Study Guide

The House of Mirth Appearances

By Edith Wharton

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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.

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