Study Guide

The House of Mirth Morality

By Edith Wharton

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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.

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