In The House of Mirth Edith Wharton tells the story of the adult life of Lily Bart—a woman trying to make her way in the society of early nineteenth century New York City. The readers are quickly shown what type of person Lily is through her actions during the story. It can be argued either way that Lily is a good or bad person, when in actuality it is neither. When the book begins, Lily is shown to be a somewhat unlikable person. However, as the novel goes on, Lily gradually becomes a much better person. This progression is shown through Lily’s struggle to find marriage, her interactions with other people, and her outlook on society.
To begin with, Lily is completely focused on finding a husband. In this society, it is very rare to find a woman without a husband, so it makes sense for Lily to be looking for one. However, it is for the reasons that she is looking, that reveal what kind of person she is. Lily is searching for a husband, merely to raise her social standings and to become rich. When Lily believes that she will be marrying Percy Gryce, she is very pleased because “her money troubles were too recent for their removal not to leave a sense of relief […]” (Wharton 39). By expressing her cheerfulness of marrying Percy simply because she will be rid of all her money issues shows that Lily is very shallow and doesn’t really care for Percy at all. However as the novel goes on, it is shown that Lily does actually have some hesitation for marrying someone only for money and social elevation. She realizes that she could have been involved in “the conventional rich marriage which she had been taught to consider the sole end of existence” (126) a couple of times now “but when the opportunity came she had always shrunk from it” (126). Even though she didn’t know it at the time, Lily actually never truly wanted to marry just for money; there was always something inside her that told her it was wrong. So Lily actually isn’t that bad of a person as she is originally depicted to be.
It is further shown what type of person Lily is in the way she acts towards other people. Very quickly in the story it is said that “Training and experience had taught her to be hospitable to newcomers, since the most unpromising might be useful later on (12). This explains that the first thing Lily thinks of whenever she meets someone new is how she can later use them to help her get what she wants. All she sees a person as is a tool to help her get father in life. This was also shown in her need to marry rich. More specifically, in the beginning when Lily first sees Percy Gryce on the train “she began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack” (13). Immediately Lily starts planning how she can use Percy to her benefit, which is in this case marriage. Another constant problem that arises in Lily’s life is her need for more money. She is constantly spending money she doesn’t have on dresses, bridge, and other unnecessary items. When she realizes her predicament, she seeks help from Gus Trenor asking for “the greatest of favors” (67). At this point Lily knows that Trenor is having some issues with his wife and his infatuation with Lily. Being the way she is Lily uses this hold she has over Trenor to get him to help her with her problem. This all shows that at first Lily is a very manipulative person and cares little for the feelings of the people she is using. However, Lily does abandon this habit in probably the situation that it would have been most useful. Lily at this point is almost completely cast out from society because Bertha Dorset spread a rumor that Lily and George Dorset were having an affair. However, Lily has some love letter Bertha sent to Lawrence during their affair that could easily knock Bertha out of society and Lily back in. When Rosedale comes to convince Lily to blackmail Bertha with the letters he “stared a moment, puzzled by her sudden dash in a direction so different from that toward which she had appeared to be letting him guide her” (211). Of course, Rosedale expects Lily to blackmail Bertha since that is what she would normally do. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that Lily does not feel comfortable with doing so. Just from the simple gesture, it is shown that Lily has changed drastically from the beginning of the story. She starts to care what her manipulation will do to the other people involved, which shows Lily’s progression to becoming a good person.
Additionally Lily’s view upon society illustrates her progression as a person. As it is very well known at this point in the story Lily is obsessed with having wealth. She longs for a life of “fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel” (73). All she wants in life is to be at the top of the social ladder and have the riches and perks that come with it. Even though she doesn’t necessarily enjoy being in the company of some of the people of the upper class, Lily puts up with it so she can be a superior member of society. Since she wants this life of luxury and preeminence so much, it causes her to look down upon dinginess and anyone who lives a life of dinginess. Anyone that is lower than her in social standings is not worth Lily’s time. One of those people in particular is Gerty Farish, Lawrence Selden’s cousin. When talking about Gerty, Lily says “she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know” (4). It becomes very obvious that Lily cannot stand anyone lower than herself, which is ironic because those end up being the only people who will help Lily later on. As was previously stated, Lily does fall into some trouble which causes her to lose her place in society and any luxury she had. The people that Lily aspired to be like, the members of the upper class, end up ignoring her and wanting now part in helping her get back into society. As it turns out, the only people who willingly help her are the people Lily considered to be below her, Gerty Farish in particular. After Lily’s downfall of society, Gerty takes Lily in and Lily begins to better understand the way that Gerty lives. Lily begins helping out at the Girls’ Club that Gerty started and becomes interested in the philanthropy that Gerty takes part in. While at the Girls’ Club Lily meets and helps a young woman named Nettie Crane. At the end of the story Lily visits Nettie’s house. They begin talking and Lily eventually holds Nettie’s child for a little bit. When holding the child, “the old life-hunger possessed her, and all her being clamoured for its share of personal happiness. Yes—it was happiness she still wanted, and the glimpse she had caught of it made everything else of no account” (260). This shows that Lily realizes that even though Nettie is of the lower class, someone Lily used to consider under her, Nettie is still living a happy and full life. Lily gains a new respect for the working class, and she finally comes to terms with the fact that it is okay to be a part of the lower class and that she isn’t superior to anyone in that class. She knows that she can still be happy and be a part of the class she used to resent.
All things considered, Lily greatly progressed throughout the novel. Her progression from being a bad person to a good person is shown through her attempts at getting married, her dealings with other people, and her attitude towards society.
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