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Which of the domestic palaces in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth claims itself as the titular source of the tragic novel? Each offers strong evidence in its own favor. There is the bucolic decadence of the Trenor’s Bellomont; the old money severity of Mrs. Peniston’s Fifth Avenue abode; the nouveau riche exhibitionism of the Wellington Brys residence; the philandering intrigue of the Dorset’s Sabrina; the flamboyant societal fringe chez Gormer; the “torrid splendor and indolence” that fills the rootless Mrs. Norma Hatch’s room at the Emporium Hotel; and, of course, the ironic shabbiness of Lawrence Selden and Gerty Farish’s flats (289). So where shall we look to find the locus of “mirth” that Ms. Wharton’s title promises? The answer, as the reader soon discovers, is nowhere at all and everywhere at once, for this house is one whose roof hangs ominously over the whole world of the novel’s characters.
At the center of this world is Lily Bart, a beautiful but impoverished young woman, living off a stipend from her rich Aunt Peniston and the good humor of her wealthy friends. Determined to make a monetarily felicitous “match,” Lily has spent the past ten years navigating her way through high society’s marriage market. She is growing older, her marriage more imperative. As she herself confesses, “I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money” (24)
But why must Lily have a great deal of money? Quite simply because she has been inculcated to the extravagance of the well-to-do. Her tastes range from the fancy to the opulent and she acts mostly in order to gratify “her sense of beauty and her craving for the external finish of life” (8). A victim of a decadent and ultimately disastrous upbringing, she feels both compelled and repulsed by the social world in which she moves. “Why, the beginning was in my cradle I suppose,” Lily laments, “in the way I was brought up and the things I was taught to care for” (237). Ms. Wharton never allows her readers to forget that Lily’s physical and moral courses flow at the bidding of fate and not the novel’s heroine. Even in a moment of leisure early in the novel, the author notes of the bejeweled young woman: “she was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (6). Only a little later we hear the narrator intone of Lily’s life that “it was a hateful fate – but how escape from it? What choice had she?” (25) Indeed, what choice have we as readers if Ms. Wharton insists – so early in her novel – on plucking down fin de siecle New York society in an atmosphere of stifling Calvinist predestination? Lily continues to go about her business with an eye toward securing fiscal contentment, but we sense very soon that no choice of hers will make happiness suddenly rise above the dark horizon.
And in sensing this, the reader proves to be quite right. After a potential union with the insufferable Percy Gryce falls through, Lily asks her friend Judy Trenor’s husband, Gus, to help her invest the minor sum in her possession. She quickly comes by a small fortune through her “speculations,” only to discover that the money has come straight from Gus’s pocket. By then, we should not be surprised to learn, it is too late for Lily. Gus attempts to take sexual advantage of Lily’s indebtedness to him, only to be rebuked by the incensed young woman. She vows to repay the debt and put her affairs in order, partly in homage to the scruples of her friend Lawrence Selden, partly at the urging of her own moral imperative.
Lily’s sturdy moral fiber is perhaps the most frustrating quality that Ms. Wharton bestowed upon her ill starred heroine. Despite her frivolous and inexorable attachments, Lily acknowledges that society can be reduced to “the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at” (56). Stripped of its marble halls, its silk gowns, its indulgent meals, this world offers little more than its own claustrophobic boundaries; it is, as Lily thinks, a cage occupied by captives who, “having once flown in, could never regain their freedom” (56). These doubts are strong enough to keep her from committing to a society marriage, but too weak to drive her out of society all together. Lily also has a sympathetic if passive eye for the two oppressed groups in the novel – namely, women and the poor. Her own position makes her very aware that both society and matrimony subordinate females. “A woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself,” Lily asserts, “we are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop – and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership” (10). The main difference, she goes on, is that “a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” There are plenty of people, however, who believe that, given enough brio and courage, a girl may choose. This is the belief put forth by Lawrence Selden, who longs for Lily to seize upon “the streak of sylvan freedom” that he suspects is in her nature, and by Gerty Farish, who wishes she would follow up on her “generous impulses” (70, 164). This is also the belief of this reviewer, who wishes that Ms. Wharton would likewise have shown the courage to have her heroine eschew the invidious social circuit for a life of thoughtful self-autonomy. But since we have known from the beginning that Lily Bart moves but by the compulsion of a “hateful fate,” we can hardly expect her to break free. While Selden’s idea of success as a “republic of the spirit” tempts her, her own theory – that it is “to get as much as one can out of life” – tyrannizes her and keeps her marching straight ahead along a path to destruction (70). She takes another very great stride forward on this path by accepting an invitation from her friend Bertha Dorset to cruise around the Mediterranean. Although she intends the trip to be an escape from her wretched debt to Trenor, Lily ends up serving as a distraction for George Dorset while his wife carries on her infidelities with Ned Silverton. When George confronts Bertha about her behavior, the perfidious Bertha turns the whole debacle into an accusation against Lily. She is ruined in the eyes of society and, upon returning to New York, disinherited from her recently deceased Aunt’s estate. Penniless and proud, Lily trudges through the dregs of society rather than abandon her privileged lifestyle. At the same time, though, she clings tightly to her scruples. She refuses to use some incriminating letters to blackmail Bertha (a surefire way to get re-admitted to her old social circle) and she never loses sight of her intentions to reimburse Trenor.
Lily’s grace under humiliating pressure only confirms something that we have suspected through out the novel – she is far better than the society to which she belongs. We see it, Selden sees it, why can’t Lily see it? Or, the more prickly reader might demand, why won’t Selden work harder to make Lily see it? Even Ms. Wharton seems to be silently imploring him to enter the scene and sweep Lily off her feet. True, she has let him down. “He saw himself definitely divided from her,” the author notes of Selden, “by the crudeness of a choice which seemed to deny the very difference he felt in her” (227). We also know, however, that Ms. Wharton regards her Lily’s behavior as being outside the realm of choice, so that the reader is presumably to feel an irony tinged pathos at the thought of Lily “choosing” her way out of Selden’s affections. Still, Selden, Ms. Wharton seems to say, should act swiftly and definitively in order to rescue Lily from her fate. “Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me,” Lily demands of him, “if you have nothing to give me instead?” (74) And therein lies the trouble with saving Lily; she refuses to acknowledge that she must save herself and not just receive rescue from another man in her life. She sees her happiness and well-being as exchangeable commodities (and what isn’t in her world?) for which she must barter or trade, and not things that may feasibly lie within herself. Yes, Lily is a victim of an exclusive patriarchal society. Yes, she has a fine moral sensibility and realizes that there are adversities working against her. And, yes, Selden hangs back, indulging in “the zest of spectatorship that is the solace of those who take an objective interest in life” (192) But Ms. Wharton’s intimations that Selden could have done more for Lily are ridiculous when the author shackles her heroine so tightly to fate that the poor girl cannot do anything for herself.
It is in this very vein of helplessness that Ms. Wharton chooses to end her novel and her heroine. Destitute and abandoned, Lily lives out her days in a horrid boarding house. She suffers from malnourishment, insomnia, and a terrible sense of being “rootless and ephemeral” (338). She has been rejected from society and the working world, and now she must face the dire conditions of solitude and self support. She doesn’t face them for long, though. After writing out a check to square her debt with Trenor, Lily takes a large dose of a soporific and never wakes again. The next morning Selden comes to reconcile with her, only to end up grieving for her instead.
Lily’s intentions in taking those sleeping pills are not explicit, though I should think that Ms. Wharton meant for the lamentable occasion to be another instance of that fate Lily never could avoid. This is a shame, for a dynamic woman like Lily Bart surely deserves to rise above her station in society and attend to those sacred duties owed only to the self. Unfortunately, though, Ms. Wharton keeps the doors to the House of Mirth under lock and key, allowing her heroine to perish among its plush finery and the noxious fate.
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