For Love or Money?
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, chronicles the tragic life of Lily Bart in New York’s fashionable high society. Exquisitely beautiful, Lily was trained to think of herself not as a woman capable of defining her own goals and making emotional commitments that would give shape and sustenance to her life, but rather as the lovely, passive woman whose future must necessarily be defined by the man who would marry her. However, Lily seems unwilling to realize the future she seems so clearly destined to attain. As Carrie Fisher puts it, “she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing the seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic” (198). As much as Lily yearns for a rich lifestyle, her sense of morals allow her to despise some of her own desires and give up rare opportunities to establish her position in society. Lily is torn between two choices: living an incredibly rich, yet unhappy, life by marrying into money, or, surrendering to true love, and living happily by sacrificing her desire for money and a high status in society. Her independent spirit conflicts with what she feels she must do to achieve her goals, sending her down the social ladder and to her death.Admired and envied by many in her society, Lily is perceived as the picture of perfection. To maintain her need for luxury and comfort, Lily uses her beauty and perfect social manners to parasitically live on the leavings of the wealthy, seeking to legitimize her position by marrying a rich man, not because she wants to, but because she has never learned anything else. She feels that she is “somebody” only when she perceives herself reflected in the admiring mirror of someone else’s eyes.Even though Lily is a fortune hunter, she maintains her independence and sense of morals throughout her financial struggles. When she realizes that Gus Trenor has been paying her way, instead of her money he supposedly invested in the stock market, she immediately feels the need to repay him. “Of course I know now what you wanted – it wasn’t my beautiful eyes you were after – but I tell you what, Miss Lily, you’ve got to pay up for making me think so” (153). Lily’s sense of urgency to pay Trenor back not only stems from having a sense of independence, but from a great need to protect her reputation. Although the money came quickly and easily, making it possible to live her desired lifestyle, she did not want to be kept by Gus Trenor, a married man. Although Lily thrives at the expense of her rich friends, she is not morally bankrupt.Lily’s moral conscience not only serves her welfare, but it also benefits her friend Lawrence Selden. Throughout the novel, Lily has many opportunities to salvage her reputation and return to her social circle by disclosing the letters written by Bertha Dorset to Selden. “If you’d only let me, I’d set you up over them all – I’d put you where you could wipe your feet on ’em!” (318). Even when Rosedale’s compassion for Lily implores her to use the letters to gain Mrs. Dorset friendship in order for her to climb the social ladder and marry him, she refuses the notion. All the while, Lily has had ammunition to blackmail Bertha, but her unrequited love and devotion for Selden makes it impossible for her to betray their friendship in order to recuperate from her dissension of her social standing.Lily fiercely avoids the working class life and perceives it as being “dull.” She feels that falling socially is the equivalent of death. For Lily, any alliance formed through marriage could have secured the continuity of her leisure lifestyle, but it would have done little to give her any kind of happiness. Lily’s continual frustration lies in the fact that all her intelligence and ability must be directed toward appearing in a certain way rather than finding true emotional value with whomever she marries. During her quest to bewitch Percy Gryce “she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life” (25). Although Lily craves money and status, she cannot succumb to the unhappiness such an alliance would bring; she sabotages her own opportunity to secure her place in the House of Mirth.Ironically, Lily perceives marrying an inferior man for his money just as boring as living the working class life. Her independent spirit yearns for a meaningful relationship. Lily battles her own demons; she knows she truly loves Selden, and finds solace in his company, but rejects him because he cannot offer her the luxuries she requires. In her heart, she knows that she could have a happy life with Selden; there would be no empty pretenses, allowing her to have an identity and a spiritual connection with him. He would not treat her as an object of possession, like a portrait; he would value her true nature as a person. However, Lily’s rejection of Selden makes him feel like an inadequate companion for her, and retards any sincere feelings from ever being articulated. Lily does little to nullify Selden’s perception of her, causing him to think absurdly of any thoughts of marriage. “Do you remember what you said to me once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well, you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always helped me. But the moment is gone; it was I who let it go. And one must go on living. Good-bye” (328). Although Lily is well aware of Selden’s devotion to her, she allows him to slip away, losing her chance at a happy and fulfilling life.Lily’s contemplation of marrying for money or for love catapults her to a sad demise, which is death. Although her sense of morals and independence maintain her self respectability, she fails in her mission. Her struggle for money and status only delivers great emotional pain. Lily was willing to give up a lifetime of unpretentious happiness with the one person she truly loved and cared for in exchange for what she was taught to desire. Lily realizes too late that Selden was her future, her only salvation from a truly “dull” life.Works CitedEdith Wharton. The House of Mirth. New York: Signet Classic 2000.
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The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, chronicles the tragic life of Lily Bart in New York’s fashionable high society. Exquisitely beautiful, Lily was trained to think of herself not […]