Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart who is unable or unwilling to marry Laurence Selden, thereby ensuring her safety in society. There are many levels to their relationship. It can be casual or serious depending on Selden’s perceptions of Lily. Selden recognizes something beautiful in Lily Bart, which isn’t present in any other woman in the novel. The goddess Diana is the best way to understand the mysterious beauty and attraction that Lily Bart has for other men. Lily Bart searches for the perfect man, but cannot get married. Finally, she is defeated by an inexplicable rejection that can even endanger a goddess.
Diana, the goddess both of maidenhood and hunting, is a perfect example of the traits Lily Bart displays. Wharton mentions Lily’s “wild-wood elegance” and “sylvan liberty” in her first description. Her long, straight sides revealed their slenderness. Selden observed that this gave her an artificial, wild-wood-like appearance. The lily of the valley is Diana’s favorite flower. Lily Bart later decides to wear a white plain dress to her Reynold’s painting. This is the color that Diana chose.
Selden is able to see Lily’s Diana-like qualities in nature, as all scenes in which he grows closer to her occur in the woods. The novel begins with Lily choosing Selden’s street, presumably because it has the fewest trees. Let’s go to the shade” (8). After walking through woods, the best conversation between them will be in a beechgrove. It is evident that Lily, when in the woods, is her true nature. The nature Selden believes to be “real” is what he falls for. Selden was so affected by Lily’s portrait at the Wellington Brys’ party that he performed it theatrically. Reynold’s painting of “Mrs. Lloyd”, but she captivates the crowd with her natural beauty. We see another direct comparison to Diana. Selden is so captivated by this scene, he agrees with Gerty Farish’s statement that “It makes Lily look real – the Lily she knows” (142). Gerty is the only person who knows what Lily looks like, and this makes his love even stronger. Selden is watching the men judge Lily, and shares his thoughts with readers. It’s a wonderful analogy to Caliban giving Miranda her verdict.
Selden’s attraction for Lily stems from two contradicting perceptions. First, Diana is not attainable and secondly, Lily’s affiliation to nature makes it most attractive when she is in her virgin state. This paradox seems to be evident in their flirtations. The walk through the woods ends in an unsettling exchange of emotions. Selden is well aware that Lily won’t marry. He replies, “No, but maybe I should if I could.” (77). Selden, conscious that he cannot marry her is unable to love her but he does not want to let her know he loves her.
Selden believes Lily will get married, despite the fact that he is well aware of this. After Reynold’s scene with Lily at Wellington Bry’s party, Selden sneaks Lily out to the garden to see her again with foliage around. It culminates in a brief kiss.
Selden had led her there for a while, but she didn’t notice until they reached the glass door at the end. She stood abruptly in the garden’s fragrant hush. Their feet were covered in gravel, and there was the midsummer darkness around them. Hanging lights made deep green caverns under their feet and whitened spray of a waterfall falling among lilies. This is Selden’s method of getting Lily into the painting. Selden is disappointed when Lily turns away with the cry “Ah, Love me, Love Me – But Don’t Tell me So!” (145). While he may love her, it is not enough to win her over. The novel will show how her tendency to run away affects her relationships with other suitors.
This explains Lily’s strange behavior towards the men she is wooing. Lily, like Diana, is both the goddess and hunt goddess but also the goddess virgins. She will seek out eligible men to marry her but never actually mar them. Percy Gryce and Lily’s conversation with Mrs. Trenor make it clear that Lily is hunting men. I have the reputation for being on the lookout for a wealthy husband?” (49). She is extremely successful. She has managed to get every eligible man (and one ineligible) to propose. Despite her success Lily still hasn’t committed to any of these men. Percy Gryce is ruined when she takes Selden for a walk, which she regrets. She later rejects George Dorset and Rosedale by running away, or mentally running away, as she tries to decide between them.
Diana pointed out that Lily is not motivated by a moral principle to stop Bertha Dorset from receiving the letters. Instead, her main motivation was for marriage. Lily Bart has often been seen as the most moral character, despite being surrounded by corrupt and shameless individuals who are slowly destroying her. The reason for her decline towards the end of the novel’s story is often attributed to her moral highs. These morals prevent her from using Bertha Dorset’s letters. This explanation is flawed in two ways. Can we really accept that Lily has the highest moral character and participates as heavily as anyone else in society? Are her morals sufficient for her not to use the letter? It’s impossible to believe that Lily, a woman so intimately familiar with the social codes, wouldn’t attack Bertha Dorset as soon and as often as she can. Lily must be viewed as the moral heroine in the novel. This is hard to justify, given the fact that Lily lies to Rosedale early in the book and that Percy Gryce is her only motivation for her interest in Americana. Lily becomes aware of the fact that she is on the Dorset yacht to distract her husband from his infidelities later on. Lily’s inability to use letters is the only evidence that would place her on a morally high pedestal. But this could be explained more as her inability or unwillingness to marry. Rosedale and George Dorset both offer letters to her, but she rejects them both. As a result, Lily, who meets George Dorset in the country lane, tells him she feels tempted to marry him. Rosedale is also introduced to Lily. It wasn’t the terror of the idea [to use letters against Bertha Dorset] which kept her spellbound, subdued under [Rosedale] will, but rather the subtle affinity it showed to her innermost desires. “If Bertha Dorset would return her friendship, he would marry her tomorrow.” (268). Rosedale’s plan of action is something Lily contemplates. He then says that Lily can’t make it work without him….and I’m here, ready to help you tomorrow if necessary. Do you say so, Miss Lily?” (269). Rosedale approaches Lily, and Lily panics, so she jumps away. This immediately discredits the whole plan. Rosedale’s proximity to her causes Lily to panic and run away from him, immediately disowning the entire plan.
Lily’s inability marry means that she is elevated above the mediocre society to which she struggled to belong. Wharton uses Diana to describe Lily, placing her above other members of New York’s elite society. Lily is able, because she is the only person who can be equated one with the gods, to keep her somewhat separate from other, basic characters. Bertha Dorset would make the story boring. Lily’s charm lies in her willingness to fight for society entry, yet she remains detached from it. Wharton will not allow her heroine, in order for her to feel distinguished, to wed. Selden is a fan of Lily’s “sylvan freedom”, and she wouldn’t allow her to get married to any of these men. Marriage is a way of forcing a woman into the world, but it also destroys the individuality that she has. Rosedale explains this to Lily by telling her that she has a lot of support behind him and will keep her “just where you want.” (269). Lily is forced by Rosedale to be Bertha Dorset’s equal, and her own identity is lost. Ironically, Lily is the only young woman to whom marriage offers an escape. Marriage actually allows them more freedom. Gwen Van Osburgh, the most famous example, is a prime example. She changes her whole outlook on life after marrying Jack Stepney. “But Stepney’s wife, much to his dismay, had developed a dazzling fastness in gait that left her trailing breathlessly in front of him,” (192). Gwen can now do whatever she likes, and is free of the Van Osburgh code. Lily is not a good fit for this mold. Lily was not raised in a strict household and so has an unrestricted freedom that she would lose if married. This is how Lily escapes from marriage and becomes free.
Wharton brilliantly presents Lily’s downfall through The House of Mirth. It is a scathing social analysis. Selden’s unrealized love affair with Lily Bart is based on his realization of her Diana-like qualities, which will lead to her death. Lily’s inability or inability to use Bertha Dorset’s letters to correct her reputation is directly linked to her inability and unwillingness to wed. Her habit of running away from any man who proposes, plunges her into a spiral she can never recover. Her virgin goddess qualities, not her morals, are what ultimately bring her down. Wharton can make Lily look like Diana to further condemn her society. We are shown that even a goddess can be destroyed by the society Lily lives within.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Happiness. Signet Classic, which is headquartered in New York City. 1964.