Loneliness is a prevalent theme throughout Edith Wharton’s novel House of Mirth. The following passage relates to the theme of loneliness and dramatizes Lily Bart’s dilemma of poverty: “All she looked on was the same and yet changed. There was a great gulf fixed between today and yesterday. Everything in the past seemed simple, natural, full of daylight-and she was alone in a place of darkness and pollution. -Alone! It was the loneliness that frightened her. ” (p. 2) The passage shows the abrupt loneliness Lily feels since she loses her friends, and it also dramatizes her poverty by enabling her to reach a startling realization about herself. Lily realizes that the loneliness she feels is not due to not having friends or money, but the fact that she had been living a life so poor in purpose or reason. Lily begins to feel lonely after she quickly loses the company of her friends.
In the past, she enjoyed a simple life of playing bridge and attending fancy dinners with the wealthy women of high society. But now, her reputation is shattered and she realizes the women in her society are cruel and would not hesitate to talk about her behind her back, “She knew, moreover, that if the ladies at Bellomont permitted themselves to criticize her friends openly, it was a proof that they were not afraid of subjecting her to the same treatment behind her back. ” (p. 5)
Lily feels so lonely that she is desperate in rebuilding her reputation, “and the first step in the tedious task was to find out, as soon as possible, on how many of her friends she could count. ” (p. 217) But without the money and luxuries that her old friends had, Lily finds she has even fewer friends to count on that she thought, making it very difficult to regain her position in high society. Lily’s increasing poverty, in addition to the loss of all her old friends continues to make her feel lonely.
The painful fact that she owes Gus Trenor nine thousand dollars is a hard blow on Lily. Lily knows she is alone in a terrible position, and feels trapped: “She seemed a stranger to herself, or rather there were two selves in her, the one she had always known, and a new abhorrent being to which it found itself chained. ” (p. 142) Suddenly she is no longer the strikingly beautiful Lily Bart that everyone attends to, but a poor and lonely woman in a crowded restaurant whose “eyes sought the faces about her, craving a responsive glance, some sign of an intuition of her trouble. p. 290)
Lily’s feelings of loneliness are heightened when she discovers that she did not inherit her aunt Julia’s estate. A large sum of money could easily alleviate most of her worries and loneliness. She knows that if she had money she could pay off all of her debts and maybe go on to win back her friends. That’s why her aunt Julia’s death is not as shocking as expected; she could use her inheritance to pay off the debts and to finally put an end to the feelings of loneliness caused by them.
But after the reading of the will, “Lily stood apart from the general movement, feeling herself for the first time utterly alone. ” (p. 213) She knows that the women would have accepted her if she had inherited the entire estate, “They were afraid to snub me while they thought I was going to get the money-afterward they scuffled off as if I had the plague. ” (p. 214) Without the money, Lily continues to live alone and helpless. Lily Bart’s dilemma of poverty is dramatized when Lily feels a different kind of loneliness, one that leads her to a horrifying self-realization.
This new loneliness that she feels is not due to material poverty, but “of deeper empoverishment-of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. ” (p. 306) Being poor made Lily feel lonely, but now she is sickened by the realization that her life quickly passed by without any meaning or substance. While other women married and lived rich lives, or worked for charitable causes like Gerty Farish, “she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life…
Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily. ” (p. 306-7) Lily’s dilemma of poverty and now this deeper impoverishment is further dramatized when Lily feels moments of happiness before falling asleep at the end of the novel. Before falling asleep Lily feels Nettie Struther’s baby against her arm: “she suddenly understood why she did not feel herself aloneNettie Struther’s child was laying on her armbut she felt no great surprise at the fact, only a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure. ” (p. 0)
Lily finds comfort in Nettie’s baby and cherishes its essence. Nettie’s child gives hope, and confirms Lily’s new beliefs that she could find happiness within a lifestyle less than luxurious. Without the discomfort of loneliness, Lily peacefully falls asleep believing that she could beat the odds like Nettie Struther had done. After losing all of her friends and all of her money, Lily’s sudden loneliness enables her to realize that her life was fleeting and insignificant. Her carefree days are over and her shallow friends gone.
Lily had no heart to lean on,” (p. 143) and the pains of being poor and lonely lead her to realize that her life had passed quickly with nearly no purpose or reason. But Nettie Struther’s child, a symbol of perseverance offers a glimmer of hope and eternal peace. The novel ends dramatically when Lily dies still feeling Nettie’s child beside her, with all her debts paid, and all the loneliness vanished; yet Lily Bart is still “something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence. ” (p. 306)