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The Unsustainable Life and Times of Lily Bart

Today’s lesson is on Lily Bart, the central character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I’ve just read the book, finally, having felt somewhat compelled to do so by the fact that Wharton spent a few years living here in the Berkshires; her home, “The Mount,” is still open for tours. We’ve visited the gardens and they were breathtakingly gorgeous.

It was, admittedly, a bit of a slog to get through but was enjoyable nonetheless. After I was done I thought, ah, that was a good book, even though her writing style is a bit dense (and it was printed using the old-style contractions “is n’t” and “are n’t” and so forth, which was quite distracting) and the book’s characters are all in the highest echelons of New York society — not exactly my type. Despite all this, Wharton is incredibly good at describing the minute details of personal relationships and, I was a bit surprised to find, she is a marvelous observer of the natural world. Perhaps, after visiting The Mount, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by this.

Lily Bart’s story, in a nutshell, and why I’m writing about her: she is a beautiful young woman, the toast of New York society, who, she admits, was born to be an ornament — ideally for some rich man. Her character is remarkably likeable despite the fact that she is snobbish (but not in a mean way, but more in a “ah, I didn’t realize that poor people had to eat!” way). Her parents are both dead, so she lives off of her wealthy aunt and any of her wealthy friends whose country estates she happens to be staying in. The problem is that she’s a bit strong-headed and doesn’t find this future acceptable, and turns down numerous marriage offers for various reasons. Meanwhile she lives blithely, her money slowly slipping down the drain while she spends her money on new dresses and playing bridge. Eventually she realizes that this can’t go on (i.e., it’s “unsustainable,” as we would put it today), accepting the offer from one of her male stockbroker friends to make her some money on Wall Street.

Things start to go from great to bad to worse when she realizes that the money he gives her — $10,000, which I’m sure was a tidy sum in early 1900s New York — didn’t necessarily come with no strings attached, and she finds herself facing the equally distasteful prospects of — gasp — poverty or marriage-for-money.



She eventually can’t sleep and starts taking opiates to try to sleep, and becomes so exhausted and disheartened by her newly shabby surroundings (she’s been outcast by her friends because of lies spread about her, but that’s another story) that she eventually dies of an overdose in her room in the boarding house.




One thing I can say for sure about most people is that going from riches to rags is not an option. This relates to our modern society in the way that we pile on the gadgets and technology that make our lives more enjoyable. The problem is that once we go from enjoying the things that makes our lives more comfortable — bigger and bigger TVs, faster and faster internet connections, more and more cell phone towers so that we can get phone connection EVERYWHERE — it’s hard to go back.

The good news, I think, is that we can also train ourselves to go the other way. We are humans, after all, with the ability to make choices. We can make conscious decisions about how and what we eat, drive, watch, etc., etc. (Sorry, I don’t want to turn this into a green lecture!)

Sheesh, I think I need some lighter reading material . . . which is why I’ve started rereading The Brothers Karamazov. Nothing like fratricide and weird ramblings about the devil to get you through December, January, and probably most of February!

-Bill Siever

One thought on “The Unsustainable Life and Times of Lily Bart

  1. Another fun post from Bill, who is obviously taking to blogging after all – and after some years of prodding! I look forward to reading more about his winter reading, and outdoor adventures.

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