Lily Bart is a beautiful young woman and, as with so many who look like her, she makes a smashing first impression on New York society. Despite her extremely modest beginnings, she receives several offers of marriage from eligible bachelors who could have provided quite nicely for her, but she does not accept any of them, holding out for an even wealthier man. However, once she takes the offer to visit Laurence Selden in his private rooms, she blemishes her reputation, and after returning from a cruise with the Dorsets, the rumors about her morality have darkened to include adultery. These second impressions leave her ousted from society, condemned to toiling as a secretary and, later, a milliner.
As it is in so many stories, money presents itself plays a role as powerful as any human character and serves as a foil to some of the other characters in the story, especially Lily. Her pursuit of material wealth drives her throughout the novel, but her conversation with the delightfully aloof Laurence Selden shows her the true nature of the pursuit of money. However, this revelation does not drive her to live in a less selfish way; instead, she makes a strident vow of allegiance to her pursuit. When Selden mentions that his dream is to live without restraints and not have to fiddle around with concerns of money and the like, Lily sees the irony – the only way to be free of money worries is to have much more of it than she needs. Rather than turn her back on materialism, though, she blurts, “Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me if you have nothing to give me instead!”(114). Money, which now seems “hateful,” is still the only path to satisfaction that she can see, because Selden has offered her no other.
As one might expect, Lily views the institution of marriage as an avenue towards a particular social station; in her view, the higher the social station, the better. “What she crave[s] and really [feels] herself entitled to [is] a situation in which the noblest attitude should also be the easiest”(422). In other words, she wants a life free of effort of any kind; this desire makes the fabulously wealthy Selden an ideal candidate for her, despite the lack of any other evidence of attraction between the two. While Jane Austen wishes that marriage could be so much more than a vehicle for economic prosperity for women, based on the strong desires of her female characters for a true, multidimensional connection, Wharton appears to be much more cynical about the nature of the institution, at least through her portrayal of Lily, who uses her pretty face for all it is worth.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.