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Posts Tagged ‘House of Mirth’

The two Lilys have been on my mind for a while, and after rereading To the Lighthouse and House of Mirth, I’ve begun a trail of comparisons and contrasts to which I plan to add some personal reflections and who knows what else for a future essay.

Virginia Woolf reviewed House of Mirth and regarded Lily Bart with sympathy, as having “many of the faults of her surroundings” but also “a capacity for better things which is never to be exercised.” I also found a paper by a Wharton scholar that compares Lily Bart and Clarissa Dalloway, but I don’t think the Lilys have been broached together.

Just to be sure, I googled and found just one reference, to a passage that unites them in a 1990 novel by Roberta Silman, Beginning the World Again: A Novel of Los Alamos. I got the book right away, of course, and soon found myself embroiled in a well-researched account, based on actual events and real as well as fictional characters, of the secret mission to build the atomic bomb in the New Mexico hills during World War II.                

The protagonist is Lily Failka, the wife of a nuclear physicist on the team. This is her story about her time there, her marriage, the families, the project, the secrecy. Before accompanying her new husband to Los Alamos, Lily had been a graduate student in literature and was writing a thesis on Melville. Classic novels come up frequently in her thinking and in analogies she makes. When she has an affair with one of the other scientists, she introduces him to literature. Years later, looking back:

There were often months, then years when I scarcely thought about Jacob, and when I did, I was so detached that I was another person, another Lily—“Lily Bart, Lily Briscoe, Joyce’s Lily in ‘The Dead,’ Lily of the Field?” I could hear Jacob’s low voice asking me. All those Lilys I had told him about. No, none of those, but someone still within me whom I scarcely knew anymore.

I sought out and had an email exchange with Roberta Silman, who proudly claims Grace Paley as her mentor and friend. Her context for the reference was Lily Failka’s introducing her physicist lover to her favorite literature, but Roberta noted characteristics that perhaps all the Lilys share, providing food for thought for my own project. Roberta also took pleasure in casting her Lily in the company of the memorable Lily Bart and Lily Briscoe.

 

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