She was smaller and thinner than Lily Bart, with a restless pliability of pose, as if she could have been crumpled up and run through a ring, like the sinuous draperies she affected. Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes, of which the visionary gaze contrasted curiously with her self-assertive tone and gestures; so that, as one of her friends observed, she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room. (1.2.38)
Being a woman automatically gives you some control in this novel; the men, on the other hand, have to work harder for social power.
Lily was therefore able to observe Mrs. Dorset also, and by carrying her glance a few feet farther, to set up a rapid comparison between Lawrence Selden and Mr. Gryce. It was that comparison which was her undoing. (1.5.10)
Her undoing, or her salvation? By what rubric are we to judge Lily's decision of Selden over Gryce?
She had always hated her room at Mrs. Peniston's – its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers. (1.13.78)
Lines like this one reveal Lily's true desire – to be independent. But as the second half of the novel confirms, she is physically incapable of leading the life she desires.
But now his love was her only hope, and as she sat alone with her wretchedness the thought of confiding in him became as seductive as the river's flow to the suicide. The first plunge would be terrible – but afterward, what blessedness might come! (1.15.49-50)
Even after her moral apotheosis, Lily still treats Selden as a tool, not as a human being. She doesn't deserve him – yet.
And I ain't talking to you as if you were – I presume I know the kind of talk that's expected under those circumstances. I'm confoundedly gone on you – that's about the size of it – and I'm just giving you a plain business statement of the consequences. (1.15.64)
Wharton uses variations in speech to distinguish between the socially elite and the outsiders. Rosedale isn't as eloquent or proper as a man like George Dorset or Lawrence Selden.
He would get on well enough if she'd let him alone; they like his slang and his brag and his blunders. But Louisa spoils it all by trying to repress him and put herself forward. If she'd be natural herself – fat and vulgar and bouncing – it would be all right; but as soon as she meets anybody smart she tries to be slender and queenly. She tried it with the Duchess of Beltshire and Lady Skiddaw, and they fled. I've done my best to make her see her mistake – I've said to her again and again: 'Just let yourself go, Louisa'; but she keeps up the humbug even with me – I believe she keeps on being queenly in her own room, with the door shut. (2.1.31)
For many, a ticket into society means conformity, deception, and self-delusion. What about for Lily Bart?
Mrs. Dorset smiled on her reproachfully. "Lecture you – I? Heaven forbid! I was merely trying to give you a friendly hint. But it's usually the other way round, isn't it? I'm expected to take hints, not to give them: I've positively lived on them all these last months."
"Hints – from me to you?" Lily repeated.
"Oh, negative ones merely – what not to be and to do and to see. And I think I've taken them to admiration. (2.2.89-91)
Bertha is referring to the fact that Lily hasn't included her in events with important people like the Duchess. Lily has been living off the Dorsets' money and distracting George Dorset as necessary, but once again her pride has gotten in the way of her safety and comfort.
"The whole truth?" Miss Bart laughed. "What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her." (2.4.23)
This is exactly what Judy Trenor tried to tell Lily in the beginning of the novel – that's it's safer to be fond of dangerous people. Lily learned this lesson the hard way, but at least she understands it by this point in the story. Still, Lily doesn't act on this lesson – she doesn't apply it to her own life and choices.
If Selden had come at Mrs. Dorset's call, it was at her own that he would stay. (1.5.8)
Does Lily want Selden, or does she want power?
How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience: Carry Fisher, with her shoulders, her eyes, her divorces, her general air of embodying a "spicy paragraph"; young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles; Alice Wetherall, an animated visiting-list, whose most fervid convictions turned on the wording of invitations and the engraving of dinner-cards; Wetherall, with his perpetual nervous nod of acquiescence, his air of agreeing with people before he knew what they were saying; Jack Stepney, with his confident smile and anxious eyes, half way between the sheriff and an heiress; Gwen Van Osburgh, with all the guileless confidence of a young girl who has always been told that there is no one richer than her father. (1.5.11)
This seems to be Wharton's view of society peeking through a variety of her characters' perspectives. She assigns this tone to Selden, but allows Lily access to it in certain, key moments.
That walk she did not mean to miss; one glance at the bills on her writing-table was enough to recall its necessity. (1.5.23)
If Lily's desire to marry a rich man truly is out of necessity, can it be judged as immoral?
As she did so, it struck her with a flash of irony that she was indebted to Gus Trenor for the means of buying them. (1.9.69)
This is the second time Lily pauses to reflect that the money she's using came from Gus Trenor. The other instance? When she donates money to Gerty's charity fund. It's interesting that these two decisions constitute polar opposites as far as Lily's morality is concerned.
But it is one thing to live comfortably with the abstract conception of poverty, another to be brought in contact with its human embodiments. Lily had never conceived of these victims of fate otherwise than in the mass. That the mass was composed of individual lives, innumerable separate centres of sensation, with her own eager reachings for pleasure, her own fierce revulsions from pain – that some of these bundles of feeling were clothed in shapes not so unlike her own, with eyes meant to look on gladness, and young lips shaped for love – this discovery gave Lily one of those sudden shocks of pity that sometimes decentralize a life. (1.14.50)
The wealth of Lily and the other women in her social circle is an ignorant one. These women have no conception of the universe outside of their protected and opulent world. This is a dangerous way to live, and leaves Lily completely unprepared for the challenges she faces in Book II.
"But things are not going as well as I expected," Mrs. Fisher frankly admitted. "It's all very well to say that every body with money can get into society; but it would be truer to say that NEARLY everybody can. And the London market is so glutted with new Americans that, to succeed there now, they must be either very clever or awfully queer. (2.1.31)
Mrs. Fisher is the novel's authority on the relationship between social status and cash. It's essentially her job to turn one into the other.
But now, at the actual crisis, this difference seemed to throw the weight of destitution on Bertha's side, since at least he had her to suffer for, and she had only herself. […] it was to Bertha that Lily's sympathies now went out. She was not fond of Bertha Dorset, but neither was she without a sense of obligation […]. Bertha had been kind to her, they had lived together, during the last months, on terms of easy friendship, and the sense of friction of which Lily had recently become aware seemed to make it the more urgent that she should work undividedly in her friend's interest. (2.2.64)
It's clear that Lily genuinely does want to help Bertha – which makes it all the more frustrating that Bertha turns on her helping hand. This is not the first time Lily has felt intense personal obligation in return for financial help.
If Judy knew when Mrs. Fisher borrowed money of her husband, was she likely to ignore the same transaction on Lily's part? If she was careless of his affections she was plainly jealous of his pocket. (2.4.42)
This just drives home the point that a man's job in the world of House of Mirth is to make money, not to love his wife. That explains Judy Trenor's discriminatory jealousy.
She smiled up at him frankly. "But I don't think you dislike me – and you can't possibly think I want to marry you."
"No – I absolve you of that," he agreed.
"Well, then – – ?" (1.1.57-9)
Lily and Selden have a candor and frankness in their rapport lacking in any other relationship seen in House of Mirth.
It had always seemed to Selden that experience offered a great deal besides the sentimental adventure, yet he could vividly conceive of a love which should broaden and deepen till it became the central fact of life. (1.14.9)
Does Selden's love for Lily ever reach this pinnacle of his idealism?
But she is dangerous – and if I ever saw her up to mischief it's now. I can tell by poor George's manner. That man is a perfect barometer – he always knows when Bertha is going to – – "
"To fall?" Miss Bart suggested.
"Don't be shocking! You know he believes in her still. And of course I don't say there's any real harm in Bertha. Only she delights in making people miserable, and especially poor George."
"Well, he seems cut out for the part – I don't wonder she likes more cheerful companionship."
"Oh, George is not as dismal as you think. If Bertha did worry him he would be quite different. Or if she'd leave him alone, and let him arrange his life as he pleases. But she doesn't dare lose her hold of him on account of the money, and so when HE isn't jealous she pretends to be." (1.4.42-6)
Bertha and George Dorset's relationship is representative of a typical marriage among society's elite. It's no wonder Lily isn't looking forward to joining that big tea table in the garden.
"You see I came after all," he said; but before she had time to answer, Mrs. Dorset, breaking away from a lifeless colloquy with her host, had stepped between them with a little gesture of appropriation. (1.4.79)
Bertha Dorset is trying to take ownership of Selden in this territorial battle between her and Lily. Why does Lily fight back – on account of her pride, or because she has genuine feelings for Selden?
A special appositeness was given to these reflections by the discovery, in a neighbouring pew, of the serious profile and neatly-trimmed beard of Mr. Percy Gryce. There was something almost bridal in his own aspect: his large white gardenia had a symbolic air that struck Lily as a good omen. After all, seen in an assemblage of his kind he was not ridiculous-looking: a friendly critic might have called his heaviness weighty, and he was at his best in the attitude of vacant passivity which brings out the oddities of the restless. (1.8.8)
Lily is attracted to Percy Gryce's passivity because it's an opportunity to elevate her own level of power.
[Mr. Rosedale] was sensitive to shades of difference which Miss Bart would never have credited him with perceiving, because he had no corresponding variations of manner. (1.11.45)
In keeping with the war imagery in House of Mirth, we can conclude that Miss Bart's weakness is underestimating her opponents.
The sight of Selden's writing brought back the culminating moment of her triumph: the moment when she had read in his eyes that no philosophy was proof against her power. It would be pleasant to have that sensation again . . . no one else could give it to her in its fullness. (1.13.4)
Because no one else matters to Lily the way that Selden does. You'd think she'd have put this together by now…
It was not, indeed, anything specific that he feared: there had been a literal truth in his declaration that he did not think anything would happen. What troubled him was that, though Dorset's attitude had perceptibly changed, the change was not clearly to be accounted for. It had certainly not been produced by Selden's arguments, or by the action of his own soberer reason. Five minutes' talk sufficed to show that some alien influence had been at work, and that it had not so much subdued his resentment as weakened his will, so that he moved under it in a state of apathy, like a dangerous lunatic who has been drugged. (2.3.60)
Though Wharton never spells this out explicitly, George Dorset's change in attitude is no doubt the work of the treacherous Bertha Dorset. She has her hooks in George and she will stoop to any lows to keep him (and keep him miserable).
Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart. (1.1.1)
Notice that the first time we see Lily, it is as an object through the eyes of a man. She exists only as men see her, not as her own individual entity.
But your real collector values a thing for its rarity. (1.1.91)
We know this is why Rosedale values Lily – but is it always the reason for Selden's attraction to her?
Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily's beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instill into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved. (1.3.57)
Does Lily understand the weight of responsibility that comes with her good looks? Does she act accordingly? Should she have to?
No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity. (1.10.6)
Every once in a while we get a line like this in House of Mirth, one that clearly expresses Wharton's point of view. Her judgments are to be found scattered throughout the novel.
She was quite aware that she was of interest to dingy people, but she assumed that there is only one form of dinginess, and that admiration for brilliancy is the natural expression of its inferior state. She knew that Gerty Farish admired her blindly, and therefore supposed that she inspired the same sentiments in Grace Stepney, whom she classified as a Gerty Farish without the saving traits of youth and enthusiasm.
In reality, the two differed from each other as much as they differed from the object of their mutual contemplation. (1.11.46-7)
The problem with Lily objectifying herself all the time is that she assumes everyone else will do it, too. When someone like Grace treats her as a dangerous enemy instead of as a beautiful flower, Lily is unprepared to meet such animosity.
Tableaux vivants depend for their effect not only on the happy disposal of lights and the delusive interposition of layers of gauze, but on a corresponding adjustment of the mental vision. To unfurnished minds they remain, in spite of every enhancement of art, only a superior kind of wax-works; but to the responsive fancy they may give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination. Selden's mind was of this order: he could yield to vision-making influences as completely as a child to the spell of a fairy-tale. (1.12.14)
This is not the only time that Selden is credited with some sort of other-worldly powers of perception. He is the only one who remembers the way out of the gilded cage of society, and of course there's his silent communication with Lily, particularly at the end of the novel when he discovers "the word" (see "What's Up With the Ending?" for a full discussion).
It was not the first time that Selden had heard Lily's beauty lightly remarked on, and hitherto the tone of the comments had imperceptibly coloured his view of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt. This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda? (1.12.19)
Selden is the only character in House of Mirth – even including Lily – to get angry when she's treated like an object. Yet much of his love for Lily has to do with her beauty and her rarity…Does he have any right to judge other men for viewing her this way?
"I am not frightened: that's not the word. Can you imagine looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement – some hideous change that has come to you while you slept? Well, I seem to myself like that – I can't bear to see myself in my own thoughts – I hate ugliness, you know – I've always turned from it – but I can't explain to you – you wouldn't understand." (1.14.53)
Just as Lily earlier realized that there are different types of dinginess in the world, she now recognizes that there are different kinds of ugliness, as well.
Selden thought he could trust himself to return gradually to a reasonable view of Miss Bart, if only he did not see her. (2.1.38)
This approach to getting over Lily supports the argument that Selden's feelings for her have a lot to do with her looks, not her character.
She began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack. Something in his attitude of conscious absorption told her that he was aware of her presence: no one had ever been quite so engrossed in an evening paper! (1.2.8)
Look at the battle tactics involved in even the smallest of interactions in this novel. Lily has to measure and consider every word and action – it's no wonder she feels so trapped.
Even such scant civilities as Lily accorded to Mr. Rosedale would have made Miss Stepney her friend for life; but how could she foresee that such a friend was worth cultivating? How, moreover, can a young woman who has never been ignored measure the pang which this injury inflicts? And, lastly, how could Lily, accustomed to choose between a pressure of engagements, guess that she had mortally offended Miss Stepney by causing her to be excluded from one of Mrs. Peniston's infrequent dinner-parties? (1.11.47)
Wharton makes a decent point; we can't judge Lily for her treatment of Grace because Lily just doesn't know any better. She's not built for this sort of thing (more social determinism).
She had not known again till today that lightness, that glow of freedom; but now it was something more than a blind groping of the blood. The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together. (1.6.7)
It's interesting that Wharton uses this particular metaphor, since social determinism is repeatedly described as a set of "manacles" or "chains." Perhaps Lily's attraction to Selden is as much out of her control as her prescribed role in society.
"That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic."
Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. "Sometimes," she added, "I think it's just flightiness – and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for. And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study." (2.1.32-3)
Sometimes we think Mrs. Fisher understands Lily better than any other character in the novel….
To Selden's exasperated observation she was only too completely alive to them. She was "perfect" to every one: subservient to Bertha's anxious predominance, good-naturedly watchful of Dorset's moods, brightly companionable to Silverton and Dacey. (2.1.43)
Selden is frustrated to recognize that Lily willingly makes herself into a tool for other people to use. She has no independent entity; she only exists through other people's eyes, to perform tasks or play roles. That's why the novel begins with the sight of Lily through Selden's eyes….
Lord Hubert had promised his help, with the readiness on which she could always count: it was his only way of ever reminding her that he had once been ready to do so much more for her. (2.2.30)
Wharton hints at yet another wasted marriage opportunity in Lily's past. It's clear that Lily was conflicted about her future long before we joined her story at the age of 29.
To be of use was what she honestly wanted; and not for her own sake but for the Dorsets'. She had not thought of her own situation at all: she was simply engrossed in trying to put a little order in theirs. (2.3.4)
Lily actually is being selfless here, whereas she was incapable of such philanthropy earlier in Book I (when she donated to Gerty's charity in order to stroke her own ego).
She knew it was not by explanations and counter-charges that she could ever hope to recover her lost standing; but even had she felt the least trust in their efficacy, she would still have been held back by the feeling which had kept her from defending herself to Gerty Farish – a feeling that was half pride and half humiliation. (2.4.37)
Is this a reasonable explanation for Lily's refusal to defend herself? Why not at least explain to someone like Gerty, who would be willing to listen?
"The fact that you don't want to marry me. Perhaps I don't regard it as such a strong inducement to go and see you." He felt a slight shiver down his spine as he ventured this, but her laugh reassured him. (1.1.63)
Even a casual conversation between friends is restricted by certain rules. Selden and Lily each must consider what they can and cannot say while conversing with each other.
Lily, with the flavour of Selden's caravan tea on her lips, had no great fancy to drown it in the railway brew which seemed such nectar to her companion; but, rightly judging that one of the charms of tea is the fact of drinking it together, she proceeded to give the last touch to Mr. Gryce's enjoyment by smiling at him across her lifted cup. (1.2.18)
How is this encounter over tea with Percy different than the tea Lily just shared with Selden?
Mr. Gryce was undoubtedly enjoying Bellomont. He liked the ease and glitter of the life, and the lustre conferred on him by being a member of this group of rich and conspicuous people. But he thought it a very materialistic society; there were times when he was frightened by the talk of the men and the looks of the ladies, and he was glad to find that Miss Bart, for all her ease and self-possession, was not at home in so ambiguous an atmosphere. (1.5.3)
Gryce is right to identify that Miss Bart is "not at home," but he incorrectly identifies the source of this discomfort. Lily's ennui stems from a deeper dissatisfaction with society itself, not with the small indulgences of the crowd at Bellomont.
"No; but your taking a walk with me is only another way of making use of your material. You are an artist and I happen to be the bit of colour you are using today. It's a part of your cleverness to be able to produce premeditated effects extemporaneously." (1.6.18)
Is Selden's view of Lily an accurate one?
Selden continued to look at her; then he drew his cigarette-case from his pocket and slowly lit a cigarette. It seemed to him necessary, at that moment, to proclaim, by some habitual gesture of this sort, his recovered hold on the actual: he had an almost puerile wish to let his companion see that, their flight over, he had landed on his feet. (1.6.103)
Looks like Selden, too, is as interested in the power dynamics of his relationship with Lily as he is in Lily herself.
This real self of hers, which he had the faculty of drawing out of the depths, was so little accustomed to go alone! The appeal of her helplessness touched in him, as it always did, a latent chord of inclination. It would have meant nothing to him to discover that his nearness made her more brilliant, but this glimpse of a twilight mood to which he alone had the clue seemed once more to set him in a world apart with her. (1.8.52-3)
If there are indeed two different Lily Barts, then Selden is only in love with one of them. He's not willingly to take the package deal.
Now, with a start of inner wonder, Lily felt that her thirst for retaliation had died out. If you would forgive your enemy, says the Malay proverb, first inflict a hurt on him […] (1.10.39)
Does Lily ever forgive Mrs. Dorset? Does her refusal to use the letters for blackmail have anything to do with forgiveness?
It was pitiable that he, who knew the mixed motives on which social judgments depend, should still feel himself so swayed by them. How could he lift Lily to a freer vision of life, if his own view of her was to be coloured by any mind in which he saw her reflected? (1.14.44)
Good question, especially considering that Selden's view of Lily continues to be colored by others all the way through House of Mirth – until she lies dead on her bed. It's arguable that Selden can't really love her, at least not completely, until this moment, when she exists only for him instead of for the eyes of society.
Selden saw two persons emerge from the opposite shadows, signal to the cab, and drive off in it toward the centre of the town. The moonlight touched them as they paused to enter the carriage, and he recognized Mrs. Dorset and young Silverton. (2.1.46)
This scene forms a foil with that in Book I, when Lily flees Trenors' house and Selden spots the figures in the dark. Of course, what's sad is that Bertha really is guilty, while Lily was not – yet the latter is the one to suffer through scandal as a result.
But we're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. (1.1.48)
What is the difference? Is it not possible for Lily to be both good and happy in House of Mirth?
A world in which such things could be seemed a miserable place to Lily Bart; but then she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations. (1.3.10)
This ignorance and self-centeredness characterizes the Lily Bart of the first half of the novel. Compare this image to the woman who refuses to blackmail Bertha Dorset in Book II…
"And for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman." (1.4.40)
True; Lily's fate at the end of House of Mirth comes about because she refuses to be nasty in retaliation against Bertha.
Lily smiled: she knew that Selden had always been kind to his dull cousin, and she had sometimes wondered why he wasted so much time in such an unremunerative manner. (1.8.15)
Selden does things without ulterior motives, unlike Lily.
The fact that the money freed her temporarily from all minor obligations obscured her sense of the greater one it represented, and having never before known what it was to command so large a sum, she lingered delectably over the amusement of spending it. (1.10.2)
Lily's youth and naiveté is marked by her lack of foresight. Notice that she isn't immoral; it's just that morality isn't on her radar yet.
The modern fastness appeared synonymous with immorality, and the mere idea of immorality was as offensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the drawing-room: it was one of the conceptions her mind refused to admit. (1.11.83)
Compare Mrs. Peniston's reaction to immorality with Lily's when the latter is dealing with the charwoman's offer.
The brutality of the thrust gave her the sense of dizziness that follows on a physical blow. Rosedale had spoken then – this was the way men talked of her – She felt suddenly weak and defenceless: there was a throb of self-pity in her throat. But all the while another self was sharpening her to vigilance, whispering the terrified warning that every word and gesture must be measured. (1.13.56)
Lily's moral self feels weak and defenseless, as she has been compromised. But her other, social self is the one that is concerned for reputation, not for scruples.
Moral complications existed for her only in the environment that had produced them; she did not mean to slight or ignore them, but they lost their reality when they changed their background. (2.2.3)
Lily's moral transformation is not yet complete, as she still feels she can run away from pressing moral issues. By the end of the novel, however, she will overcome this form of self-delusion.
But for the present, if he clung to her, it was not in order to be dragged up, but to feel some one floundering in the depths with him: he wanted her to suffer with him, not to help him to suffer less. (2.2.53)
This passage makes us wonder if George really was completely innocent in Lily's social demise, or whether he played a part – maybe even a subconscious one – in sacrificing her.
"What's become of Dillworth?" he asked.
"Oh, his mother was frightened – she was afraid I should have all the family jewels reset. And she wanted me to promise that I wouldn't do over the drawing-room."
"The very thing you are marrying for!"
"Exactly. So she packed him off to India." (1.1.77-9)
Women are always generally control, while men are usually passive in House of Mirth.
She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident. (1.2.8)
For this reason, Lily is better able to manipulate men than women.
Miss Bart stared in affected reproval. "I thought you were so fond of Bertha."
"Oh, I am – it's much safer to be fond of dangerous people. (1.4.42-3)
This, too, is one of Lily's mistakes in House of Mirth – not tactically choosing her friends. For a woman who is supposedly cut out for this stuff, Lily never seems to play her societal cards right.
Lily pushed aside her finished work with a dry smile. "You're very kind, Judy: I'll lock up my cigarettes and wear that last year's dress you sent me this morning. And if you are really interested in my career, perhaps you'll be kind enough not to ask me to play bridge again this evening."
"Bridge? Does he mind bridge, too? Oh, Lily, what an awful life you'll lead! But of course I won't – why didn't you give me a hint last night? There's nothing I wouldn't do, you poor duck, to see you happy!" (1.4.59-60)
Lily's ability to manipulate does in fact cross the gender line.
Though Evie Van Osburgh's engagement was still officially a secret, it was one of which the innumerable intimate friends of the family were already possessed; and the trainful of returning guests buzzed with allusions and anticipations. Lily was acutely aware of her own part in this drama of innuendo: she knew the exact quality of the amusement the situation evoked. […] Lily knew well enough how to bear herself in difficult situations. […] But she was beginning to feel the strain of the attitude; the reaction was more rapid, and she lapsed to a deeper self-disgust. (1.9.3)
If Lily could re-live that Sunday afternoon at Bellomont, would she really do anything differently?
Mrs. Peniston rose abruptly, and, advancing to the ormolu clock surmounted by a helmeted Minerva, which throned on the chimney-piece between two malachite vases, passed her lace handkerchief between the helmet and its visor. (1.9.11)
We talk about mythological references in House of Mirth in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," and here is yet another. In this case, Mrs. Peniston is being associated with the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. She does indeed play the part of an older/wiser character to Lily's relative naiveté.
All her concern had hitherto been for young Silverton, not only because, in such affairs, the woman's instinct is to side with the man, but because his case made a peculiar appeal to her sympathies. He was so desperately in earnest, poor youth, and his earnestness was of so different a quality from Bertha's, though hers too was desperate enough. The difference was that Bertha was in earnest only about herself, while he was in earnest about her. (2.2.64)
This is the second time Wharton has suggested that women don't like other women – that they tend to side with men instead of their own gender. Do the actions of the characters in House of Mirth support this theory?
She drew herself up to the full height of her slender majesty, towering like some dark angel of defiance above the troubled Gerty. (2.4.28)
What an odd term to describe Lily, particularly in contrast to the squeaky-clean, virginal Gerty Farish. Lily has become much harder and determined than her helpless self in Book I.