Character Study: Joan Holloway as Mid-Century Lily Bart

This is an idea I’d had sitting in my drafts for awhile now, but I never got around to writing the actual post. Given the events of this week’s episode of Mad Men, the time has come.

SPOILERS INCOMING: There will be spoilers from both the show Mad Men and the book House of Mirth by Edith Wharton in this post. They are too integral to white-out, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!







“Everything about her was warm and soft and scented; even the stains of her grief became her as raindrops do the beaten rose.” – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Joan Holloway and Lily Bart are the very definition of artful: each knows how to present herself and her surroundings to maximum advantage. Joan uses her her sashay and giggle to prompt the fellows to take her to lunch, while Lily trades on the use of her beauty and charm to access luxurious lodgings. Each longs to secure a comfortable future by landing a wealthy man, but their lively minds and strong wills cause them to stumble just when success seems surest. Lily Bart suffered a needlessly tragic end, could Joan be headed for the same?

We meet Joan Holloway at the beginning of Mad Men as a great beauty, socially powerful, on the verge of being “past her prime” at twenty-nine. She commands the halls of Sterling Cooper with an unwavering sense of decorum, handling switchboard operators and executives with equal finesse. She has worked her way up as high as most mid-century woman could imagine going in Manhattan and must make a choice: remain in the office and become a former-sexpot-turned-career spinster à la Ida Blankenship, or find a suitable man to marry (and fast).

Lily Bart is a great beauty of a similar stripe: at the top of her social game and in high demand at all the most fashionable parties. She navigates social situations made sticky by her lack of money or standing with humor and charm, making the absolute most of every opportunity that comes her way. Just like Joan, Lily is twenty-nine and unmarried. No matter how lovely she may be, her social set are already lamenting her pickiness and predicting spinsterhood.

Despite their considerable talents and charms, both Joan and Lily have a tendency to make willful decisions just as they are about to achieve their objectives. Lily abandons the unimaginably rich and intolerably dull Percy Gryce, in favor of a few stolen hours with middle-class lawyer Lawrence Selden. Still, she cannot bring herself to choose happiness with Selden in dingier surroundings over the opulence that attends an oppressive life with a man like Gryce. Joan dallies with her unsuitable man, her married boss Roger Sterling, but will not encourage him to leave his wife.

Though Lily is single and Joan married, their downward spirals follow similar trajectories. Each loses a shot at her greatest love by slighting someone in a proud moment. Many times spurned social-climber Simon Rosedale first calls Lily’s virtue into question when he spreads word that she was seen leaving Lawrence Selden’s private rooms, then offers to marry her if she will only blackmail Selden and a former friend to regain a place in society. By this time Lily has descended into the working class: she has been disinherited due to her gambling and borrowed a large sum of money from a  married man who has designs on her, an action which leads her to be sacrificed on the social altar by friend looking to distract from her own indiscretions.

For her part, Joan fires new secretary Jane in a moment of wounded pride, driving her right into the waiting arms of Roger Sterling. Roger trades wife Mona for new, twenty-year-old wife Jane; and longtime lover Joan set to marry her new future-doctor fiancé. Unfortunately, the disappointments just keep piling up as Greg Harris turns out to be an incompetent surgeon and a rapist to boot. Having resigned from her position as office manager in anticipation of being a pampered housewife, Joan is forced to take a job in a department store to make ends meet. Joan’s long-sought marriage quickly turns sour, ending with her back in the office and single mother to Roger Sterling’s baby. Like Lily, she is offered up to save those more powerful and wealthy than herself, literally prostituted by the partners this week for a better chance at securing Jaguar as a client.

Lily’s life ends with an accidental overdose on a sleeping aid, just as Lawrence Selden comes to propose.

Roger Sterling is once again a single man but, much as Selden washed his hands of Lily’s entanglement with Gus Trenor, he did not stand in the way of the prostitution plot.

Many followers of Mad Men have been noting foreshadowing pointing to a suicide this season: empty elevator shafts, Sylvia Plath references, lingering shots of Don and Megan’s penthouse balcony. Could it be Joan who is destined to mimic her literary counterpart?

“She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips. She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky: she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her.” – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

2 responses to “Character Study: Joan Holloway as Mid-Century Lily Bart

  1. Someone — not me originally — said Lily Bart’s problem was that she couldn’t quite turn herself into a commodity. (Not that I’m blaming her, but you see the difficulty in that time and at that place.) I’m not sure Joan has the same problem, partially because of the business in which she works and partially because I think she’s always maintained a sense of her self independent of her sex appeal, which she both uses as a tool and likes for its own sake. I can’t say what’s coming on MadMen. The House of Mirth hits like a sledgehammer. I don’t often feel as bad as I did after reading a book as I did after that Wharton novel AND think, I’ve got to read this again.

  2. House of Mirth is crushing every time I read it, but I keep coming back because it’s just so good. Have you read the “Happy ending version”, The Glimpses of the Moon?

    I think Joan has a separation of her body/looks/charms as commodity and her actual self. I also think the events on this week’s episode blurred that line for her because the people she thought valued her for her “self”, that competent hard-working manager, commandeered her commodity. Used it for their benefit rather than hers. She made the best of a bad situation but I do think this decision will have far-reaching effects.

    It’s also worth noting, as you say, that both Lily and Joan are products of their time. Joan has a little more latitude to indulge her whims for pleasure than Lily did without ruining everything she’s worked for.

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