The “Uptown Girl” in The House of Mirth The lyrics of Billy Joel’s famous song, “Uptown Girl,” (see lyrics at end of document) are very similar to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. It is as if Billy Joel is Lawrence Selden; what he sings is similar to what Selden says. Although Joel probably did not have The House of Mirth in mind when he wrote the song, it is still interesting to compare the book to his composition. “Uptown Girl” is parallel to Selden’s thoughts from the very beginning of the song. The first line of the song says, “She’s been living in her uptown world.” Physically, Lily lives in the wealthy part of New York City; she has been living in the uptown area of New York for much of her life.
More importantly, the society in which Lily lives is itself in its own world. This “uptown world” in which the rich live is above the law. The people living in this world are part of a consumer culture which they control, and they have their own set of rules. For example, in Lily’s world, “one could never do a normal thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice” (Wharton 18). Lily, in her impulse to go to Lawrence Selden’s room, had become under the suspicion of Rosedale because he saw her leaving Selden’s building and escaping the routine of her daily life.
This is why, in the next line of the song, Joel says “I bet she never had a backstreet guy.” Lily is twenty-nine years old and single. If she were to be seen with someone like Selden alone, she would be pushed off the top of the social pyramid by her peers. Lily was attracted to Selden, but only because he understood her; he offered her no escape from poverty. The similarities between Joel and Selden are noticeable in the next few lines, too. For the third line of “Uptown Girl,” Mr.
Joel wrote, “I bet her mama never told her why.” Ms. Bart’s mother definitely did not encourage Lily to try to find a “backstreet guy.” Before Mrs. Bart died, she had drilled into Lily the idea that a wealthy marriage was her only salvation. “Don’t let [poverty] creep up on you and drag you down. Fight your way out of it somehow– you’re young and can do it” (39).
Lily’s mother never told her she should ever like someone like Selden. In the next line, Joel goes on to say, “I’m gonna try for an uptown girl.” Selden does in fact try to marry Lily. Selden tells her that he loves her for what she could be. He would not offer his love unless Lily stopped being the scheming, ruthless, fortune-hunter she had become. Selden tries to coerce Lily into repenting so that he can love her.
Then, in the next line, Joel wrote: “She’s been living in her white bread world.” According to Webster’s dictionary, the phrase “white bread” can mean refined because of how white bread is made, and this is how Selden describes Lily. Selden muses that “she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must have been sacrificed to produce her” (27). Billy Joel describes the girl he loves as refined, and Lawrence Selden describes Lily in the same way. The similarities between “Uptown Girl” and The House of Mirth are even more evident in lines twelve through nineteen of the song. In lines twelve and thirteen, Joel sings: “And when she wakes up and makes up her mind.” It is true that Lily can never make up her mind. First, she wants to marry Percy Gryce, but when he is ready to propose she lets the chance slip away, for Lily really hates the person she has become. She likes Selden, but also wants Rosedale’s money.
Whenever Miss Bart goes to Selden for advice, he tells her to wake up and stop being so capricious and greedy. Joel goes on to sing: “You know I’ve seen her in her uptown world.” Lawrence Selden has seen Lily at the parties of the people who live in this world at places like Bellomont even though he is not that wealthy. In fact, Selden went to Bellomont for the sole purpose of seeing Lily Bart. “My only engagement at Bellomont was with you” (70). Lawrence Selden has been with Lily in her uptown world, just like Billy Joel has seen his girl in hers.
Mr. Joel then mentions how “she’s getting tired of her high class toys.” Much of the time this is not true; she wants money and material things all the time. However, sometimes she wakes up and realizes that she does not want to be so greedy and instead follows her heart. Lily perceives that she is “a victim of the civilization that produced her” (9) and feels that her life in the upper class only leads to suffering. This suffering makes her tired of the high class life she lives. The next line of “Uptown Girl” says that, besides being tired of her high class toys, Lily is also tired of “all her presents from her uptown boys.” This line also relates to The House of Mirth.
The wealthy Gus Trenor offered to invest some of Lily’s small income in stocks, and over a period of time he returned to her more than 8,000 dollars, which he assured her was profit of the transaction. Trenor seemed to think, however, that this investment on her account should make them better friends than Lily felt was desirable. Later, Gus tells her that the money had not been profit from the venture, but that it was a gift from him. Lily was terrified when she heard this; she did not want presents from him. There are a few more similarities between Joel’s lyrics and Wharton’s novel.
Towards the end of the song, Billy remarks that he “can’t afford to buy her pears,” just like Selden cannot. He then sings that “maybe someday when my ship comes in..I’ll win.” Joel/Selden is saying that His newfound wealth and Lily would make him a civilian in this “uptown world.” This is the same thing that happened to Rosedale. He was “new money” and wanted to marry Lily so he could be accepted into her social circle. However, Lily found Rosedale much to repugnant and decides not to marry him. Finally, in the next two lines of the song, Mr.
Joel says, “When she’s walking she’s looking so fine.” Throughout the book, Selden is frequently “refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart” (25). When Selden is walking with Lily to his apartment, he is overwhelmed by her beauty, “in the modeling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair..the thick planting of her straight eyelashes. Everything about her was strong and fine” (7). Selden notices how fine she looks while he is walking with her, and Joel says that his uptown girl also looks fine when she is walking. Throughout Billy Joel’s well-known song, “Uptown Girl,”many of the lines can be compared to what Lawrence Selden says or would say in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.
Billy Joel most likely did not have the novel in mind when he wrote his song, but it is strange to see just how similar the book and the song are.