It’s been a while since I last posted a “Calendary Literature”, and I figured it was about time.
In Denmark we have a highly popular September song “Septembers himmel er så blå” (“The Sky of September is So Blue”), which is sung by school children throughout the month. It’s a lovely song and the lyrics describe September as a month of an almost unreal fertility: The apples are so red, the sky is so blue, and the larks still sing, and so it’s easy to forget that this is actually the first month of Autumn, and the first step towards winter.
I always liked that idea – September as an almost unnaturally beautiful month, the sky crystally clear and blue like a the eyes of a feverish child, and the ripe fruits red like the cheeks of a consumptive. (Whoa, that last sentence may just be the most emo thing I’ve written since I was 14. But stay with me here).
So September always induces a kind of swan-song-atmosphere in me – it’s the swan song of summer to me – , and as I sat down to think of a piece of literature that gives me that same feeling, I thought of the second-to-last chapter depicting Lily Bart’s feverish hallucination from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.
I love The House of Mirth, it’s one of my favourite books, and I think that of Lily’s character is one of the most poignantly depicted literary characters I’ve ever encountered. A beautiful, decorative woman, Lily is a product of her society, but she’s also a symptom of it, because she is so clearly doomed to perish in the same society that’s created her.
And Lily’s problem is essentially that she is so extremely, so purely ornamental. I don’t mean to say that she is so beautiful that it kills her, but rather to say that she is doomed to perish because she has succeeded so well in the art of being an ornament, that is, something static and mute, that she’s been rendered incapable of mastering the art of the narrative, the temporal, consecutive story. As Susan Gubar points out in the inspired “The Blank Page”, the excellent tableau vivants that Lily performs in a central chapter actually becomes a foreshadowing of Lily’s dead body on the bed in the last chapter. Lily is a spatial being and masters the spatial arts, but when it comes to the temporal, like story-telling, she is easily lost. This becomes obvious in the way she has no control over her own story as told by her surroundings, and so it becomes a story of her own down-fall.
However, there is one brief moment, just before Lily ends up on her death-bed, when Lily experiences a kind of sudden, ominous blooming, and it becomes one of very few moments in the novel when Lily seems to be linked to something temporal, something that would make Lily part of a story rather than just being a pretty picture. It occurs in the scene where Lily, roaming the streets in her sick and pale state, encounters a poor girl, Nettie Struther, whom she’s helped out in the past. Nettie offers to take Lily home so that she may warm herself in their kitchen and see Nettie’s baby, and Nettie tells her the story of how Lily’s help in the past has succesfully changed Nettie’s life. A story which Lily, with her typical lack of sense of a good story, has been oblivious to: Nettie had been seduced by a gentleman and had been left by him, only to take ill. She came close to succumbing to her illness, until Lily’s financial aids had given her the means to go to a sanatorium. Nettie made a full recovery and was later reunited with George, a childhood friend, who proposed to her. She told him her whole story, but he still wanted to marry her, and Nettie is now living with George and her new-born daughter. In her weak state, Lily enjoys Nettie’s company immensely:
“It was warm in the kitchen, which, when Nettie Struther’s match had made a flame leap from the gas-jet above the table, revealed itself to Lily as extraordinarily small and almost miraculously clean. A fire shone through the polished flanks of the iron stove, and near it stood a crib in which a baby was sitting upright, with incipient anxiety struggling for expression on a countenance still placid with sleep.
The baby had sunk back blissfully replete, and Mrs. Struther softly rose to lay the bottle aside. Then she paused before Miss Bart. (…) Lily (…) rose with a smile and held out her arms; and the mother, understanding the gesture, laid her child in them. The baby, feeling herself detached from her habitual anchorage, made an instinctive motion of resistance; but the soothing influences of digestion prevailed, and Lily felt the soft weight sink trustfully against her breast. The child’s confidence in its safety thrilled her with a sense of warmth and returning life, and she bent over, wondering at the rosy blur of the little face, the empty clearness of the eyes, the vague tendrilly motions of the folding and unfolding fingers. At first the burden in her arms seemed as light as a pink cloud or a heap of down, but as she continued to hold it the weight increased, sinking deeper, and penetrating her with a strange sense of weakness, as though the child entered into her and became a part of herself. “
There’s a comforting warmth to this scene that stands out in the novel about a harsh and ruthless social scene, and both the baby and the scenary of the kitchen, I feel, contribute to this atmosphere: Being the ornament that she is, Lily has hitherto been placed in sitting rooms and in halls and in theatres and, as Gubar notes, she has mostly thought of her surroundings as backdrop scenery. In this scene, Lily is placed for the first time in surroundings that are functional rather than decorative; a small, cosy, and functional room where warmth and nurtrition comes from – a room that even shelders a new little life, Nettie’s infant daughter. The scene makes a profound impression on Lily who feels the tragedy of her own life all the stronger later that evening, as she is alone in her own room:
“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 indeed miserable to be poor–to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still–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.
Her parents too had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts. She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood–whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties–it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving.
Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily. She had had a premonition of it in the blind motions of her mating-instinct; but they had been checked by the disintegrating influences of the life about her. All the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance: her first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that evening in Nettie Struther’s kitchen.
The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff–a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.
Yes–but it had taken two to build the nest; the man’s faith as well as the woman’s courage. Lily remembered Nettie’s words: I knew he knew about me. Her husband’s faith in her had made her renewal possible–it is so easy for a woman to become what the man she loves believes her to be!”
It had taken a man’s sense of temporality to create the continuity that Lily admires about Nettie’s life, and Lily’s tragedy has been that she has been unable to find a man that would construct for her the narrative that she needed and that her ornamental self had been unable to create. Lawrence Selden was the man who came the closest to helping her when she needed her, but he ultimatively failed her. Nevertheless, and this is the part that I find so beautifully Septemberly about this chapter, as Lily is lying on the bed, she is haunted by the benevolent spirit of Nettie’s healthy baby girl. There are other stories about Lily than the one men in Lily’s society are spreading about her, there is also Nettie’s narrative, according to which the little baby would never have existed if it weren’t for Lily. Lily has a dim awareness of this as she empties the sleeping draught that has been her only consolation during the last harsh period of her life:
“She had not imagined that such a multiplication of wakefulness was possible: her whole past was reenacting itself at a hundred different points of consciousness. Where was the drug that could still this legion of insurgent nerves? The sense of exhaustion would have been sweet compared to this shrill beat of activities; but weariness had dropped from her as though some cruel stimulant had been forced into her veins.
She could bear it–yes, she could bear it; but what strength would be left her the next day? Perspective had disappeared–the next day pressed close upon her, and on its heels came the days that were to follow–they swarmed about her like a shrieking mob. She must shut them out for a few hours; she must take a brief bath of oblivion. 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 chance 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….
She did not, in truth, consider the question very closely–the physical craving for sleep was her only sustained sensation. Her mind shrank from the glare of thought as instinctively as eyes contract in a blaze of light–darkness, darkness was what she must have at any cost. She raised herself in bed and swallowed the contents of the glass; then she blew out her candle and lay down.
She lay very still, waiting with a sensuous pleasure for the first effects of the soporific. She knew in advance what form they would take–the gradual cessation of the inner throb, the soft approach of passiveness, as though an invisible hand made magic passes over her in the darkness. The very slowness and hesitancy of the effect increased its fascination: it was delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness. Tonight the drug seemed to work more slowly than usual: each passionate pulse had to be stilled in turn, and it was long before she felt them dropping into abeyance, like sentinels falling asleep at their posts. But gradually the sense of complete subjugation came over her, and she wondered languidly what had made her feel so uneasy and excited. She saw now that there was nothing to be excited about–she had returned to her normal view of life. Tomorrow would not be so difficult after all: she felt sure that she would have the strength to meet it. She did not quite remember what it was that she had been afraid to meet, but the uncertainty no longer troubled her. She had been unhappy, and now she was happy–she had felt herself alone, and now the sense of loneliness had vanished.
She stirred once, and turned on her side, and as she did so, she suddenly understood why she did not feel herself alone. It was odd–but Nettie Struther’s child was lying on her arm: she felt the pressure of its little head against her shoulder. She did not know how it had come there, but she felt no great surprise at the fact, only a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure. She settled herself into an easier position, hollowing her arm to pillow the round downy head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the sleeping child.
As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered vague and luminous on the far edge of thought–she was afraid of not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well.”
The word escapes Lily, of course – it comes to her too late, and so does Selden, who comes to see Lily the next day and finds only her beautiful corpse. But that ending would not have been quite the same without Lily’s consumptive blooming in this second-to-last chapter, and that short glimpse of what might have been, of Lily tenderly holding in her arms the future of Nettie Struther.