There is something about Lily Bart that sets her apart for everyone else in The House of Mirth. She is stunningly beautiful, which matters a lot to many of the men in the nouveau-riche turn-of-the-century New York society in which she lives. She is also extremely skilled in social situations and is able to understand people’s inner motives, hang-ups, and intentions and use them to her advantage.
As a result, many people like her and even those who don’t want her around to manipulate social situations in their favor. Both of these factors – beauty and social skill – allow her to live the life of a rich society woman, despite being nearly broke. She offers these things in return for gifts and hospitality.
Despite these things though, Lily is 29 and unmarried. It becomes clear that every time she comes close to sealing the deal she sabotages herself – because part of her really doesn’t like the money-focused society she lives in or see its value. In this belief, which is only semi-conscious for her, she finds a partner in Selden, who states it outright and begins to fall for Lily because she is the only other “society person” who seems to get the joke. Also did I mention she’s beautiful.
Selden on Lily, early in the novel:
“He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?”
As you can imagine, Lily’s lack of money coupled with her being a single woman approaching thirty begin to cause her problems – problems that she is forced to solve in less than savory ways in order to maintain her lifestyle and status. Mid-novel, Lily has “a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without ever perceiving the right road till it was too late to take it.” This is when things get interesting.
Wharton focuses on several themes in her withering description of upper class society and its tendency to honor the most selfish and flashy, and chew up and spit out everyone else. First, there is the way that truth is manipulated. As Lily says, “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.”
This is something that still resonates today, particularly in our national discussion of how people of different races and economic backgrounds are treated by the criminal justice system. Another is the need for stability in life, and the ways in which our various societies shape us as children, then sometimes fail us rather than support us as adults.
When Lily’s society turns its back on her:
“That was the feeling which possessed her now-the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.”
Occasionally in the novel, Lily comes in contact with young women of the lower classes. These are women who must work for a living and are surviving well enough but have none of the fancy things she has, no extra money, and no elaborate social calendar. It is one of these women who gives Lily a glimpse of what a truly satisfying and happy life could be:
“The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence.”
Lily knows that this woman who has very little, has something she does not: stability. She compares the “shelter” this woman has built to a bird nest on a cliff. It’s a safe haven to be at peace and raise a family, protected from the dangers just outside its walls.