Lily Bart’s Tragic Oscillation in The House of Mirth

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Lily Bart’s Tragic Oscillation in The House of Mirth

In his article “Disowning ‘Personality’: Privacy and Subjectivity in The House of Mirth,” William Moddelmog explains that the interaction between Selden and Lily in Selden’s apartment the second time captures “the novel’s drama of subjectivity” (337) This drama exists at the core of Edith Wharton’s novel of upper-class manners and social morality, where a conflicted protagonist presents an amicable appearance in spite of her complex internal struggle with the hopes of resolving her problems through marriage. Lily Bart comments on her aspirations during her pivotal afternoon walk with Lawrence Selden: in response to Selden’s asking her why she has not smoked at Bellomont, Lily explains, “It is not considered becoming in a jeune fille à marrier; and at the present moment I am a jeune fille à marrier” (74). While Wharton has thus presented Lily as a “jeune fille à marrier,” a young girl to be married, this conversation with Selden reveals that the marriageable social identity Lily projects only represents one of her two subjective identities. The House of Mirth depicts Lily’s struggle with her two conflicting selves and her failure to remake an objective identity after the destruction of her social identity. Wharton particularly emphasizes this tension through Lawrence Selden, who serves as Lily’s Other; Lily’s recognizing her inconsistency of actions and character; and the existence and annihilation of her objective identity by the individuals who constitute the wealthy society in the novel.

The social identity that Lily projects represents one of her selves, the jeune fille à marrier. When discussing how Lily develops her attributes in...

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...stence for Lily Bart.

Works Cited

Moddelmog, William E. “Disowning ‘Personality’: Privacy and Subjectivity in The House of Mirth.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 70, no. 2 (1998 June): p. 337-63

Totten, Gary “The Art and Architecture of the Self: Designing the ‘I’-witness in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.” College Literature 27, no. 3 (2000 Fall): p.71-87

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Signet Classic, 1964.


[1] By this I refer to Lily's exile from the Dorsets' yacht (226) by Bertha Dorset. I discuss this event later in relation to the overall decline of Lily's social identity.

[2] Percy Gryce (80), Sim Rosedale (185), and George Dorset (247) are willing to marry Lily at certain times.

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