Lily's Choice In The House Of Mirth

2514 words - 10 pages

Lily's Choice in The House of Mirth

 
      Near the beginning of The House of Mirth, Wharton establishes that Lily would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich: "she was secretly ashamed of her mothers crude passion for money" (38). Lily, like the affluent world she loves, has a strange relationship with money. She needs money to buy the type of life she has been raised to live, and her relative poverty makes her situation precarious. Unfortunately, Lily has not been trained to obtain money through a wide variety of methods. Wharton's wealthy socialites do not all procure money in the same way: money can be inherited, earned working in a hat shop, won at cards, traded scandalously between married men and unmarried women, or speculated for in the stock market. For Lily, the world of monetary transactions presents formidable difficulties; she was born, in a sense, to marry into money, and she cannot seem to come to it any other way. She is incapable of mastering the world of economic transactions, to the point that a direct exchange is repulsive to her highly specialized nature. Finally, these exchanges and the obstacles they present prove to be the end of her, and Wharton's text joins naturalism's Darwinian rules to an economic world. Whether Lily's death is accidental or a suicide does not really matter in Wharton's vision, because the choice facing Lily at the end of the novel--to make a transaction or to make a transaction--necessitates her death. Near the end of the novel, Wharton's protagonist must make a choice--but both options are part of the environment in which Lily has not evolved to survive. In Lily's attempt at wage-earning and her moral dilemma regarding Rosedale's marriage proposal, she faces precisely the world of direct exchange with which she has never been trained to contend. Lily Bart has to die because she is completely incapable of adapting to this world of direct transactions, and in the end the only two paths she sees both lie firmly in that realm.

 

First, a distinction must be made between direct and indirect transaction. Lily can happily live in a world where wealth circulates obliquely and freely. When Lily stays as a guest at Bellomont eating fine food at her hosts expense, she is not receiving payment for goods or services. Instead, her charm has earned her the benefits of friendship with the rich. Lily is not exactly being paid to be charming; instead, being charming attracts the generous hospitality and entertainment of wealthy friends. The distinction between this type of benefit and direct compensation is enormous. When the reader encounters Lily in Chapter Ten of Book Two, Lily has fled from the world of Norma Hatch to the milliners shop--and it was an offer of direct reward that made it necessary for Lily to escape. Wharton writes, "The sense of being involved in a transaction she would not have cared to examine too closely had soon afterward...

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