Ask a Scholar/Ask a Critic: Suicide or Drug Overdose?

Carol Iannone

Once upon a time, scholars were among the best sources of odd bits of knowledge. If you wanted to know which species of bees are native to Newfoundland, how many vice presidential candidates wore glasses, or whether Gilgamesh had a first name, you might well find an answer from a scholar who had a Xerxes-like command of a multitudinous army of facts. 

 Alas, Xerxes’ army came to grief and so did the idea of the professor as keeper of the archive of not-quite-lost knowledge. Today we have Google. And within the vast universe of Google, we have the endless corridors of Wikipedia. True, some of those corridors are blind alleys, but with a little patience, you can usually find what you need on the Internet and avoid having to move from your chair or speak to a person. Whether it is the Internet Movie Data Base or North American Bird Sounds, almost every domain of knowledge has its own easily-accessed reference tools. 

As a source of esoteric facts, the role of scholars has eroded. Fortunately, we still have questions that call for confidently rendered and dressed up opinions. “Ask a Scholar” matches readers’ questions to scholars who either have the answers or interesting ways of obscuring their ignorance. We invite readers to submit questions.  

Questions submitted for consideration should call more for educated judgment than for facts. “In 1492, who sailed the ocean blue?” for example, is a question of limited interest, since biographies of Leif Ericson are widely available, including on Wikipedia. We especially welcome questions that provide professors the occasion to draw erudite distinctions and incorporate mention of matters you had no idea were connected to the topic at hand. 

This question was posed by an NAS member from New York:

Does Lily Bart commit suicide at the end of Edith Wharton's novel, The House of Mirth, or does she die of a drug overdose?

We turned this question over to Dr. Carol Iannone, independent scholar and editor-at-large of our journal Academic Questions. Dr. Iannone received her Ph.D. in English literature from SUNY, Stony Brook, and has written widely on cultural and intellectual issues. She has served on the faculty of the Gallitan School of New York University and most recently was the recipient of the National Association of Scholars’ Barry R. Gross Memorial Award. 

This question has vexed many critics and readers since the novel first appeared as a serial in Scribner's Magazine in 1905. When the news spread that the final installment featured Lily’s death, the magazine sold out so quickly that many readers were unable to find a copy. (The novel was published in book form later that same year and sold over 200,000 copies, a third in advance of the actual date of publication.) Some readers see Lily's death as intentional, some as accidental, and some view the ending as deliberately ambiguous on the author's part.  

Lily Bart is a society beauty without money in turn-of-the-century New York City who tumbles down the social ladder after a supposed friend betrays her. Unable to hold a job, struggling to survive, beset by fear and loneliness, she begins taking a prescription drug (chloral hydrate) to help her sleep. One evening, after using a legacy from her aunt to discharge an onerous and humiliating debt that had compromised her honor, as well as to settle other bills, she wants only to rest. Emotionally exhausted yet blindingly wakeful, she has long grown accustomed to the highest permitted dosage of the drug and realizes that it will not work. She thus knowingly takes more than is prescribed simply to assure herself some sleep. Some readers take her actions as suggesting that Lily does wish to end her burdensome life now that her affairs are in order, but, in the genteel fashion of her class, without fully acknowledging to herself that she is doing so.      

Recently a letter surfaced in which Wharton had indicated her intention to make Lily's death a suicide, but it dates from December 1904, early in the novel's composition, and therefore cannot be taken as dispositive. Wharton scholars have pointed out that as she continued fashioning her narrative in the course of its serialization, she clearly made the ending more nuanced and complex.       

For my part, I see no ambiguity in Lily’s death; indeed, I think that there is no question of suicide here at all. What we have in the final pages of the novel is an accurate physiological and psychological description of an accidental drug overdose, such as likely took the lives of Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, River Phoenix, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, and many others. 

Ironically, the day that will turn out to be Lily's last is a very good day for her in some important ways. She has come closer than ever to understanding the nature of life and of her own life especially. She realizes that she may have lost the love of Lawrence Selden, the man of modest means she might have married had she not so doted on luxury when she was living on its edges by virtue of her association with high society. She also recognizes that his high ideals, however imperfectly realized, and his vision of something better in her, have led her to recoil from the utter triviality of her previous existence as an ornament in a superficial and often nasty world. As a result, she nobly decides not to use some letters in her possession to expose the woman who destroyed her and thus regain her place in society (much to the temporary annoyance of readers who at this point wouldn't mind seeing some revenge on that noxious person).   

Moreover, on this same day, she has seen something of what she calls the "central truth of existence" in the situation of a friend, Nettie Struther, a poor girl who has managed to piece her life together after some hard knocks, and has now married and had a child with a man who loves her despite her previous indiscretion. Then, when Lily returns to her boarding house and finds the legacy, she determines to use the money to cancel her debt despite being desperate for funds, fearing her own weakness will tempt her to compromise with herself. Finally, she packs away the beautiful dresses that remain to her from her former life and determines to live honorably in her reduced circumstances. All this represents great growth of character, remarkable reflectiveness and insight, albeit gained at tragic cost, on the part of a woman whose former achievements included appearing in a tableau vivant reprising a painting by Joshua Reynolds.  

Still, the grinding poverty and slow diminution of life that she faces as far as her eye can see, as well as her two previous nights of sleeplessness, weigh on her and distort her perspective. She is on “the verge of delirium," quietly panicking at the thought of continued wakefulness. As she measures the drops of chloral into a glass of water, she minimizes to herself the danger of which she had been warned. In fact, "[s]he 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." 

What is most notable about Wharton’s recently surfaced letter is not so much that it indicated her early intentions concerning Lily's death, but that she wrote it to a doctor who tended to the mental ills of high society. She was, in fact, inquiring of him what kind of drug would likely be taken by a nervous young lady of the smart set and what its effects would be. The results of her investigation can be seen in the last few pages of the novel, which are remarkable for Wharton’s exquisite precision of observation as she details Lily's thoughts and sensations under the influence of the drug. The description is careful and exact, yet not clinical, indeed, oddly lyrical.     

As the drug very slowly calms her to sleep, Lily loses the fear and loneliness that have kept her wakeful. The "central truth of existence" that she saw in Nettie's improved situation—the accepting, forgiving love that makes renewal possible even after major mistakes—is embodied for Lily in the newborn child that she had held earlier that day. Now this child appears to be with her in a half dream, half hallucination—sweet and pleasant, but a danger sign to the reader. Lying on her side, she cuddles the baby protectively, clinging to what she saw of the strength of Nettie's life. Except, of course, that the child is not real. 

But Lily's thoughts move forward:  

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 of course is love, and this perhaps is the clearest indication that Lily has no intention of taking her life. She still has something to do, something to say, something to clarify; her life has meaning, she is still figuring it out, and other people still matter.     

At one point she bolts upright, suddenly aware again of the starkness of her situation. But the drug has now overtaken her. Assuring herself that the infant she thinks is her link to life is still with her, she yields to the comforting darkness from which she will not awaken.       

I asked a friend what she would do with the legacy if faced with Lily's circumstances. Would she give the whole thing over to pay the debt as Lily does? My friend said she would put a few thousand toward the debt and use the rest to get on her feet and pay the rest gradually. Yes, a simple and sensible plan. But not for Wharton. This is Wharton's way of viewing the world—hard, brittle, and more than a little bitter. In Wharton’s view, to do the right thing for society, even for a society that fails to live up to the demands it places on its members, means crucifying oneself in some way. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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