In The House of Mirth, Selden stands out for his dispassionate air toward society and money. He's a member of the social elite…but he doesn't really care. Basically, he's so cool he doesn't even have to think about being cool. Make sense? Selden can sit back with "a distinct sense of superiority" and play the part he plays best: a spectator.
In fact, Selden's purpose in the novel's plot is to witness things happening, from the first line of the novel when his eyes are "refreshed by the sight of Lily Bart" to the night he catches her leaving Trenor's house in the late hours. He hangs out with the other folks in the social elite, not because he wants to curry favor with them, but because he finds them amusing to watch:
He enjoyed spectacular effects, and was not insensible to the part money plays in their production: all he asked was that the very rich should live up to their calling as stage-managers, and not spend their money in a dull way. (1.12.10).
This sort of detached amusement is exactly the attitude we identify for Wharton in our discussion of "Tone." It's interesting that she's channeling much of her own attitude into this young man.
But that's another story. Meanwhile, Lily credits Selden's sense of detachment as the source of his freedom. This is perhaps the most telling passage we have in understanding him:
It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden's distinction that he had never forgotten the way out. (1.5.10)
Indeed, Selden claims that freedom is the very definition of success. Freedom "from everything – from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit – that's what I call success" (1.6.30-34).
But does Selden live up to his own ideals? After all, as Lily points out, he does spend a good amount of time hanging out with the people he claims to dislike. And Selden isn't without a social ego, either. In Monte Carlo, "Selden's sense of the privilege of being included in such company" (like the Duchess of Beltshire) draws him to the crowd he so often berates as trivial and dull (2.3.14).
And don't forget that Lily harbors proof of an indisputable fact: Selden had an affair with Bertha Dorset. Not only does an affair seriously call into question the moral scruples of the man who wishes to take Lily Bart away from "corrosion of the soul," but… Bertha Dorset? Really, Selden? Of all the women he could have chosen, Selden went with the pettiest, most manipulative and dangerous woman in the social elite. How can we reconcile such behavior with Lawrence's otherwise likeable character?
Two words: social determinism. (If you haven't read Lily's "Character Analysis" yet, check it out for a discussion on social determinism.) Go ahead and read this passage here:
He was, as much as Lily, the victim of his environment. […] It had been Selden's fate to have a charming mother. […] who had given him his sense of "values." It was from her that he inherited his detachment from the sumptuary side of life: the Stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's pleasure in them. (1.14.7)
We can't blame Selden for his social proclivities any more than we can judge Lily for not being able to cook her own dinner or sew her own clothes. Fish can't swim out of water, Lily can't function outside of society, and Selden can't ignore the fact that he, too, is part of the world he despises. Lily credits him with knowing the way out of the gilded cage; but how much time does Selden spend inside it anyway? This duality – delight in luxury, yet detached judgment of it – is at the core of Selden's character.
Selden and Lily's tumultuous romance lies at the heart of House of Mirth. One day they're whispering sweet nothings and kissing, the next they're yelling at each other (albeit it a repressed, formal, Victorian sort of yelling). It's no coincidence that the novel starts with an electric conversation between Lily and Selden, nor that it ends with a very different sort of conversation between the same characters (see "What's Up With the Ending?" for more). What is it that draws them to each other?
Selden's attraction to Lily can be summed up nicely by Gerty's restatement of his claim that "he doesn't care for nice girls, and the nice ones don't care for him" (1.8.17). Most of the women in the social elite are "nice" and therefore boring; Lily is not. The fact that she doesn't care for him (she explicitly states in the first chapter that she doesn't want to marry him) probably factors in, since the thrill of the chase would appeal to a guy like Selden who gets his kicks from social intrigues. (Remember, he thinks it's the job of the rich to provide him with entertainment.)
Also, do you remember how Selden's primary role in life is that of a spectator? Perfect, since Lily's job is to be a spectacle. ("You're such a wonderful spectacle: I always like to see what you are doing.") It also doesn't hurt that she's gorgeous.
What about Lily's attraction to Selden? What does he do for her? Check out the scene at Bellomont when Lily has the opportunity to compare Percy Gryce with Lawrence Selden. Boring; fascinating. Goody-two-shoes; a bit risqué. Most importantly, Percy is restrictive (Lily can't smoke or gamble or speak her mind around him), where Selden is entirely freeing. And that's the big pro that outweighs all the cons where Selden is concerned. He has the power to set Lily free from the gilded cage of society. Look at this:
That was the secret of his way of readjusting her vision. Lily, turning her eyes from him, found herself scanning her little world through his retina: it was as though the pink lamps had been shut off and the dusty daylight let in. […] How dreary and trivial these people were! (1.5.11)
In Lily's "Character Analysis," we discuss the restrictions set by society and the fact that freedom lies in perception and mindset. That's why Selden represents freedom to Lily – because he embodies this enlightened point of view. His affair with Bertha notwithstanding, Selden possesses an enlightened sense of morality, too. He recognizes – before Lily – the moral danger of remaining with the social elite and playing their social games. Just pages before Lily experiences her own moral awakening, Selden wants to marry her in order to taker her away from society, to "take her beyond – beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition and corrosion of the soul" (1.14.18).
So…does he? In the novel's penultimate chapter, Lily credits Selden as being her moral savior. "I have never forgotten the things you said to me at Bellomont," she says. "They have helped me, and kept me from mistakes" (2.12.26). There are a variety of ways to interpret Lily's death (and we talk about many of them in her "Character Analysis"), but one is that she is saved from moral corrosion by it. She pays her debt to Trenor and refuses to sell herself to Simon for comfort and luxury. In a way, then, Selden really does lift Lily above the dinginess, the pettiness, the corruption of elite society.