Lily Bart, the central character in Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth , was born into the fringes of high society in late nineteenth century New York. She developed a, “lively taste for splendour”(page 30) and a fear of, ”dinginess”. (page 35). Everything within this social circle is measured in monetary value, people and things alike are treated as commodities. This is the only way of life Lily knows, and without the financial means to sustain herself, Lily is destined to be a victim of this commodification of people and objects.
Victim is defined in the Oxford Concise Dictionary , as a, “person or thing harmed or destroyed in the pursuit of an object or in gratification of a person”. Commodifiaction is defined as “the action of turning something into, or treating something as a commodity” and commodity is defined as, “an article of raw material that can be brought and sold”. It was Mrs Bart who had raised Lily to value the finer things in life and fear the “dinginess”(page 35) that she associated with those who did not have money, or those who did not choose to spend their money on luxury.Order now
When Mrs Bart died, she died, “ …… of a deep disgust. She had hated dinginess, and it was her fate to be dingy”(page 35). But Lily’s mother alone is not solely to blame for this want, Lily says of her need for luxury, .. I suppose (it was) -in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or-no I won’t blame anybody for my faults: I’ll say it was in my blood (page 226) Although Lily felt that she should not blame anyone else for her high tastes she does not blame herself. She uses the excuse that it was in her blood that her fate to live for splendour was predetermined.
Lily therefore sees herself as victim, a victim because it was her fate. Mrs Barts parental guidance did help to shape Lily’s value for the extravagant. It was Mrs Bart who taught Lily to value her beauty. Lily was told by her mother, “after they had lost all their money” (page 28) that Lily’s asset was her beauty. Mrs Bart saw the potential for trading Lily’s beauty for a rich husband, so they would have the means to sustain themselves in ‘high society’. Mrs Bart saw Lily’s beauty as: ….. the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus round which their life was to be rebuilt.
She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily it’s mere custodian; (page 34) by treating Lily’s beauty as a commodity, she was treating Lily the person to which that beauty belonged, as a commodity. Lily also sees her beauty and therefore herself as a commodity. So from the age that Lily ‘came out’ her purpose in life, bestowed upon her by her mother and her ‘predetermined fate’, was to marry wealth. For Lily like any good victim, there are always flaws to even the most water tight plans.
Lily’s first challenge to her goal of , “marrying a great deal of money” (page 83) is the constant threat of time. Lily Barts physical beauty, is a perishable commodity. Miss Bart is first introduced to the reader at the not so tender age of twenty-nine, the commodity of physical beauty only depreciates in value with age. This sense of time running out for Lily to secure her fortunes is always present, …. she was frightened by the two little lines near her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of her check. ………………… and it seemed an added injustice that petty cares should leave a trace on the beauty hich was her only defence against them (page 28)
Ironically when Mr Van Alstyne, discusses Lily posing for a portrait, he talks of how, “.. the picture’d appreciate a hundred per cent in ten years”. An item such as a portraiture of beauty, would only ever gain value with time unlike her physical beauty. The name, “Lily” would have been seen by the reader, (at the time the novel was first published) as a reference to the “art nouveau” panting style witch often exaggerated a woman’s “capacity to be decorative” (xxiii), by depicting women, “in explicitly floral terms”(xxiii).
Lilies featured amongst the flowers used and, “Lily’s name would have been (an) instantly recognizable reference to art nouveau painting ” (xxiii) Therefore the name Lily would have been seen by the readers as metaphor for the decorative side of life. Men in this ‘high society’ like woman are connected to certain social obligations, Men are confined to, “the masculine word of money ”their value is measured in terms of their earning potential. Rich men, such as Rosedale and Trenor are always represented as being over weight, as Lily remarks, “I wonder why rich people always grow fat- ”(page 223).
Their physical weight symbolises their monetary greed and their lives of excess. In this ‘high society’, woman are confined to the domestic sphere and because of their decorative purpose woman are not obligated to work. It is also deemed as unacceptable for a single woman to work, even if she has no other means of income. Lily is aware of this paradox between the male and female roles in society and becomes more conscious of it as she falls down the social ladder, but to her it is the norm. Lily has been able to sustain her life of splendour by living off her rich friends, in places such as Bellomont and on the Sabrina.
Lily remaining independent from marriage, will eventually put her outside of the social norms of this high society. So Lily is again pushed, towards the concept of marrying for money. Not only by her want for the commodities associated with wealth, but by the social constraints on a s single woman in this society. There are many occasions presented to Lily where she could have married for money: Percy Gryce, Sim Rosedale, and even Mr Dorset were just some, “of the capital on the lookout for… an investment” (page 12); but somehow Lily “always fails to clinch the deal” (xxiii).
Percy Gryce is the first wealthy prospect (introduced to the reader) for marriage. “Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest and that to convert it to success other arts are required”(page 34), Lily in pursuit or Mr Gryce’s fortune adapts her personality towards his; she proclaims that she ‘does not smoke’ to Bertha Dorset, and makes conversation to Percy Gryce about his favourite topic, his collection of, “Americana”(page 20). In a consumer driven society, Lily is making herself more marketable to Mr Gryce.
By fuelling Gryce’s interest in ‘Americana’ she is hoping he will begin to see her as a candidate for marriage. Lily’s aspirations for wanting to marry Percy Gryce, do not stem from love, but form his money. It seems that Lily’s mother had not married for love because when Mr Bart could no longer fill his purpose as the income earner, “To his wife he no longer counted” (page 33). The benefits of marrying Percy Gryce are seen in material terms by Lily. If Lily married him, “She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far more jewels than Bertha Dorset” (page 49).
Lily would no longer struggle with the financial problems of supporting a life of splendour on limited means. Lily is easily able to commodify others; as she has been raised in a society where objects and wealth are valued more than the people to which they belong. Although Lily is prepared to see people for their monetary value, she sees herself as an upholder or moral decorum and “good taste”, the values in which her social circle feel they represent It is for Lily’s, social standing that Mr Rosedale asks her to marry him.
Sim Rosedale is the epitome of the nouveaux riche, his new money has been gained on the stock market in the emerging world of capitalism. Members of the old money families such as Judy Trenor, feel he and other members of this new rich, do not have the class (defined by ones moral values and taste), to be included in their social circle. To acquire that class, (because everything can be brought) he wants to marry Lily’s social standing. Lily is seen as a commodity to Rosedale, and anything can be brought for the right price.
Rosedale says to Lily as his reason for the proposition, “money doesn’t seem to be of any account unless I can spend it on the right woman”(page 175). Because Rosedale does not belong to the same social set as Lily’s friends, although, “Rosedale’s millions had a faintly seductive note.. ” (page 176) she does not accept his offer of marriage. But as Lily loses her rank in the social hierarchy, she begins to realise that these moral values that she holds are the values and morals of people with money. …. a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she conceived it (page 169)
Woman are not meant to worry about fiscal matters, but because Lily is not wealthy she has to concern in herself with such matters. The first major step towards her social downfall, is when against her value, Lily asks Mr Trenor to help her to invest her money “She understood only that her modest investments were to be mysteriously multiplied without risk to herself”. Lily is stepping outside the social norm as it is seen as unacceptable for a woman to borrow money.
It is to Rosedale that Lily turns when she falls out of favour with high society, she asks him to reconsider his proposal of marriage, but as she has lost her social standing, if he married Lily now he would also lose his own social standing “If I married you now I’d queer myself for good and all, and everything I’ve worked for these years would be wasted”(page 256). Rosedale, the self made man, has had a taste for the high life and is to sacrifice his perceived ‘love’ (page 256) in the pursuit of a more quantifiable social success.
It is for this same reason that Lily is unable to marry the man she loves. Sheldon, the man who’s marriage proposal Lily rejects for his lack of wealth; is the only man that Lily thinks she has ever loved. Because love is an unquantifiable commodity, Lily is unable to appreciate it’s true value. Sheldon who sets himself apart from others in Lily’s social circle, feels that he is “amphibious” as he can live in both worlds, that of the dingy and of high class. Sheldon is keen to point out his objections to the, “decorative side of life” in which Lily belongs but is unable to show Lily a better alternative.
For all his objection to the values of the upper class, Sheldon himself sees Lily as a commodity, “He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make” (page 5). By viewing Lily as a decorative object he has stepped into the role of the society of which he feels Lily is “a victim”(page 7). So ultimately Lily has become a victim of a society that commodifys people. This is the society that Lily has seen as the only way of life. A world that sees woman only for their decretive value.
Without wealth, or the potential to sustain the only way of life she new, even with her beauty she was unable to obtain the lifestyle that she so craved. As Lily loses sight of life, for the first time she feels comfortable with herself, she begins to feel as though she is not alone, “she suddenly understood why she did not feel herself alone. It was odd-but Nettie Struther’s child was lying on her arm” (page 323). Lily in death finally realises that commodities are not the most important thing in life.
This child who is with Lily holding her does not see the world in terms of commodities. The baby is represents Lily’s ability to love an emotion that she has never been able to commodify and therefore understand. A child is a blank canvas that has no need for the materialistic world that Lily Bart belongs. All a child needs is warmth sustenance and love, it is with this thought that she dies. Lily would not have true victim if she had not realised her own misgivings in life before she was able to stop them.