Edith Whartons The House Of Mirth is a sad, but brilliant commentary on the closed, repressive society of the rich, upper class, New York nobility, at the dawn of the 20th century. It is also the story of the downfall of one woman, who attempts to live by her own rules, with no sponsor and no money of her own. Her parents are dead and she lives with relatives.
Lily Bart is one of societys most eligible women, at the height of her powers, when the novel opens. Though she has little money, she has family connections, good breeding and the hope of coming into an inheritance. Beautiful and very charming, Lily has been brought up to be an ornament, as were most women of her class at that time. She is a gilded bird with a noble heart, but clearly she is not aware of the restrictions of her cage. Part of Lilys tragedy is that she does have character, spirit, and a conscience. However, she does not know how to align these attributes, with her ornamental avocation, and her ambitions to marry a wealthy man of good birth.
As expected, Lily is popular with both bachelors and married men. Most of the bachelors propose marriage at on time or another. The only man she has real affection for is her dear friend, Lawrence Seldon, a barrister, whose lack of income makes him entirely unsuitable as a husband. Lily had developed a gambling habit to support her lifestyle, and supplement her allowance. An unfortunate losing streak has put her into debt. In her naivete, she forms an unsavory business alliance with a married man. Later, she is unjustly accused of having an affair with him and their business arrangement also come to light.
Her family cuts her off without a penny. Society friends and connections reject their former darling, trying to extricate themselves from any repercussions Lilys indiscreet behavior may have on their reputations. Former friends turn vicious. The irony is that Lily has never committed any of the sins she is accused of. Several of her friends have, and frequently...but their sins are committed with the utmost discretion. Lilys crime is indiscretion. Her beaus disappear, as do her marriage prospects. The hypocrisy of her class becomes more apparent to her, as she searches for a means to survive, with all the familiar doors closed in her face.
Lily seeks employment as a seamstress in the New York City slums, and lives there also, in a humble room with no refinements. Having no formal training and no real ambition, (her ambivalence about work is obvious), she sinks into deep depression and begins to decline. Laudanum helps her to sleep, and she becomes dependent on the drug.
Lilys descent, from societys beautiful darling to a disheveled, desperate woman living in a shabby hotel room, addicted to drugs, is disturbing reading, to say the least. Her decline seems inevitable, especially after we read of her many poor and self-destructive decisions. She seems to sabotage herself. However, Lily Bart is ultimately the victim of a cruel society that sacrifices anyone who does not conform to its expectations.
After reading House Of Mirth, for the first time several years ago, Lilys character has remained clear in my mind. I think of her from time to time with great poignance and a sense of personal loss.