Thursday, April 8, 2010

gambling with money, love, and death.

Spoiler alert-- just in case you haven't read the rest of the book.


Gambling, and the luck associated with it, consistently appears throughout Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Lily Bart, the beautiful young protagonist, loses her spending money when she gambles at the socialite parties. With the help of Gus Trenor, she also gambles on the stock market. More importantly, Lily gambles on love; instead of accepting a marriage proposal from one of the various suitors, she insists on staying in the "game" so that she can win a “better hand.” In doing this, she pushes her luck to the limits.

This also shines a light on her struggle between the happiness of true love and the happiness of wealth. She values social status and money above all else—even if it means denying her truest friend, and ideal match, Selden. In this novel, money seems to drive the plot, define the characters, and classify their level of power and social rank.

Lily ends up losing a large sum of money in the stock market, finds herself in poverty, unintentionally makes Bertha Dorset an enemy who then spreads hurtful rumors about her, and it even seems like she has an unlucky death. Of these, the latter is most intriguing to me, as Edith Wharton never really clarifies whether Lily meant to overdose on her sleeping medication, or if she only took a little extra because she wanted to sleep longer:

“But this was the verge of delirium... she had never hung so near the dizzy bring of the unreal. Sleep was what she wanted—” (Wharton 361).

“She put out her hand, and measured the soothing drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt she must increase it. She knew she took a slight risk in doing so—she remembered the chemist’s warning. If sleep came at all, it might be a sleep without waking. But after all that was but one change in a hundred: the action of the drug was incalculable, and the addition of a few drops to the regular dose would probably do no more than procure for her the rest she so desperately needed....” (Wharton 362).

Thus it seems it was merely a poor mishap in an extreme desire for rest, but a little earlier than these passages Wharton writes, “It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance... it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life” (Wharton 359).

So, perhaps her death was accidental, but did Lily really care at that point? This last powerful and beautiful passage seems to describe Lily's life as a meaningless existence, in which it may be better for her to die rather than endure this despair, and tragically empty reflections on her life.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you're going to bring up these good ideas in class on Tuesday, Carissa; they're important.

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