Flashback: House of Mirth

Lily Bart is the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. Lady Gaga is the persona created by singer Stefani Germanotta, whose debut album The Fame appeared in 2008. The House of Mirth was a best seller and added to Wharton’s considerable wealth. Lady Gaga was Billboard’s Artist of the Year for 2010 and ranks number 22 on Forbes’ money ranking of celebrities. Lily Bart, who is 29 at the beginning of the novel, is a young woman of luxurious taste who, though she has slim financial resources, is a presence among New York City’s wealthy families. Her aim is to secure a rich husband.  She depends on her beauty, her sense of style, her refinement, and her social adroitness. Lady Gaga is the epitome of outrageous style. She has appeared for performances wearing a plastic bubble dress, wearing raw meat, drenched in stage blood, and in all manner of skimpy costumes. Lily’s costumes are never skimpy, but she spends nearly as much time as Lady Gaga in putting forward a calculated show.  At a crucial scene in the novel she dressed the part of a figure in a Sir Joshua Reynolds painting to stand in a tableau vivant. Lily tries and fails to become a hat maker.  Lady Gaga has successfully inspired a line of Halloween costumes.

The difference between these two characters says a lot about the century or so that lies between them. But the similarities are striking too. Both Lily Bart and Lady Gaga are essentially ornamental. They are for show:  though they are both intensely ambitious in what they hope to achieve.  An immediate difference between them is that Lady Gaga is by any standard a success. Lily Bart ends up a cast off of the New York fashionable social scene and, reduced to the prospects of poverty, dies of an overdose of a narcotic sleeping aid. Lily lives in a world of fine gradations and unresolved ambiguities. Even her death preserves a secret: accident or suicide? Lady Gaga is entirely about flamboyant transgression.  It is hard to see much of anything unresolved in her lyrics or her performances. Lily lives in fear of mistaken appearances that might suggest that she is sexually involved with one or another of her married or unmarried admirers. Lady Gaga is pretty much full-blast promotion of promiscuity and using her sexuality for personal advantage. This isn’t merely a matter of late Victorian times in contrast to the liberated present. Wharton’s novel depicts high society as rife with sexual affairs. Lily simply chooses to avoid them.

Peter Wood sammenligner Gillian Andersons Lily Bart med Lady Gaga