Notes on The House of Mirth, Book Two:
Why do we care about Lily Bart? (If you don't, make that "I.") After all, in her own words, she's "a very useless person."
As one character observes of Lily, "sometimes I think ..., at heart, she despises the things she's trying for." Exactly right. But what else has her social milieu given her to try for except a rich husband? Lily learns the flaws of society the hard way. After her betrayal by Bertha Dorset she realizes that even the truth can't save her: "What is truth? Where a woman is concerned it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her." The truth is what's convenient -- a Whartonian spin on pragmatism.
And so Lily descends the social ladder, first down a rung to the bohemian set of the Gormers -- "a kind of social Coney Island, where everybody is welcome who can make noise enough and put on airs." She develops a carapace against social misfortune -- "a hard glaze of indifference was fast forming over her delicacies and susceptibilities, and each concession to expediency hardened the surface a little more." (And there's that word "glaze" again.) With the Gormers she travels to Alaska -- an adventure I wish Wharton had given us more of, perhaps as a contrast of the newest part of the New World with the Old World intrigues of Europe -- but Lily realizes that she has become "of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child." The glaze is beginning to crack, admitting some of the "dinginess" that she has been brought up to contemn.
There is still, of course, the possibility of marrying Rosedale. A friend commented to me that he wasn't ready to forgive the anti-Semitism in Wharton's references to Rosedale, but I may have overstated them in my earlier post. Or perhaps Wharton herself was inspired to draw back from them, for she begins to soften Rosedale in the scene in which Lily spies on him playing with a child -- "something in his attitude made him seem a simply and kindly being." And by the end of the book he presents an almost welcome alternative to the desperation into which Lily has plunged. Still, though he is capable of kindness, Rosedale is a man without scruples, and he presents to her the book's key moral choice -- to save herself by revealing the letters between Bertha Dorset and Lawrence Selden.
And so Lily's moral center becomes evident -- she decides not to use the letters to shame Bertha, and she decides to endure hardship so she can pay back the money that Gus Trenor has given her. And to do so, she takes another step down the ladder -- one that once again earns Selden's disapprobation. She enters, as a social secretary, the garish nouveau riche circle of the divorcée Norma Hatch. "Through this atmosphere of torrid splendour moved wan beings as richly upholstered as the furniture, beings without definite pursuits or permanent relations, who drifted on a languid tide of curiosity from restaurant to concert-hall, from palm-garden to music-room, from 'art exhibit' to dress-maker's opening."
The trouble for the contemporary reader is that it's hard to distinguish this louche stratum of society from the upper-crust layer that Lily is accustomed to -- both seem to us equally empty and frivolous, and its denizens can be similarly poisonous. We have to take it on Wharton's word that, "Compared with the vast gilded void of Mrs. Hatch's existence, the life of Lily's former friends seemed packed with ordered activities." And obviously there is a difference, for Lily takes flight from Mrs. Hatch's set, choosing to plunge into the life of a laborer in the workroom of the milliner Miss Haines.
By the novel's end, it becomes evident that the real villain of the story is not Gus Trenor or Bertha Dorset, but Selden, "an emotional coward" who flees "from an infatuation his reason had conquered." Every time he gets a chance to set things right, for himself and more especially for Lily, he backs off. "He seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her." Selden sees clearly the meretriciousness of society in which Lily shines forth -- "her grace cheapening the other women's smartness as her finely-discriminated silences made their chatter dull." He scorns "the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dullness of the talk, ... the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance." But he takes no action to prevent her being a victim of the circle in which she moves. He chooses instead "the sense of relief with which he returned to the conventional view of her."
The trouble with the relationship of Selden and Lily is that each reinforces the other's passivity. Lily has her own emotional cowardice. Rather like Micawber confidently expecting something to turn up, she remains content to "worry along, as she had so often done before, with the hope of some happy change of fortune to sustain her." We learn from Carry Fisher that Lily blew her opportunity to marry a rich Italian prince and in the process caused a scandal: "That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic." (The reference to oversleeping is a bitterly ironic anticipation of the novel's ending.)
And so the novel culminates in an epiphany for Lily, perhaps unfortunately sentimentalized in the form of Nettie Struther's baby. Lily realizes "that there had never been a time when she had any real relation to life." It's a didactic moment, revealing that Wharton doesn't yet fully trust her readers to draw their own lessons.
So why do we/I care about Lily Bart? Because Wharton does, of course. The question is whether Wharton cares about Lily as a person or as an idea, a victim of of society's materialism or the embodiment of a moral dilemma. The answer is, naturally, a bit of both, and it's Wharton's ambivalence that weakens the novel -- not fatally, but significantly.