Existing Apart: Manifestations of Otherness in The House of Mirth

In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, the cold and unforgiving world of New York’s high society never favors the perspective of the outsider, or the looker-on. But the author seems to award a great deal of credit to those characters who adapt to this position, thereby accepting its flaws along with its attributes. Lawrence Selden is one of these figures, and unique for the fact that society accepts him as a looker-on, perhaps because he accepts himself in this stance. He views everything from a separated stance, always stepping back to view scenes he himself is participating in. His love for Lily is both born of and destroyed by this aspect of his personality. Her love for Selden, on the other hand, is simply complicated by this perspective. Lily’s relationship with her own aloof and separate tendencies changes during the course of the novel, greatly affecting her view of the world, and most importantly her relation to Selden. For most of the novel, however, Lily is an outsider who refuses to admit it. And just as for Selden, and all the rest of the characters in this category, Lily will find this trait to be both her blessing and her doom.Selden’s place as an outsider is maintained mostly by his tendency to keep himself always separate from activity, looking down. This stance allows him to remove himself not only from any main activity, but to understand the events unfolding around him with more reason than those who are more actively involved. His choice to remain apart is clear in moments like one at a ball, where “Selden…found himself, from an angle of the ball-room, surveying the scene with frank enjoyment.” (138) He purposefully places himself in a corner, becoming a sort of audience. The allusion to theater comes in his idea that “the very rich should live up to their calling as stage-managers and not spend their money in a dull way,” (139) the very concept that brings him to the spectacle involving Lily in a tableau vivant.Selden’s place as a looker-on facilitates his love for Lily. Because Lily possesses unearthly beauty, and constantly uses this trait to make herself into an object for observation, she is the perfect creature to be watched from afar. Selden seems to understand her most in her moment onstage at the ball, when he can simply sit and watch, sharing with an entire audience “the touch of poetry that [he] always felt in her presence.” (142) It is in this moment, when Lily becomes the object that Selden has always naturally created of her, in his own mind, that he understands her most. As he simply observes her, “he seem[s] to see before him the real Lily Bart,”…and even “[has] time to feel the whole tragedy of her life.” (142) Even when Lily is next to him, he is carefully watching her, as though she were a scene before him. In the beginning, after the reader is told that “[a]s a spectator, he had always enjoyed Lily Bart,” (6) Selden walks beside her and speculates on her beauty. He notes “the modelling of her little ear,” and even wonders of “her hair ­ was it ever so slightly brightened by art?” (7) Although his stance proves usually to please or entertain Selden, it also leaves room for cold reality and constant loneliness.Selden is not alone in representing the role of the outsider in this novel. He is joined by several key characters, most of whom seem equally unlucky in love, and essentially alone in the world, but also have a heightened perception and understanding of reality rather than the pigeon-holed view afforded by more active participants. Mrs. Peniston is one of these characters, who, “as a looker-on…enjoy[s] opportunities of comparison and generalization such as those who take part must proverbially forego.” (127) She exemplifies the loneliness in this perspective, separated even further by her age. Other characters of this type include Carry Fisher and Gerty Farish. Like Selden, these women rejoice in their differences and also offer advice and help to Lily when she needs it. Mrs. Fisher wishes simply “to view [Lily’s situation] from the outside and draw her conclusions accordingly.” (247) And when she does not set herself apart, and simply follows the pack, as most in this milieu seem prone to do, she apologizes to Lily for it. (240) Gerty, on the other hand, does not so much consciously set herself apart, as find herself naturally different. Her triumph in her outsider status comes in the great joy she derives from simply watching beautiful things, such as the Van Osburgh wedding, where “her chirping enthusiasms…[seem] only to throw her own exceptionalness into becoming relief and give a soaring vastness to her scheme of life.” (94) Gerty is able to see beauty where most criticize, but she is also doomed in love, as shown by her failure in giving Selden a romantic dinner.Lily, although an outsider by nature, in unlike any of these characters. She simultaneously accepts and rejects this perspective. What sets her apart the most is her stunning beauty and grace ­ an attribute that she clings to as her main tool of survival. This physical beauty is the aspect of her differences that she embraces and accepts. She sets herself physically apart from her group when she knows her beauty will make an impression, as in her choice of scene at the Wellington-Bry’s ball, where she chooses something very different than everyone else. She does this also at the reading Mrs. Peniston’s will, where she sets herself up for a scene of triumph by “[seating] herself in a chair which seemed to have been purposefully placed apart from the others.” (231) Like her natural separateness, this lonely chair will ironically become a horrible place to be apart, when the scene becomes a tragedy for her when she least expected.Lily tragedy of poverty is the force behind her eventual realization of her inherent otherness. What she had only embraced as a tool in getting things begins to reveal its negative force in her life as well, as “a hard glaze of indifference [is] fast forming over her delicacies and susceptibilities.” (243) Her perpetual position as guest ­ among friends at Bellomont, and later always the “third wheel” with married couples in Europe or Alaska ­ was one symptom of this alienation. She was also too far apart from reality to see any situation but her own. She sees the height of her previous self-centered embrace of aloofness in remembering her visits to Gerty’s philanthropic girls’ clubs; “she had felt an enlightened interest in the working-classes, but that was because she looked down on them from above, from the happy altitude of her grace and her beneficence. Now that she was on a level with them, the point of view was less interesting.” (297) Lily has been forced to experience her worst nightmare in order to see the nature of her own being, to see that “she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations.” (31) She is finally apart, and alone, and able to see who she really is.What most destroys Lily in this ignorance is the capacity her separateness holds for true love with Selden. Perhaps he sees himself in her natural aloofness. He is entirely taken, “especially struck…[by] the way in which she detache[s] herself, by a hundred undefinable shades, from the persons who most abounded in her own style.” (223) Lily is too busy trying to belong by marrying the right man, and becoming accepted and normal, all things contrary to her nature as outsider. Selden has made his ability to be alone and separate into financial success, as he seems to be only entirely accepted male character in this social milieu with a steady job. They travel in opposite directions because of these different reactions to the same characteristic. It is only in her last hours before dying that Lily is able to see what she has been denying to herself all along:”It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking…it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling that embraced 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. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had any real relation to life.” (331)It is only after making these observations about herself that Lily is able to consciously embrace her difference in a series of decisions. Her abrupt decisions to sign away her last dollars to Gus Trenor, and to take too much of her medicine come on the brink of this self-realization. But what also arrives in this time is her awareness of “something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them.” (335) Selden too, as the reader later learns, has realized the one word he must say during this night. It seems that in the very moment that Lily’s self-awareness has blossomed, so has the love between herself and Selden. This is also the moment when her life ends, dooming Selden to eternal loneliness, a role he will play well.Although Lily cannot live with an understanding of her status as outsider, she capitalizes on it all along. This inner dilemma is one of the central conflicts of the novel. To see Lily so often next to Selden, or Gerty Farish, it becomes clear that her path would perhaps be less rocky and certainly more defined if only she could embrace her own defining quality. And the author even emphasizes this conflict with her style of writing and use of language. By adopting a style of objective derision, Wharton appears to detail the events taking place without pausing for moral persuasions while actually infusing the writing with an undercurrent of meaning. This is an irony that pervades the novel and reveals the authorial perspective hidden from the surface, just as Lily’s ironic dilemma reveals her own true nature, so long suppressed and hidden on her impeccable surface.

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