House Of Mirth And Loneliness

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Loneliness is a prevalent theme throughout Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of

Mirth. The following passage relates to the theme of loneliness and dramatizes

Lily Bart’s dilemma of poverty: “All she looked on was the same and yet

changed. There was a great gulf fixed between today and yesterday. Everything in

the past seemed simple, natural, full of daylight-and she was alone in a place

of darkness and pollution.-Alone! It was the loneliness that frightened

her.” (p.142) The passage shows the abrupt loneliness Lily feels since she

loses her friends, and it also dramatizes her poverty by enabling her to reach a

startling realization about herself. Lily realizes that the loneliness she feels

is not due to not having friends or money, but the fact that she had been living

a life so poor in purpose or reason. Lily begins to feel lonely after she

quickly loses the company of her friends. In the past, she enjoyed a simple life

of playing bridge and attending fancy dinners with the wealthy women of high

society. But now, her reputation is shattered and she realizes the women in her

society are cruel and would not hesitate to talk about her behind her back,

“She knew, moreover, that if the ladies at Bellomont permitted themselves

to criticize her friends openly, it was a proof that they were not afraid of

subjecting her to the same treatment behind her back.” (p.125) Lily feels

so lonely that she is desperate in rebuilding her reputation, “and the

first step in the tedious task was to find out, as soon as possible, on how many

of her friends she could count.” (p. 217) But without the money and

luxuries that her old friends had, Lily finds she has even fewer friends to

count on that she thought, making it very difficult to regain her position in

high society. Lily’s increasing poverty, in addition to the loss of all her old

friends continues to make her feel lonely. The painful fact that she owes Gus

Trenor nine thousand dollars is a hard blow on Lily. Lily knows she is alone in

a terrible position, and feels trapped: “She seemed a stranger to herself,

or rather there were two selves in her, the one she had always known, and a new

abhorrent being to which it found itself chained.” (p. 142) Suddenly she is

no longer the strikingly beautiful Lily Bart that everyone attends to, but a

poor and lonely woman in a crowded restaurant whose “eyes sought the faces

about her, craving a responsive glance, some sign of an intuition of her

trouble.” (p.290) Lily’s feelings of loneliness are heightened when she

discovers that she did not inherit her aunt Julia’s estate. A large sum of money

could easily alleviate most of her worries and loneliness. She knows that if she

had money she could pay off all of her debts and maybe go on to win back her

friends. That’s why her aunt Julia’s death is not as shocking as expected; she

could use her inheritance to pay off the debts and to finally put an end to the

feelings of loneliness caused by them. But after the reading of the will,

“Lily stood apart from the general movement, feeling herself for the first

time utterly alone.” (p. 213) She knows that the women would have accepted

her if she had inherited the entire estate, “They were afraid to snub me

while they thought I was going to get the money-afterward they scuffled off as

if I had the plague.” (p.214) Without the money, Lily continues to live

alone and helpless. Lily Bart’s dilemma of poverty is dramatized when Lily feels

a different kind of loneliness, one that leads her to a horrifying

self-realization. This new loneliness that she feels is not due to material

poverty, but “of deeper empoverishment-of an inner destitution compared to

which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance.” (p. 306) Being poor

made Lily feel lonely, but now she is sickened by the realization that her life

quickly passed by without any meaning or substance. While other women married

and lived rich lives, or worked for charitable causes like Gerty Farish,

“she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real

relation to life…Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come

to Lily.” (p. 306-7) Lily’s dilemma of poverty and now this deeper

impoverishment is further dramatized when Lily feels moments of happiness before

falling asleep at the end of the novel. Before falling asleep Lily feels Nettie

Struther’s baby against her arm: “she suddenly understood why she did not

feel herself alone…Nettie Struther’s child was laying on her arm…but she

felt no great surprise at the fact, only a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth

and pleasure.” (p. 310) Lily finds comfort in Nettie’s baby and cherishes

its essence. Nettie’s child gives hope, and confirms Lily’s new beliefs that she

could find happiness within a lifestyle less than luxurious. Without the

discomfort of loneliness, Lily peacefully falls asleep believing that she could

beat the odds like Nettie Struther had done. After losing all of her friends and

all of her money, Lily’s sudden loneliness enables her to realize that her life

was fleeting and insignificant. Her carefree days are over and her shallow

friends gone. “Lily had no heart to lean on,” (p. 143) and the pains

of being poor and lonely lead her to realize that her life had passed quickly

with nearly no purpose or reason. But Nettie Struther’s child, a symbol of

perseverance offers a glimmer of hope and eternal peace. The novel ends

dramatically when Lily dies still feeling Nettie’s child beside her, with all

her debts paid, and all the loneliness vanished; yet Lily Bart is still

“something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface

of existence.” (p. 306)

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