celebrate Lily’s victory as we wipe our tears away.