” She had suffered for the very faithfulness with which she had carried out her part of the tacit compact, but the part was not a handsome one at best, and she saw it now in all the ugliness of failure. ” (Book II, Ch.4, p.240)
The House of Mirth is a caustic novel about a girl, Lily Bart, who is “born to be ornamental,” and her pursuit to social status and wealth in a society rife with financial scandal and sexual intrigue. Lily, whose vocation is marriage, is very fond of Lawrence Selden, a lawyer, but doesn’t want to marry him because he hasn’t got enough money, though he is sufficiently wealthy to travel for his legal cases. The chance encounter with Selden establishes her heedless nature and determines her future. For as she climbs the social ladder and triumphs in soirées, using her beauty as a power tool, and hoping to secure a palatable future, Lawrence Selden’s presence always has the effect of cheapening her aspirations, and he will be the one who witness her ultimate fall.
It was not the first time that Selden had heard Lily’s beauty lightly remarked on, and hitherto the tone of the comments had imperceptibly coloured his view of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt. This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured. (Book I, Ch.12, p.145)
Failing to ensnare the wealthy heir Percy Gryce and later the noveau rich Rosedale, it’s inevitable for a girl who has no financial means but with expensive taste should become laden with debts. Dubious business deals and accusations of liaisons with a married man diminish Lily’s social status. Although later Lily obtains a potential lethal hold over her nemesis, Bertha Dorset, who interrupts Lily’s courtship with Percy Gryce, she refuses to take revenge against her enemy with evidence of her infidelity in order to rehabilitate herself in society. Deep in her she knows her marriage to Gryce, Dorset, or Rosedale would have been meaningless because she despises the society she is trying to enter.
She had, to a shade, the exact manner between victory and defeat: every insinuation was shed without an effort by the bright indifference of her manner. But she was beginning to feel the strain of the attitude; the reaction was more rapid, and she lapsed to a deeper self-disgust. (Book I, Ch.9, p.106-7)
Laden with debts, disinherited by her aunt, left with a small legacy , Lily is left to fend for herself. She does not wish to impose herself on the goodwill of Selden’s cousin Gerty Farish. She takes up apprenticeship with a milliner, but knowing with dismay that even if she could learn to compete with hands formed from childhood for their work, the small pay she receives would not be a sufficient income. Wharton emphasizes throughout that Lily is alone in the world, cut off from and bad-mouthed by everyone. Ironically her descent is by way of the selfish, self-indulgent, and materialistic people whom she admires and aspires to be. Lily dies for a scruple in a tragedy that seems both avoidable and inevitable. She could have married any of her well-heeled suitors, used the incriminating letters against her enemy, but blackmailing Bertha would have betrayed Selden and made her complicit with the repulsive. In that she achieves a spiritual victory and proves her love. She embodies lost illusions and destructive melancholy, which Wharton despises. Through her tragic descent Wharton metes out judgment on the lack of social responsibility of the high society—anything is allowed as long as the transgressors are wealthy and maintain a respectable façade.
360 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read/
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