Female Tragic Heroism in Edith Wharton’s "The House of Mirth"

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

31 Pages, Grade: 8.99


Table of Contents



Chapter one: Lily Bart’s main characteristics that makes her a female tragic hero
1 Miss Lily’s hamartias
1-1 Miss Lily Bart and lying
1-2 Debts and gambling
1-3 Loving money and wealth:
2 Recognition:
3 Reversal of the situation:

Chapter two: Tragic fate and coincidence

Chapter three: Unfulfilled dreams


Works cited


This monograph is about Miss Lily Bart who is the main protagonist in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. She is a female tragic hero in this novel, and she has the main characteristics of a tragic hero according to the Aristotelian tragedy. Due to her inherited tragic fate and coincidence Miss Lily is not going to achieve her dreams. Miss Lily Bart failed to achieve her noble dream which is to marry someone rich to save her from poverty.


Edith Newbold Jones was born in 1862 in New York City. Edith Newbold Jones grew up in an aristocracy family and she was the daughter of George Frederick Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. Her father graduated from Columbia College and married her mother on 17 October 1844. Her mother was also an eminent member in New York Family (qtd in Harden 3). Edith' s class gave her a close position to know everything about rich families. Edith Wharton married Teddy at Trinity Chapel in New York City (qtd in Harden 12). In 1913, Edith received a divorce decree from a Paris court depending on Teddy’s adulterous issue. After that she took legal steps in order to hold the use of “Wharton” name since it is her professional name (qtd in Harden 52). In her writing career, Edith Wharton published her first volume of short stories in 1899. This volume was under the title The Greater Inclination contained eight short stories: "The Muse's Tragedy," "A Journey," "The Pelican," "Souls Belated," "A Coward," "The Twilight of the God," "A Cup of Cold Water," and "The Portrait." (qtd in Harden 112). In her writing career, Edith writes many greatest novels, such as The Age of Innocence in 1920 which awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and The House of Mirth in 1905.

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is about Miss Lily Bart, a beautiful woman belonging to an important family but she is struggling so much. She was living with her aunt Mrs. Peniston after the death of her mother. Miss Lily depends on her aunt Mrs. Peniston who gives her some money to live. At the age of 29 Lily Bart founds herself still unmarried which brings her many social problems. One of the main problems is debts, which makes her be weak in the front of her friends and society. Her major scheme is to find a rich man to marry as soon as possible in order to secure her life in the class of money, but Lily is afraid of being older which reduces her chances for marrying. Lily Bart spends more time at the Bellomont, where she starts playing bridge games for money. Thus, starting play bridge game affects her income. However, she knows that bridge is for rich people. She is afraid to acquiring bad and expensive hobby. But she starts playing regularly and the desire has grown on her. She finds herself in addiction and unable to resist the gambling passion and she knew that “... the gambling passion was upon her, and that in her present surroundings there was small hope of resisting it” (The House of Mirth 29).

Because of her tragic fate Lily Bart fails to marry. She loves lawyer Lawrence Selden, but she does not want to marry him because he is from the middle class. He has not much money to make Lily Bart's wishes became true. Then, losing money push lily to finds another source of money, and later she advices her Gus Trenor by telling her illusions that she can earn money by investing her income in stock market. Indeed, Gus Trenor trapes Lily because he wants to control her by money, indeed he just searching for his sexual aims. In fact, he gives her from his own money as an income of stocks. When she knows that, he forces her to pay off her debts by spending time toghter, but Lily refuses his offers and she tells him that she will gives him money instead of meetings. From one trap to another Lily Bart receives a message from Bertha Dorset asking her to join the cruise. Miss “Lily tore it open with shaking hands, and read Bertha Dorset's name below the message: 'Sailing unexpectedly tomorrow. Will you join us on a cruise in Mediterranean?” “(The House of Mirth 199). Lily Bart is on cruise in Mediterranean with Bertha Dorset, George and Ned Silverton. She discovers that she is a bait in this travel. She knows that she distracted George while the two bertha and Ned Silverton meet toghter. After her return from America Lily discovers the death of her aunt. Lily’s aunt legacy leaves ten thousand dollars. This small amount of money can just pay her arrears to Trenor, but she has to wait one year to “…got ten thousand dollars; but the legacy is not to be paid till next summer” (The House of Mirth 321). Lily fails to pay off her arrears. She is working as a hat maker to earn money to live, but she dismissed from the milliner and her “…season was over in millinery as well as in society” (The House of Mirth 328). Lily moves from her apartment to a boarding-house where she spends her last sad life. Lily receives her aunt’s legacy money by which she pays all her arrears. She takes a lot of sleeping pills to end her suffering in this material society. Her lover Selden comes to see her, who surprises by Gerty who tells him about the death of Miss Lily Bart. After her death Selden discovers that Lily had paid off all her debts.

This research paper will discuss the topic of female tragic heroism in The House of Mirth. In chapter one of this research paper, I will deal with the main characteristics of tragic hero as explained by Aristotle in his book Poetics that makes Lily Bart as a female tragic hero. The three main characteristics: firstly, her hamartia or tragic flaws which make her downfall at the end of the novel. Secondly, Lily Bart’s recognition that she is unable to achieve her dreams. Thirdly, Lily Bart’s reversals in her life.

In addition, chapter two will discuss Lily Bart’s inherited tragic fate and the use of Edith Charles Darwin’s theory in building the fate of her character Miss Lily. It also will highlight the term of coincidence in Lily Bart’s meetings with men because this coincidence also leads Miss Lily Bart to her downfall. Finally, the last chapter of this research paper will be about Miss Lily Bart’s unfulfilled dreams. All of these chapters show how Miss Lily Bart is a truly female tragic hero.

Chapter one: Lily Bart’s main characteristics that makes her a female tragic hero.

1 Miss Lily’s hamartias

1-1 Miss Lily Bart and lying

Before discussing the main characteristics of this female tragic hero, it is necessary to look what tragedy means. In his book Poetics Aristotle explained tragedy: …Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. (Poetics ch.VI)

From this definition, it clearly appears that tragedy is about imitation of an action done by characters. These characters or tragic heroes must have some distinctive qualities either positive or negative. In my case Miss Lily has many bad qualities and some good qualities.

Miss Lily Bart has a lot of bad qualities or “hamartias”. The word hamartia’s meaning “…has been much debated. It has been variously translated as tragic ‘fault’, ‘flaw’, ‘mistake’, ‘fallibility’, ‘frailty’ and ‘error’ ” (The Philosophy of Tragedy From Plato to Žižek 35). Miss Lily is dominated by her flaws or errors which makes her failure and downfall at the end of this novel.

The first error of Lily Bart is telling lies. She makes herself to be untrusty person. As an illustration, at the beginning of the novel Lily lies on Mr. Rosedale about her visit in the Benedick. She tells him that she visits her dress-maker. However, he explains to her that he is owning the Benedick. Mr. Rosedale knew that Lily was visiting a man there. Miss Lily at that moment found herself at the mercy of Mr. Rosedale. The worst for Lily is that she ignored Mr. Rosedale from their first meeting. She feels a deep fear that her visit is going to be “in active circulation among Mr. Rosedale’s acquaintances” (The House of Mirth 18). Lily Bart by this fault she opens a closed door for Mr. Rosedale and other men to offend her later. It seems that Lily cut the line of her dignity by making that mistake. Because she is living in a patriarchal society which have no mercy against women.

Also, in the second chapter of book one, Mr. Percy Gryce, discovered that Miss Lily Bart is a smoker. He realizes that Lily tell untruths about her personal life. He discovers that issue when Bertha asked Lily if she had any cigarette left. As a result of Lily’s goals to make a good picture around her friends and society, she is using lies as a solution. Whereas Lily’s friends benefit from that for their own self-interestedness, like Bertha who wants Mr. Percy for her. For example, Bertha asks Lily about cigarette in the front of Mr. Percy Gryce to destroy their future relationship. That is to say that Lily’s flaw and weakness is a source of power in the hands of her enemies or friends.

Furthermore, Lily’s aunt does not know for a long time that Lily is playing bridge. This hidden secret is used by Lily’s cousin Grace Stepney in the right time not only to destroy their relationship, but also to remove Lily’s income from her aunt. Grace Stepney notifies Lily’s aunt about Lily’s gambling love; also, Grace Stepney told her about Lily’s relationships with Trenor and Dorset.

In brief, Miss Lily Bart is going to be affected by her bad behavior. Lily starts her tragedy by herself.

1-2 Debts and gambling

Another tragic flaw of Lily Bart is gambling which leads her to debts. Miss Lily possess this negative hobby which changes her life to the worst. Lily is addicted to bridge, and she is playing “too long for her own good.” (The House of Mirth 27). Lily for a long time has refused to play gambling because the fear of possessing “…so expensive a taste” (The House of Mirth 28); yet, she finds herself [has] played “regularly” and “the passion [has] grown on her” (The House of Mirth 29). Also, Lily Bart is forced to become addicted to gambling because she is must to follow her society rules, so in order to avoid being called “priggish and superior” (The House of Mirth 191), Lily and girls have to play bridge. Moreover, Miss Lily is frightened to be out from the stream of her society. In particular, Edith Wharton in her writings shows how her society is built, because of “[h]er upper class upbringing in the second half of the nineteenth century within the traditions of Old New York society inculcated in her many of the values of Victorian womanhood” (Feminist Readings of Edith Wharton 33). For instance, many of Edith Wharton’s female protagonists “…as Lily Bart, Anna Leath, and even Susy Lansing reflect Wharton’s understanding of what her culture expected of women—to be well-dressed, to marry, to manage a home, and to be witty and clever without being too intellectual” (Feminist Readings of Edith Wharton 33-34). In other words, girls in that society not only have to respect the society’s rules, but also to be blind about real truths without using the mind. So, Edith Wharton trying to show how this patriarchal society does not give the opportunity for females to learn and acquire knowledge.

The result of loving gambling leads not only Miss Lily to lose money, but also to have more debts. Due to her unlucky days in playing bridge, she is losing so much money. As a result of debts and low income from her aunt, she is started looking for a solution. Lily is going to request Mr. Trenor to help her to make money after she hears that he “…did a very neat stroke of business” (The House of Mirth 90), so Lily starts looking to earn money to pay her debts. Then Miss Lily is going to be advised by Trenor who informs her to invest in stock market to earn more money in a short time. Indeed, Lily trusts Trenor because she is “too genuinely ignorant of the manipulations of the stock-market to understand his technical explanations” (The House of Mirth 94). One could say that Lily’s ignorance about the investment in the stock-market is a weakness used by Mr. Trenor to trap her. In other words, this ignorance shows that women were forced to be not too intellectual.

Furthermore, Lily is not good at money management, because after she has received the first thousand dollar from Mr. Trenor, she does not save that money to benefit from them later. In order to avoid feeling that her days going “monotonously”, she finds that “...only the excitement of spending her newly-acquired money lightened the dulness of the days” (The House of Mirth 123). Thus, Lily has “…no saving vision of the risks of the opposite course” (The House of Mirth 123). So, Miss Lily enjoys spending money without knowing that she is going to has many troubles from the source of that money. Along with spending her money on dresses, she is going to give some money as a charity to Miss Farish who is working with an association that helps poor girls. Lily gives Miss Farish money because she is affected by the girls’ situations who are poor like the situation of Lily. Thus, Lily Bart is really a money waster.

After Miss Lily spends the money, she is going to know the source of the money, and she is going to be in trouble with Mr. Trenor. In chapter 13 Mr. Trenor sends a letter to Lily to dine, he writes Mrs. Trenor as the sender to trick Lily to come during the absence of his wife. So, Mr. Trenor brings Lily to take his money that he gives her as the earning of the investment by satisfying his sexual need as the price of his money gift to Lily. However, Miss Lily refuses his deal, but he tells her that “…the man who pays for the dinner is generally allowed to have a seat at table” (The House of Mirth 161). This means that he wants be paid either by money or by something else. Also, he informs her that she “go to men’s houses fast enough in broad day light” (The House of Mirth 161), and in this moment she has recognized that Rosedale has spread her visit at the Benedick when she has lied on him. Because Mr. Trenor has given her from his money as the earning from the stock market, he wants to offend her.

In short, Miss Lily Bart by playing bridge games makes her lose money, and losing money leads her to get a lot of debts which makes her searches for a way to be out of debts, but she askes the help of the wrong people who offend her.

1-3 Loving money and wealth:

Miss Lily Bart has a predominant flaw of loving the possession of money and wealth. She is throughout this novel aims to marry a rich man to secure her life. She is controlled by this tragic flaw and by her other flaws which leads her to the tragic downfall.

Lily is living the results of her old life as well as the effect of her society and family, she grows up in a family that consider a person who has money is human and who does not is “a pig”. Moreover, Lily has learnt by her mother that she must love money and to have “a good cook” as well as to be well dressed. Because Lily’s father is a very busy person with working, Lily misses his role as father in her life, so he is an exemplification of gathering money and wealth. Also, he did not care about his daughter’s morals and feelings, but he has cared about work and money. In addition, Lily has lived her adolescence as” …a zigzag broken course down which the family craft glided on a rapid current of amusement, tugged at by the underflow of a perpetual need—the need of more money” (The House of Mirth 32). Thus, Lily has learnt that she must possesses a lot of money to live as a real human. She believes that money is the only source of happiness as well as a mean of enjoyment. In the beginning Miss Lily “… was secretly ashamed of her mother’s crude passion for money” (The House of Mirth 38) when she has asked her to look for a rich man to marry; yet, she has changed her view after suffering from poverty. She understands that “one of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it” (The House of Mirth 77).

Edith Wharton uses the character Lily Bart in this novel to criticize materiality and morality in her society. Edith Wharton emphasizes on her continuing tensions between her “…classist values and conservative attitudes and her efforts to ridicule what she saw as the superficiality and anti-intellectualism of her native New York society…” (Feminist Readings of Edith Wharton 5). In other words, Edith Wharton criticizes “anti-intellectualism” that makes females in her society do not have the right to educate. Edith Wharton believes that a developed society must have educated and knowledgeable women. Additionally, she criticizes society “superficiality” of seeing others by wealth and social position and not by intellectual side. She thinks not only that her society must changes it material perspective toward human, but also that society must considers the intellectual side on seeing others. Above all, Edith Wharton criticizes her mother superficial perspective and values:

In her autobiography, Wharton explores in detail the difficult relationship with her mother who came to represent for her much that was wrong with American women defined by their wealth and social status within an elitist social system. Wharton describes her mother as a shallow woman whose focus on fashionable clothes and superficial values… (Feminist Readings of Edith Wharton 5)

So, Edith Wharton criticizes her material society in which “…everybody with money can get into society; but it would be truer to say that nearly everybody can “(The House of Mirth 206-207).

Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth displays two opposite characters: they are Lily Bart and Mr. Lawrence Selden. On the one hand, Lily Bart has a scheme of possessing money and wealth. She exemplifies her “…foreign bringing-up…” (The House of Mirth 191). Because she has travelled to Europe a lot, she becomes familiar with “…foreign customs…” (The House of Mirth 39). She acquires a foreign culture from her society as well as from other foreign societies. Moreover, Miss Lily links her success and happiness with money. Because she is controlled by what she has learnt from her family and society. Miss Lily is loving “Fond of luxury, and style, and amusement, and…cash” (The House of Mirth 196).

On the other hand, there is Mr. Lawrence Selden who has succeed in balancing between his poverty and the superficiality of his society. Selden becomes a survivalist in his material society by becoming his real self. Furthermore, he has learnt from his poor family that “… restricted means were felt only as a check on aimless profusion: where the few possessions were so good that their rarity gave them a merited relief… “(The House of Mirth 169). In addition, he has learnt “…that there are as many different ways of going without money as of spending it” (The House of Mirth 169). One could say that Selden has the ability to live in his society without being affected by its superficiality and materiality.

Briefly, Lily Bart is forced by her society and family to love money which are the keys of entering society. Firstly, Edith Wharton clarifies that an individual could live normal in society as Mr. Selden if he adopts well without being affected by superficiality and materiality. Secondly, she shows how an individual who has weak adaptation and being affected by the material society like Lily is going to suffer a lot.

2 Recognition:

The second characteristic of a tragic hero is recognition. Aristotle defines in his book “Poetics” recognition “…, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, … “(Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H Butcher ch.XI). That is to say the tragic hero must recognizes or discovers the real truths about what ignoring. In this novel, Lily Bart has discovered gradually many truths about her personality, future and life.

Firstly, because Miss Lily’s beauty starts to fade, she starts discovering her failure. For example, in chapter three from book one Lily discovers that she is growing older by seeing “…two little lines near her mouth…” (The House of Mirth 30). Because of her beauty is her first defense for her future, she fears losing it. She remembers that her mother has informed her to use her beauty to marry a rich man. Additionally, Lily Bart starts hating looking at herself into her mirror because she is “…seeing a disfigurement—some hideous change that has come to [her] while [she][sleeps]…” (The House of Mirth 182). Since she is 29 years old and still unmarried, Lily recognizes her failure. She discovers that all her plans are failed. She is completely aware of her recognizable failure.

Secondly, the most dangerous recognition for Lily is when she discovers that she has two selves in her. Unfortunately, she knows that after all of her life is destroyed by her second self and society. Lily’s recognition of having two selves is known in psychology as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Dissociative Identity Disorder is “characterized by the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of the individual’s behaviour…” (qtd. in Understanding and Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder 3). Miss Lily Bart’s second self has taken control of her since her father’s bankruptcy. She lives from that period with her two selves, but after the second shock of failure she discovers that problem. In his book Understanding and Treating Dissociative Identity DisorderJo L. Ringrose who is a psychotherapist explains that there is a process of switching between these selves. This change or” …switch may occur from one alter to another alter, from a host to an alter, or an alter to a host” (Understanding and Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder 9). Simply, the word host means the normal personality and the alter means the second self which views herself separate from other selves (9). This proves why Miss Lily feels stranger and separation because “…, there [are] two selves in her, the one she [has] always known, and a new abhorrent being to which it [finds] itself chained” (The House of Mirth 164).


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Female Tragic Heroism in Edith Wharton’s "The House of Mirth"
Sultan Moulay Sliman University
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female, tragic, heroism, edith, wharton’s, house, mirth, tragedy, aristotle, tragic flaw, Hamartia, Lily Bart, dissociative identity disorder
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Anas Tabiti (Author), 2019, Female Tragic Heroism in Edith Wharton’s "The House of Mirth", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/942279


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