Lily would Slit Her Throat...
Unlike Chuck Noland, who was sentenced by fate to a four year time-out, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth is damned by her own nature. Noland, perhaps unwisely, made efficiency his priority, but Lily is constitutionally unable to prioritize at all, and proves insufficient in every respect to compensate for this flaw, or even cope with her surroundings.
In the beginning, The House of Mirth seemed every bit the lame-o, by the numbers, Masterpiece Theater production its libelers claimed. Pretty redheads Lily Bart and Lawrence Seldon (Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, not known for costume dramas) circle each other, speaking stilted dialog in fluty tones, blatantly performing. They are engaged in New York Kabuki, and Lily at least knows that if her performance is not impeccable, the critics will destroy her. But though Lily starts well, she keeps dropping out of character and blowing her lines. Eventually, she will be driven from the stage.
Before Admitting this is what She Wants.
The House of Mirth is the arena where Society engages in theater and sport. It is the only venue that matters. One character remarks on Seldon reentry on the stage, "So you are not so far removed from being manipulated by the strings of society as one might think." He replies, "Mrs. Fisher, none of us are."
Lily least of all. She is a rapidly fading starlet still in search of a big break. She has some money, but not enough to maintain the lifestyle she prefers. She is pretty, but familiar. She has hopes, but no foresight. More than anything she wants Seldon to want her. While they banter, however, he thinks they are engaged in a romantic comedy while she knows her life is turning into a tragedy of manners.
The difference is reflected in the stakes Lily and Lawrence have in a culture in which genteel games of bridge take on aspects of blood sport. Lily is a poor gambler and a terrible risk. The piddling amounts she loses at the table collect and mark her gradual loss of status. Worried about her losses, she asks a savvy businessman and social superior to invest her remaining income. He gives her an enormous, and largely fraudulent, return, and she spends it all before she understands the tremendous obligation it places upon her. In a milieu where financial and personal compromises are directly and inextricably linked, Lily must make a bold play. She has an ace up her sleeve that would at once rehabilitate her socially and allow her to call the bluff of a Machiavellian schemer who finds it convenient to ruin Lily's life. But occasional pangs of conscience combine with unfortunate timing and prevent her from using it. In the end, she sacrifices everything to pay her debt to a society that neither needs the money nor appreciates her effort.
As the story progresses and Lily loses her place, Anderson drops the flourishes and mannerisms that signaled her membership in that rarified sphere. They do not serve her when she joins the working classes, but she has nothing practical with which to replace them. "I have tried, I have tried hard," she confesses to Seldon. "But life is difficult, and I am a useless person. And now I am upon the rubbish heap."
The drama and games go on without her.
(Written by Sharon C. McGovern)