Lily Bart is a red-haired young woman of great physical beauty. Men are as drawn to her beauty as women are threatened by it. Raised by a mother who taught her the price of everything and the value of nothing and a father who lost and unsuccessfully endeavored to rebuild a family fortune, Lily is told by her mother that it is incumbent upon her to use her beauty in order to marry into wealth.
Lily Bart, for all her faults is a fully realized character. Her inability to manage money is attributed to attitudes she learned from her mother. Her inability to understand men is attributable to the fact that her father was consistently away at work in order to pay for his wife and daughter's extravagances.
When the novel begins, Lily is twenty-nine and still single. She has squandered several promising marriage opportunities, but feels she still can marry a wealthy man. However, she fears that her beauty may be fading along with the bloom of her youth.
At the beginning of The House of Mirth, Wharton depicts Lily as a shallow young woman. Despite Lily's frivolous and shallow nature at the novel's beginning, throughout the novel she displays the desire to act in an ethical fashion. While at first participating in charitable acts in order to feel good about herself (much like Mrs. Peniston — see below), she is eventually confronted with the positive results of her charity. She refuses the sexual advances of Gus Trenor, even though such an acceptance would render her bill paid in full. She declines to verbally defend herself against Bertha Dorset's accusations, believing that such a defense would only dignify Bertha's charges. Finally, she refuses to blackmail Bertha, an act that easily could have resolved all her financial problems.