The House of Mirth

In Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, the main protagonist, Lily Bart moves back and forth between dreams of marriage and equally strong desires for independence and freedom. Despite her training on the social codes of conduct and etiquette, which was ingrained into her daily existence by her mother, Lily exhibits frequent moments of recklessness that threaten her opportunities in the marriage market. Why does a well-trained, economically motivated, twenty-nine year old virgin risk her chances for a financial and social safe-haven? With the aid of Jacques Lacan’s theories in the formation of subjectivity in the psyche, an analysis of Lily Bart’s history and background should help answer this question.
In Lacan’s analysis, there are three orders in the psyche that are crucial and equally important to the formation of subjectivity, they are the “Imaginary,” the “Symbolic,” and the “Real” (Lacan, 1975). In order to understand why Lily Bart continually sabotages her efforts to achieve what she frequently refers to as escape from “the dinginess of her present life,” (Wharton, 2000) an examination of the “Imaginary” order must first be made. According to Lacan the human self comes into being through a fundamentally aesthetic recognition. Through an external medium (a mirror) the child’s fragmented body is made whole the newly fashioned specular ‘I’ precedes the social ‘I.’ The Imaginary originates in the human being’s fascination with form (Lacan, 1975).

In the case of Lily Bart, the form that she is most fascinated with is her own. Lily’s constant mirror gazing initiates the process of constructing a center for herself or her ego. As Terry Eagleton explains, “This self, as the mirror situation suggests, is essentially narcissistic: we arrive at a sense of an ‘I’ by finding that ‘I’ reflected back to ourselves by some objects or person in the world” (Eagleton, 1983). In Lily’s case, it is not surprising that her first “misrecognition” of her image has been supplied by her mother. Her mother looks upon Lily’s beauty as a commodity or means to a profitable end. Mrs. Bart studied Lily’s beauty with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instill into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved (Wharton, 2000).
Inevitably, Lily also sees herself as a commodity. Her fragmented ego is formed on the basis of her significance as an object whose value is determined by the power of its marketability. As Lacan explains, “the ego is just this narcissistic process whereby we bolster up a fictive sense of unitary selfhood by finding something in the world with which we can identify” (Eagleton, 1983).Lily’s sense of identity is directly tied to the objectification of her beauty. She is willing to auction it off to the highest bidder in the marriage market because as Lawrence Selden so accurately observes, “it was what she was brought up for” (Wharton, 2000). Even though it may have been what Lily “was brought up for,” we find that the objectification of Lily’s beauty is not an indulgence, but it eventually becomes a means for her survival.
According to Jacques Lacan, the two most significant moments in the development of human subjectivity and ego development occur in the “mirror stage” and the “oedipal stage.” Both of these stages aid the subject in their “passage through” the “imaginary” to the “symbolic.” These two concepts are clearly defined in James Mellard’s book, Using Lacan Reading Fiction. Mellard explains that the child who previously perceives itself as pieces or fragments is unified in the mirror image of its other, the mother. But this assumed, narcissistic unity is eventually split by the function called the Oedipus complex (Mellard, 1991).
In Lacanian terms, the “Oedipus complex” can also be referred to as the “Law of the Father.” This principal theory, “Law of the Father,” is defined by Lacan as an acceptance of the loss of the “paternal metaphor the phallus” and a willingness on the part of the subject to follow patriarchal authority or law. Lily’s desire for independence and freedom lies in direct conflict with what Lacan terms as the “Law of the Father” or “patriarchal law.” The phallus and the Name-of-the-Father symbolize that which comes between the mother and child, separating the one from the other, “symbolizing that which the mother does not have” (Lacan, 1975).
A monumental moment in Lily’s ego formation occurs when her father announces to Lily and Mrs. Bart that he is financially ruined. Wharton describes Mr. Bart as a “hazy outline neutral-tinted” figure that Lily saw “through a blur–first of sleepiness, then of distance and indifference” (Wharton, 2000).In the “imaginary” Lily’s feelings of security and vanity are provided by her dominant mother. Lily’s life changes, however, when the power and authority of her father is diminished. Along a “metonymic” chain of signifiers, Lily realizes that “money,” “power,” “security,” and “social standing” are all contained under the signifier, “father,” and upon her father’s death, her world is no longer the same. The death of Lily’s father shows her how precarious life is for women who are not under the protection of men. Lily and her mother, devoid of income, rely on the hospitality and charity of relatives. At the age of eighteen, Lily’s world is shattered and the only tool available for her use was her face. She remembers her mother fiercely stating, “you’ll get it all back, with your face” (Wharton, 2000).
The death of Lily’s mother further fragments Lily’s image of herself. When Mrs. Bart was alive, she was a willing participant in the preparation of her daughter in the marriage market. Now, Lily’s reflection is offset by the other prospective virgins of her society and sees the disadvantage that motherlessness places on her task of finding a wealthy husband. Lily concludes that, “Mr. Gryce’s arrival had fluttered the maternal breasts of New York and when a girl has no mother to palpitate for her; she needs be on the alert for herself” (Wharton, 2000). Lily feels the loss of support, guidance and self-interest that her mother would have provided if she were still alive. Mrs. Bart’s death inhibits Lily’s transference to the “symbolic” and further mires her in the “imaginary” where she mourns the loss of, or “lack” of a mother.
Lily’s actions, on the surface, personify an individual who is willing to follow patriarchal authority or law. She appears to be willing to assume traditional gender roles as a wife in her society, but she repeatedly makes decisions that, ultimately, sabotage her chances for success. This repetition suggests that there are other desires that she is repressing. Even though outwardly she is willing to give herself away in exchange for money and social position, internally she struggles with her desire for personal freedom. Consequently, according to Lacan, these repressed desires result in a “split” or “divided self.” Lacan further explains that the subject is “essentially in a state of conflict between the symbolic and imaginary” (Lacan, 1975). The phallic symbol for Lily is money and this represents not only “patriarchal law” but also freedom. Lily’s state of conflict between both orders result from her desire for freedom, which involves money and can only be provided by marriage to a wealthy man which will further make her “a victim of the civilization which had produced her” (Wharton, 2000) and deny her the personal freedom she desires.
Lily is constantly driven to accept the symbols of authority in her world and through them the rule of the “Symbolic” order. The signifiers of this order constantly appear in aspects that Lacan calls the “gaze,” along with the metonymical imagery associated with it such as the “charwoman’s stare,” “the stream of admiring looks,” and the “several hundred pairs of eyes” that gaze upon her beauty or scrutinize her actions. Together these, along with other examples, represent one of the most important motifs in Wharton’s narrative. The gaze, as Lacan might say, cuts in many directions, as it links the subject to the object and by that linkage turns each into the other. Lily Bart is metaphorically trapped under the gaze which dominates as a double for the New York leisure society who uses their prescribed laws and codes to continually judge Lily’s acceptability. Lily’s values and self-worth are defined by the perceptions and opinions of others. She is seduced by the ways in which society eagerly reflects back upon the heroine, the image it encourages her to flash. A strong example of this can be seen in Wharton’s tableaux vivants scene where Lily’s portrayal of Reynold’s, Mrs. Lloyd, shows Lily in the role of an erotic object that exists for others, while alienating her own subjectivity and transferring to those who wish to behold or enjoy her beauty.
According to Lacan this “narcissistic identification with the other enables her to see her function and place of her world and her being” (Lacan, 1975). Is this truly the “real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world,” or is it according to “that experienced connoisseur Mr. Ned Van Alstyne” just a “deuced bold thing showing herself” (Wharton, 2000). Lacan would suggest that Lily caught in the gaze of her spectators becomes whatever each of them fantasize her to be. Even though this gaze would initially illicit a sense of accomplishment and self-satisfaction from Lily, she is quite literally on display and there is an emptiness or lack of value that this public display provides her in her search for self.
Lily is adept at attracting the gaze of others, and sees herself as a “skillful operator” (Wharton, 2000). Early in the novel, she sets her sights on the eligible and wealthy Percy Gryce, and feels confident and almost sure that she, “landed him, with a few days’ work, she would win her reward” (Wharton, 2000). Despite the financial security and status that a marriage to Percy Gryce would mean to Lily’s “escape from dinginess,” she does everything possible to sabotage her success. She complains that “the reward itself seemed unpalatable just then she could get no zest from the thought of victory” (Wharton, 2000). Lily describes the courting process with Gryce as a “chore” but realizes that, she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life. It was a hateful fate–but how escapes from it (Wharton, 2000)?
Even with marriage ability on the line, “she takes a day off” and indulges in her own desires with Selden. In this scene, Lily tries with Selden’s help to define the meaning of success. Selden expresses his idea of success as being a form of freedom “from everything–from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all material accidents a kind of republic of the spirit” (Wharton, 2000). Selden’s description awakens in Lily a sense of joy and enthusiasm, and he is able to put into language the desire or “jouissance” that is missing in Lily’s life. Lacan explains that “to enter language is to be severed from the ‘real,’ that inaccessible realm which is always beyond the reach of signification, always outside the symbolic order” (Eagleton, 1983). Lacan further defines the “Real” as the truth that we repress. Once that which we desire is the object of discourse, it no longer can maintain the position of jouissance because it becomes real or truth. Lacan tells us that language is, what hollows being into desire. Language divides up–articulates–the fullness of the imaginary. To enter language is to be severed from what Lacan calls the ‘real’, that inaccessible realm which is always beyond the reach of signification, always outside the symbolic order (Lacan, 1975).
Lacan’s contribution to the understanding of the subject is unique because, unlike Freud, he accounted for the power that the social/linguistic world plays in the formation of the self. Lacan viewed the interaction between the linguistic and the ego as a process in constant fluctuation just as the subject is in a constant state of fluctuation between the “Imaginary” and “Symbolic” orders. The “Real” is expressed in the form of discourse, and it can only be studied in its effects on the other two dimensions, the “Imaginary” and “Symbolic” (Lacan, 1975). Lily comes close to being able to express her “lack” or “desire” or “void” in words. She eagerly tells Selden, “Whenever I see you, I find myself spelling out a letter of the sign– and yesterday–last evening at dinner–I suddenly saw a little way into your republic” (Wharton, 2000). Lily is in the process of trying to find out what the word is that is written on the sign that will lead her into the “republic of spirit.” Unfortunately, even upon her death this word is never spoken between her and Selden.
Selden and Lily’s discourse is structured similarly to what Lacan refers to as the “language of the unconscious.” He further explains that, the unconscious is structured, not amorphous, and it speaks rhetorically through the dreams, mistakes, and symptoms of the subject it is the body itself that provides the raw material that the unconscious uses to express itself and the analyst, like a literary critic must read (Lacan, 1975).
In Lacanian theory, the conscious and the unconscious cannot be separated. The unconscious bears the marks of the signifiers impressed on it. Selden seems to understand that there is something different about his conversation with Lily. Something he does not usually experience with others. He concludes that ,he himself did not know why he had led their talk along such lines; it was one of those moments when neither seemed to speak deliberately, when an indwelling voice in each called to the other across unsounded depths of feeling” (Wharton, 2000)
This unconscious expression of the subjects wants and desires goes along way in explaining why Lily ” had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another without ever perceiving the right road till it was too late to take it” (Wharton, 2000). In the House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s unconscious speaks volumes about the decisions that she makes with her life. On more than one occasion, Lily seems to be following a path and then quickly changes her mind about the direction she is going. Carry Fisher assumes that,” it’s just flightiness but sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for” (Wharton, 2000).
In the end, it is not language but silence that dominates Lily’s actions. When Gerty Farish asks Lily to tell her the truth about what happened in Europe, Lily explains to Gerty that “Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe” (Wharton, 2000). Both Sim Rosedale and George Dorset offer Lily options that will place her back in a position in the New York society that she is accustomed to; however, at the moment that she must make her decision, “suddenly fear possessed her, fear of herself and of the terrible force of the temptation” (Wharton, 2000). George Dorset appeals to Lily, “It’s just a word to say, and you put me out of my misery!” (Wharton, 2000). Rosedale offers to financially back Lily in her fight against Bertha Dorset. He implores Lily, “Here I am ready to lift you out of your [worries] tomorrow, if you say so. Do you say so, Miss Lily?” (Wharton, 2000); but Miss Lily never says so. She maintains her silence even when she knows that the words will redeem her in the eyes of a society who has cruelly judged her all her life. Bertha’s letters are also a metaphor for the silence that Lily keeps at the end. In burning the words that Bertha has written, Lily refuses to allow language to save her. Lacan would say that Lily has reversed into the pre-oedipal stage where language is unavailable to the subject’s identification. She is painfully isolated and the loneliness and despair that exist in the last moments of Lily’s life are evident. She wonders, “If only life could end now–end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world!” (Wharton, 2000)
Terry Eagleton explains that, according to Freud, “The final goal of life is death, a return to that blissful inanimate state where the ego cannot be injured” (Eagleton, 1983). Lacan also agrees that when “we are severed from the mother’s body: after the Oedipus crisis, we will never again be able to attain this state even though we will spend all of our lives hunting for it (Eagleton, 1983). It is under the fatal effects of chloral, which Lily returns to this pre-oedipal state. The significance of the baby that she holds in her arms indicates that Lily is either expressing a lost sense of possibilities of motherhood or she is in fact hallucinating her own rebirth in the form of the imaginary baby. Through death, her maternal longings are satisfied with the reunion of this unreal child. It is also significant that Wharton suggests that Lily does not merely dream of the child, but she actually feels “its soft, bodily presence” (Wharton, 2000). She becomes frantic and desperate as a flash of loneliness and terror tore its way .She started up again, cold and trembling with the shock; for a moment she seemed to have lost her hold of the child. But no–she was mistaken–the tender pressure of its body was still close to hers; the recovered warmth flowed through her once more, she yielded to it” (Wharton, 2000).
Lily returns to the pre-oedipal stage to seek the reassurance, comfort and warmth that she cannot find in the harsh reality of her New York world. Rather than conform to society, she retreats, and it is only in death that Lily finds the last letters of the signpost that show her the way into the “republic of spirit.”

Works Cited
Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary Theory and Introduction. Great Britain: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.
Lacan, J. (1975). The Language of The Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. New York: Dell Publishing Company.
Leitch, V. B. (2001). “The Mirror Stage as Formative” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Mellard, J. M. (1991). Using Lacan Reading Fiction. Urbana: Univerwsity of Ilinois Press.
Wharton, E. (2000). The House of Mirth. New York: Signet Classic.