The Empowerment of the Main Character in House of Mirth

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The hardest part of this journal on The House of Mirth was finding a good topic to cover. I considered several thousand different topics, ranging from the ideas of money and happiness to how Wharton criticizes higher society both through Lily Bart’s monologues about gender and her hypocritical actions. However, there was one series of questions that rose above the rest: Why did we only read the first seven chapters? Are the first seven chapters the only thing that matters in the book? Are they best fitted towards the AP Literature curriculum? Is there some element of the story introduced and solved within those chapters? All of these questions are important to ask, particularly that last one. When it comes to a story featured in the first seven chapters, there appears to be a full story of Lily Barton, a woman from a poor childhood trying desperately to marry someone who’s both rich and interesting so that she doesn’t have to worry about her money troubles. In the first seven chapters of House of Mirth, it appears that Lily undergoes an entire transformation from insecure and pessimistic to confident and optimistic about her future and her ability to seduce men. It appears that Lily undergoes a story of female submission to female empowerment.

When I first wrote that word, I didn’t think much of it. But, since then, I’ve thought about it far, far too long. So long, in fact, that it’s the main question I’ll be looking at: Is Lily Bart an empowered character? It’s an interesting question because it requires us to look not only at the book but the underlying assumptions of what makes a character empowered. An empowered character is a character with plot agency. When analyzing characters in literature and whether they’re empowered, people tend to look at how said characters move literally and metaphorically through the plot. In Ninth Grade, Mr. Sherwin would always ask, “Does _____ go to places or is _____ brought to places?” And, most of the time, that question works well. But I feel like that type of shorthand really isn’t sufficient when talking about House of Mirth and Lily Bart. Instead, we need to look at what I like to call, composure.

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Lily is very, very frequently targeted by other characters looking to manipulate her for their own ends. Rather than being pushed around by the plot, the plot is explicitly about Lily competing in an environment where the main weapon is information, and she is fighting at a disadvantage. The fact, then, that she slowly becomes able to hold her weight when the odds are stacked against her is a running theme of the first seven chapters that injects her with a plot agency that is otherwise absent or hidden by the fact that she is frequently pushed to go places by other people or the pressures of higher society. This is, in my opinion, a nuanced distinction: the difference between a character that is lacking in plot agency and a character that is deceived and manipulated by other characters. The plot is mired in politics with power players maneuvering against one another, trying to use Lily and other characters as pawns in their personal, undefined schemes. Lily is constantly being told where to go and what to do. She challenges these instructions a few times and tries to exert her own opinions and will. She comes up with her own plans and maneuvers and pushes for others to yield to her. When she does accept things without question, as with Selden, it’s an expression of trust, building further on the interpersonal conflicts at the core of the story. When Lily loses her agency, it’s because of other characters trying to manipulate or destroy her, rather than just being a story convenience for Wharton.

This is why composure matters. As written and read, how does Lily hold herself? How is she framed in the reader’s mind? Despite the fact that Lily is frequently instructed on where to go, House of Mirth doesn’t treat her as a thing, even as other characters do. Despite other characters trying to subvert her personal agency, Lily retains her plot agency. This results in a type of organic conflict, a back-and-forth, a parry and riposte between duelers that I’d imagine continues well into the rest of House of Mirth. Is Lily Bart powerless sometimes? Is she frequently hypocritical? Are her plans usually flawed? The answer is of course. It’s a story of a person, and that’s how people work. But it doesn’t matter. Even when she’s wrong, Lily’s decisions drive the plot because a character being empowered isn’t defined by them getting what they want; instead, it’s about them influencing where and when the story goes.

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