As a young unmarried woman in twentieth-century New York high society, Lily Bart is forced to abide by a series of rules regulating her sexual and social behavior. In this context, in which she constantly needs to protect her reputation from potential accusations of impropriety, Lily feels that she can never be free. At the same time, Lily cannot conceive of life outside of the restrictions of high society and finds herself bending to prevailing norms and habits instead of trying to build an independent life of her own. Over the course of the novel, she becomes increasingly frustrated by this double bind: her simultaneous desire to be economically free (by joining high society) and socially free (by rejecting high society’s norms). Lily’s death tragically resolves this issue, as it finally severs her from all social obligations. Her death thus serves both as a symbol and a warning, highlighting the importance of cultivating one’s spiritual, social, and economic independence against the suffocating pressures of society before it is too late.
In conversations with her friends Lawrence Selden and Gerty Farish, who do not belong to the same high society as her, Lily often denounces the way life as an upper-class woman restricts her freedom. Part of Lily’s lack of freedom derives from her unmarried status, which forces her to maintain an appearance of sexual purity. Lily frequently complains about the injustice of double standards regarding the sexual behaviors of women and men, or married and unmarried women. For example, she denounces the fact that unmarried women are condemned for going alone to a man’s apartment, whereas men never suffer from such accusations of sexual promiscuity. A married woman, too, is free to visit single men as long as her husband shows approval or indifference to her actions. Thus, Lily must learn to navigate a rigid social world in which, paradoxically, her only means to achieve freedom is to marry.
The pressure to marry also impacts the financial cost of being a woman in high society. To Lawrence, Lily criticizes the fact that women have to spend their money on elegant fashion: “Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. […] We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.” Socially and economically, women are thus forced to bear pressures that limit their possibility to build a life on their own.
However, even though Lily understands that being part of high society necessarily restricts her freedom, her desire to live among the very rich forces her to abide by these social conventions: “She was beginning to have fits of angry rebellion against fate, when she longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself. But what manner of life would it be?” Any time Lily considers abandoning the obligations that society places on her, she is forced to accept that she is not yet willing to break away from the luxuries and power it provides.
Beyond external constraints, Lily is also constrained from within, as social conditioning has kept her from developing original thoughts and conceiving of an independent way of life that would respect her feelings and emotions. Many of Lily’s views about high society are the direct product of her upbringing and, in particular, of her mother’s example. Throughout her life, Mrs. Bart convinced Lily of the need to keep away from “dinginess” and to constantly thrive for greater wealth and power. This upbringing has exerted a deep influence on Lily, who finds herself tied down to a narrow conception of life, without being intellectually able to explore alternative lifestyles. Lily’s friend Lawrence Selden explains: “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.” Lily’s personal ambition for wealth is a product of social conditioning that keeps her from developing her individuality.
Lily’s lack of freedom is thus external as much as internal, and her awareness of this fact only heightens the tragedy of it. Although she admires Selden for his capacity to ignore the rules of high society, she finds herself unable to imitate his behavior: “[Lawrence] had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom.” Lily thus knows that she could choose another way of life, but she also knows that something in her—something as invisible as a glass bottle—prevents her from doing it. Incapable of picturing her life outside the “cage” of high society, Lily is forced to relinquish her independence of spirit to the force of habit.
As a result, Lily lives her life unthinkingly and unfeelingly, as though she were incapable of true emotion: “When had Lily ever really felt, or pitied, or understood? All she wanted was the taste of new experiences: she seemed like some cruel creature experimenting in a laboratory.” Lily’s abidance by a life of superficial pursuits, such as buying expensive clothes, has kept her from developing personal freedom—the freedom to explore the world beyond the artificial “laboratory” of high society.
Paradoxically, Lily’s only escape from the constraints of society takes place in death. Through an overdose on sleeping medication that remains highly ambiguous, as it is impossible to ascertain whether it is accidental or self-inflicted, Lily finally finds peace from society’s constraining laws. This tragic ending reveals the difficulty of achieving freedom in a life so heavily regimented by social obligations. It also suggests that lack of social and economic independence can lead to desperate behavior. True freedom, the novel concludes, is a spiritual quest, one that must be cultivated separately from the artifices of civilized life—otherwise, without it, the burden of society might be too much to bear.
Gender, Class, and Freedom ThemeTracker
Gender, Class, and Freedom Quotes in The House of Mirth
He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?
She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.
“Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses. […] Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”
There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive’s gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight. She could not herself have explained the sense of buoyancy which seemed to lift and swing her above the sun-suffused world at her feet. Was it love, she wondered, or a mere fortuitous combination of happy thoughts and sensations?
“[…] your taking a walk with me is only another way of making use of your material. You are an artist, and I happen to be the bit of color you are using today. It’s a part of your cleverness to be able to produce premeditated effects extemporaneously.”
“My idea of success,” he said, “is personal freedom.”
“Freedom? Freedom from worries?”
“From everything—from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit—that’s what I call success.”
“[…] the queer thing about society is that the people who regard it as an end are those who are in it, and not the critics on the fence. It’s just the other way with most shows—the audience may be under the illusion, but the actors know that real life is on the other side of the footlights. The people who take society as an escape from work are putting it to its proper use; but when it becomes the thing worked for it distorts all the relations of life.”
“What a miserable future you foresee for me!”
“Well—have you never foreseen it for yourself?”
The slow color rose to her cheek, not a blush of excitement but drawn from the deep wells of feeling; it was as if the effort of her spirit had produced it.
“Often and often,” she said. “But it looks so much darker when you show it to me!”
[…] as Miss Bart they knew her by heart. She knew herself by heart too, and was sick of the old story. There were moments when she longed blindly for anything different, anything strange, remote, and untried; but the utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting. She could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume.
“Sometimes […] I think it’s just flightiness—and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”
It was before him again in its completeness—the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dullness of the talk, in the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance.
“The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
“From the beginning? […] Dear Gerty, how little imagination you good people have! Why, the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose—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, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress […]!”
Society did not turn away from her, it simply drifted by, preoccupied and inattentive, letting her feel, to the full measure of her humbled pride, how completely she had been the creature of its favor.
It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper impoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the headless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.
It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.
He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.