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  • The Conventional and the Queer: Lily Bart, An Unlivable Ideal
  • Johanna M. Wagner (bio)

In criticism of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, more attention has been paid in recent years to the unconventional side of Lily Bart. Wai-Chee Dimock, for example, calls Lily “something of a rebel” (783), while Benjamin D. Carson and Elaine Showalter place her as “intruder” (707) and “outsider” (138) in her society, respectively. Ruth Bernard Yeazell admits at least “the faltering pulse of resistance” in Lily (731), and Maureen Howard describes her as “just unconventional enough” (139). Lily as a conformist is an obvious picture to paint, which is why exploring her non-conformism in criticism has been so stimulating and fruitful. However, even with so much focus on her unconventionality, few critics have questioned the one aspect that keeps criticism of The House of Mirth from becoming even more comprehensive: Lily’s sexuality.

In her 2000 PMLA article, Jennie A. Kassanoff argues that the idea of “race” is the “missing but historically crucial component complicating progressive interpretations of Wharton’s project” (61). In truth, I agree that “race” must be addressed in connection to Wharton studies and the novel itself, but I do not believe it is the only “missing […] component.” In all of The House of Mirth criticism, perhaps three articles give substantial weight to the subject of sexuality in The House of Mirth.1 Lily’s sexuality is assumed from the start because she is a woman and desired. In order to open wide the novel’s critical realm, this paper argues, sexuality must be one of the factors that is explored more thoroughly. Therefore, this study will actively read against past heteronormative impulses by investigating the convergence of conventionality and queerness in Lily Bart, and how, paradoxically, the one sustains the other. In the spirit of Dimock’s argument in which Lily’s “deviance” (787)2 is explored via exchange, this paper will expand Lily’s queerness through her idealized status, but will focus on gender and sexuality rather than the marketplace.

To Let Live

Livability, by the end of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth (1905), is finally all that matters. As readers, we watch with increasing dismay as the narrow sphere of Lily Bart’s existence slowly and surely shrinks to the slightest of spaces. Lily’s lifelong work – honing her womanly [End Page 116] graces – extends her visibility as an ideal image,3 but also insures her ruin. This visibility, in tandem with conventional heteronormative assumptions prohibiting queerness, are two factors that fundamentally – and paradoxically – allow Lily’s survival, but in the end are also her undoing. Employing Judith Butler’s ideas of cultural “intelligibility” (visibility) and “unintelligibility” (invisibility) on the one hand, and queering Lily Bart by challenging the heteronormative assumptions inherent in her place as an ideal of her ‘sex,’ I will follow the story of Lily Bart in her quest for a livable life.

The American theorist Judith Butler is primarily known for her theory of performativity,4 but a theme not discussed nearly enough when analyzing or applying her theory is that which underlies its theorization in the first place: Butler’s concern with what makes life worth living and who has a right to that life. In a number of her books, Butler explores the idea of livable and unlivable lives. She discusses bodies that, in fact, do matter, and those that do not: a poignant exploration of how cultures value and devalue bodies, and ascribe, or deny, humanity to such bodies. She suggests that lives are livable when those lives’ bodies are culturally intelligible. As noted by Moya Lloyd in her book Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics, Butler’s idea of livability is the result of a “relation between normative violence and cultural intelligibility: how, that is, culturally particular norms define who is recognizable as a subject capable of living a life that counts […] in terms of human survival” (134). Livable lives, then, are those lives whose bodies move relatively freely without undue injury from societal norms. Conversely, unlivable lives are those in which bodies are unrecognizable or culturally unintelligible. For them, specific opportunities are foreclosed, and...


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pp. 116-139
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