The main character in a novel is usually one who is depicted as the character central to the plot and theme. Additionally, this character will undergoes the most change throughout the novel, their growth attributed by facing constant conflict and resolving them. Finally, the main character is someone who best illustrates some of the points that the author is trying to make. In The House of Mirth, it is obvious to the reader that Lily Bart is the main character of the novel. However, based on the above facts about the factors that constitute the main character in the novel, I will develop an alternative theory that Lawrence Selden can be the main character in the novel The House of Mirth.
Lawrence Selden is a lawyer who is also a good friend of Lily Bart throughout the novel. Even though Selden is part of old NY and is thus able to mingle around the circles, he detest their way of living and instead chose to view and study them as an outside observer. Furthermore, even though being part of the elite group of New York, Selden does not believe that money can buy happiness and is instead a more down-to-earth person, looking for love and happiness instead of buying them with money. Selden is the exact opposite to Lily when it comes to the believes of material wealth; Lily views money as the source of love and happiness, and is obsessed with being part of old NY. Being the counterpart to the 'main-character' of the novel, Lawrence Selden is an obvious claim to being the alternative main-character.
The first aspect of being the main character is someone central to the plot and theme of the novel. The main theme that I will be discussing is the theme of wealth and its relations with morality. In The House of Mirth, the elites of old NY took part in conspicuous leisure and consumption, unproductively using their time and spending money in activities that they clearly could have live without. All these are done because each individuals in the old NY needs to maintain their extravagant facade of wealth. For example, Lily buys dresses in order to look beautiful, but at the same time she got herself into debt because she couldn't afford the dresses. Furthermore, Lily's economical interaction with Mr. Trenor left her in a difficult position because Mr. Trenor wanted to get a sexual reward for helping Lily out economically. In regards to Lily Bart being the main character, she depicted this theme clearly through her transformation from a materialistic social climber to a poverty-stricken, but righteous and not selfish, middle-class hat maker by the end of the novel. Before her exile from old NY, Lily's morality is almost non-existent - not reciprocating Mr. Trenor help, flirting with many different men and failing to take into account their emotional feelings, particularly Selden's, and etc. She does all this in the hope of netting the chance to marry off one of the rich elites of old NY - all these for the sake of money. However, after her exile from old NY and becoming a middle-class worker, Lily's morality slowly resurface, as evident by her apologetic visit to Selden and also thanking him for being her friend through her ups and downs, repaying all her monetary debts, including to Mr. Trenor, and destroying the letters that she intended to blackmail Bertha with. This transformation is only possible with the absents of monetary reputation that old NY is so obsessive about. However, she ultimately fail to depict this theme successfully because she chose to commit suicide at the end of the novel, unable to accept her fate of having fall into the middle-class.
Whereas Lily has shown about the ugliness of material wealth in relations to the character's moral, Selden shun material wealth and instead look towards love and happiness in his live. Even though Selden is an elite and part of old NY, he does not engage in conspicous consumptions and does not look at money and wealth as the source of his life's happiness. Selden's modesty is a clear depiction of the relation between wealth and moral. Just like Lily after her exile from old NY, Selden's acceptance of his modest wealth reflects his detachment from old NY. Looking at these two characters, I look at Lily being the antagonist showing the ugliness of wealth and its effect on the character's moral, and Selden being the protagonist showing that wealth is not needed to attain happiness in life.
Beside being central to the theme, the main character also has to be central to the plot of the novel. Lily Bart does indeed fill this role, being the catalyst behind every major events in the novel, as well as being the driving force of the minor character's actions, such as Lawrence Selden realization of his love, Mr. Trenor adulterous behavior towards Lily, and etc. However, I can also argue that Lawrence Selden is central to the plot of the novel. First, Lily's visit to Selden's apartment at the beginning of the novel causes her to lie to Simon Rosedale about her visit, which ultimately mark her downfall in her societal reputation that is depicted throughout the novel. Second, Lily's walk with Selden in chapter six of the novel is the main cause of Gryce cancelling his plans to go on a walk with Lily, which could be seen as a possible turning point in Lily's life because Gryce is showing an interest in her. Whereas Lily serves as the catalyst throughout the novel's event, Selden serves as the catalyst towards Lily's plot, thus it is possible to argue that Selden is actually the main character that drives the actions and events of the novel's 'fake' main character.
The second factor that constitute the main character is one who undergoes the most change throughout the novel; their growth attributed by facing constant conflict and resolving them. After being exiled from old NY due to some rumors, Lily Bart undergoes her transformation from being a materialistic social climber to becoming a humble hat-maker by the end of the novel. Furthermore, throughout the novel, Lily also showed sign that she is beginning to see the ugly facade of old NY, becoming envious of Selden's detachment from the group even though he himself is part of the group. As for Selden, his transformation in the novel is summarized at the end of the novel, whereby he saw Lily's dead body and realize that it was his cowardice and rationality that had kept him from confessing his love with Lily. In the choice as to which of these two characters, both of which undergoes some sort of personal change, I will chose Selden to be the main character just because Lily's transformation lead her to a dead end which eventually led to her suicide. As for Selden, his transformation led him to realize his downfall in characters and his regret for not being able to save Lily, although he ultimately did not die and must live through his regret.
The third factor that constitute the main character in a novel is one who best illustrates the main point that the author is trying to make. In The House of Mirth, I think the main point that the author is trying to make is about marriage - to marry for love and happiness, or to marry for material security and social standing? Lily best illustrates this point by her constant struggle to find a rich wealthy elite from old NY as her husband. Even though it is clear that her love for Selden is reciprocal, they did not get together because Lily believe their lack of material wealth will be the downfall of their relationship. In this instance, I regard Lily as being the main antagonist of the novel, being the main obstacle of a happy ending through the marriage between Selden and Lily, a true marriage of love and happiness. It is only through Lily's dysfunctional view of the whole notion of marriage that stops them from getting married. Therefore, Selden can be seen as the main protagonist of the novel, because he clearly love Lily and wanted to marry her, even though he was a bit too late in realizing that.
In The House of Mirth, I argued that Lily Bart is not the main character of the novel through the reasoning that she is indeed more like the antagonist of the novel, serving as obstacles as to what could served as a happy ending. Furthermore, her decision to commit suicide ultimately demoted her from being the main character because it shows a negative depiction of her transformation from being a materialistic social climber into a humble and righteous hat maker. I therefore regard Selden as being the alternative main character because he is central to Lily's main plot in the novel, having a major influence in most turning point of Lily's life throughout the novel, as well as showing a positive, albeit depressing, transformation of characters through his revelation of love towards Lily.