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"On Lily Bart's Specializations and Survival in the Upper Class": What Women Want: Desire and the Modern American Novel


Liu, Victoria (2020) "On Lily Bart's Specializations and Survival in the Upper Class": What Women Want: Desire and the Modern American Novel. Other, California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/62fy-de93.


[Introduction] Lily Bart, the queen of easy elegance and perfectly-timed blushes, experiences a dramatic fall in status in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Once a socialite whose presence hosts vied for, Lily progressively falls into more and more dishonorable positions until she ultimately perishes. What factors are at play in such a drastic change? For one, Lily’s love of risk does not serve her well in the competitive game of the elite class, where women are “capable of sacrificing all…old friends” (Wharton 263) for the chance at improving their social standing. Lily’s initial footing in the elite, already unstable without a reliable income or wealthy husband, is shaken by her inaccurate judgments of risks, and she eventually finds herself unable to survive in her new environment. Unlike her malicious cohorts who are willing to ruin others to maintain their own footings in the upper class, Lily has a sense of morality, which becomes a hindrance to her fight for survival. Nature-inspired imagery of Lily’s situation pervades the novel and is reminiscent of social Darwinism, where only the wealthy and well-endowed can thrive—one woman’s gain is another woman’s loss. Interestingly, this zero sum game does not apply for upper class men. Seldon, for example, is able to aspire towards morality and engage in sentimental risks because, as a man, his reputation is not as easily damaged as Lily’s. Like Darwin’s finches, whose modified bills fit them for certain foods but not others, Lily’s specialization in forms and manners makes her only suitable for life in the upper class, where her decorative nature is appreciated; unfortunately, she is unable to regain entry into the elite after she is kicked out due to her risky behavior and personal moral code, and she faces her mortality when she is unable to adapt.

Item Type:Thesis (Other)
Subject Keywords:Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize ; Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize - English ; Hixon Writing Center
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:English
Awards:Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize - English, 2020.
Thesis Availability:Restricted to Caltech community only
Research Advisor(s):
  • Jurca, Catherine
Group:Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize - English, Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize, Hixon Writing Center
Thesis Committee:
  • Unknown, Unknown
Defense Date:3 April 2020
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:09162020-090850903
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:13950
Deposited By: Leslie Rico
Deposited On:24 Sep 2020 21:22
Last Modified:11 Dec 2020 23:32

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