The critic, Helen Vendler, has said it is through the personal we come to know the general - the history. So it is here. Through the life of Lily Bart, a woman (thus a bartering item), we view the world of the burgeoning and greedy industrialists where individual sensitivities bow to the worship of making and spending money - with no regard to social justice, including the full humanity of women. The novel takes place in the post-civil war economic expansionist period Mark Twain coined The Gilded Age. (A gilded item has a thin overlay of gold -- a veneer that appears rich for a time and then, like all fakery, it easily rubs off.) Lily (Wharton names her well) is schooled successfuly in the arts of acquiring a wealthy husband who will give her a secure place in the gilded society. It is through her story as she picks her way across this shabby landscape of rich and careless actors that the reader comes to understand the age.
The women thwarting Lily are in the game with their husbands and have all the instincts of these greedy, tough industrialists. Consider they have nowhere to put that perverted energy but into keeping their place in the society, and no compunction about destroying Lily, a marginal outsider who has no real family to look out for her.
Understand that marriages are arranged by the women generally - and they are ruthless in keeping the top families intact, and a mean, rough game it is.
Conspicuous consumption, Thorstein Veblen's read on this era, is the lynchpin of the novel. HM's essence is production and viewed consumption. Raw capitalism! (The director Martin Scorcese, himself a working class Italian boy, got in just right in the opening scene of The Age of Innocence, when his camera lovingly and slowly scanned the groaning table of the rich.) Moreover, Scorcese is attracted to the suppressed violence of this culture. The men produce the working place and the women consume. Their viewed consumption is an accolade awarded to the producers. Lily herself is a consumption item.
Wharton Presents Lily
When we meet Lily, she is being viewed at a train station as a consumer item. The opening sentences are clear: 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. A few points here:
- The railroad is a major factor in this expansive capitalist America. It represents movement - economically and socially.
- "[R]ush means the workforce is moving back and forth. We are talking about capitalism and its fast movement -- a clear signal as to what HM will reveal.
- Selden, as we will discover is a man who knows and likes Lily. He is "refreshed" by her. In the first few sentences, Wharton nails it. Excess must be viewed! The viewing will continue throughout the novel, especially as to the women and their accouterments. This is a spectacle society. Selden thinks: There was nothing new about Lily Bart....It was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation. Nothing new - the shelf life of this particular item is running out in life years, as she is now 29. In excess capitalism, the emphasis is on the next frontier. In what new ways can money be made? Speculation is the ultimate business word. As we read the novel, we understand that Lily's personal speculation in the form of gambling and risky behavior will be significant in her fall from grace. She can't play with the big boys.
Lily takes tea with Selden in his apartment at the Benedick - it is a risk (speculation) as she waits for the train to take her to visit one of the partnering CEOs, the Trenors. Her aunt with whom she lives, has closed her house for the summer and Lily basically is homeless - she has no home and makes the circuit. The aunt, as dry and spiritually corseted a character as Wharton has created, certainly has no affection for her niece. Kicking her out of the home for the summer pretty much explains this woman.
Selden asks Lily why she is going to the weekend party. Lily says It is part of the business.... Lily's business is locating a protector/producer. Selden himself is having an affair with a married woman, the wife of one of the producers. He is allowed sex without marriage. And so is the wife outside of the marriage since she is protected. Everyone knows but the husband; however since the affair does not affect moneymaking - and it is off stage (not viewed), it is sanctioned. This consumer/wife will survive beautifully. She is mean, shallow, spiteful and she has protection.
Wharton Presents Larry Selden
The strongest capitalist language in the first chapter comes from Selden: He had a confused sense that Lily had cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. If Selden has no compassion for the barely-surviving working class, why dear reader, would we consider he may in some way be of comfort or aid to Lily. Although Wharton makes him a charming, intelligent, ostensibly sensitive man - alas, he is without backbone and tied to the class he moves in - he is a good soldier. He will let her down - Wharton tells us early on. Selden is one of Wharton's feckless men.
Gus Trenor, married, a liar and a scam atist who prcatically rapes Lily after viewing a tableaux, where Lily foolishly dislays herself in a reckless manner. Although admiring her beauty, the men in the audience gossip aplenty about her.
George Dorsett (yes, Bertha's husband) - dull - Lily sends him back to the vicious Bertha.
Sim Rosedale - proposes to Lily while she is still on the "A" list so to speak but rebuffs her when she offers herself for marriage later -- he is looking to trade up; she is on the way down. (He has, however, been kind to Lily.)
A distant father who dies while Lily is young and with whom she has no communication.
Assorted other dolts who have inherited wealth.
Finally, Lawrence Selden, her true love. A man who lacks the strength of character to do for Lily what she has done for him.
Mrs. Dorsett - Wharton displays secondary power
Mrs. George Dorsett, as she is introduced on the train ride, has drive and energy. (Note she is introduced as a woman with protection in the use of George.) Today, someone like Bertha might put that energy to use in law school, medical school or start a business herself. But Mrs. George will put it to keeping her position as one of the CEOs of her class' status quo. Lily will be kept in line, Lily, a basically decent woman, a virgin, will be destroyed as any strong business person would destroy a rival. And Bertha is having an affair with Larry Selden.
Generic character precis and Plot
On the train to Bellomont, Lily engages Percy Gryce, wealthy, single - a possibility for marriage - Mr. Gryce and she have tea and Lily uses the full force of her charm. Tea, btw, is a symbol of home and hearth - as we know, Lily lacks both. It reoccurs often in this novel as we could say Lily has never found a home. Mr. Gryce has a valuable Americana collection, and Lily's business is to know such things. (Perhaps someone in the comment section would like to talk about Wharton's preference for Europe, and the critical body of theory that it is the American theme which destroys Lily, since she has no aristocratic connections or "old" money. Mr. Gryce is taken with Lily, but she will throw away this chance when she misses a date for church and instead spends time with Selden who appears at the Trenor home. Lily wants to break free from being an object to consume but she lacks the family, the proper class, the money. Surely Lily knows this - but she is risking it. Perhaps Lily enjoys the rush of the risk. (A gambler - a small time capitalist.)
For those of you not familiar with the plot, it may be a good time to read through the plot linked earlier.
Lily will gamble throughout the novel, overestimating her skill and underestimating her opponents, and lose. While staying at the Trenors, Mrs. Trenor treats Lily like a paid companion -- and Lily begins to sense the subtle signals from the CEOs that she is no longer the fresh, young thing on the circuit.
It spoke much for the depth of Mrs. Trenor's friendship that her voice, in admonishing Miss Bart, took the same note of personal despair as if she had beern lamenting the collapse of a house party.
Her downward status will continue from here on, until she is a paid companion to a crass, newly rich family. And much worse is in store for her.
Wharton uses the gothic theme of letters to move the plot. She has after all written quite decent ghost stories.
The Ghost Stories
A charlady blackmails Lily with letters she mistakenly believes Lily wrote. Bertha wrote them. But the charlady has seen Lily leave Selden's apartment - again - the viewing of Lily -- and Lily in order to protect Selden buys the letters. Here, we see even the lower classes are able to view Lily and use that to their end.
Ultimately, Lily will not use the letters to save herself, emphasizing her honor, her love for Selden, her addictions to risk and her willingness to face her portion. Of course, it is a morality tale. Wharton is tough enough to create the real world where the pure of heart are punished and the dirty souls go on freely. Her title is from the Old Testament: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
There is a buzzing background noise that this social group is on the way down. Capitalism, always on the move, tougher captains -- some from the lower classes. Enter: Rosedale. In his cartoonish Jewishness, up-front ambitions - he represents the new alpha dog. Mr. Rosedale stood scanning Lily with interest... Rosedale not only desires her beauty and sexuality but what she represents -- the old money, the better class. Moreover, he owns the building Lily's putative lover inhabits. Lily will not be his property but Selden's flat is his property.
I actually like Mr. Rosedale. He inhabits his role; he is upfront - even about being an ambitious guy who wants to trade up. More importantly, he has been kind to Lily. Even urged her to use the letters to her benefit. Unfortunately, when Lily is on her slide - she offers herself to him in marriage. Though embarrassed, he refuses. The consumer item has lost appeal and can no longer help him in his quest to breach the upper echelon whether they want him or not. Neither is she wanted among the new industrial class. There is a wealth of material on the web as to Wharton and antisemitism - it's there for all to read. I like him and paradoxically I believe Edith likes him as well.
Lily does work for a time. Look at those spangles, Miss Bart-every one of them sewed on crooked. so says her forewoman at the millinary shop Lily is now working. She can't cut it and is resented by the working class girls in the shop and the martinent forewoman. She is consistently rebuked for her sloppy work. She retreats to her mean little room in the evenings. (Her aunt has asked her to leave the house, believing rumors Bertha is spreading abut Lily's sexual and financial behavior. More importantly, her aunt has disinherited her, leaving her fortune to a grey cipher who wouldn't stir up a cup of tea - much less a social class.) Miss Bart has lost her expectations. The CEOs are finished with her. A quick and hard fall it is. Lily becomes addicted to chloral in order to sleep. And - she has been let go from her position.
Framing the affair.
Wharton frames the love affair between Selden and Lily with two visits to the Benedick. In the first, there is a gentle daytime rain falling – a gardeners’ rain. It is a cold and hard rain on the last visit. Lily invites herself the second time, so the visit has no social meaning. After all, the social charade is over. She sees that Selden is uncomfortable with her (...her presence was becoming an embarrassment to him.) She still looks to him for rescue, something she hasn’t fully faced to this point – as characterized by "eager feelings." She senses there may yet another descent. She leaves the old Lily with him – he doesn’t know what to do with this Lily. Still she is hit hard with a sense of "loneliness." She may have brought him the letters for advice, or as a gift for which he would be suitably grateful. He is lost to her: "shut out" as she is "shut out" from the only group she has known – but she cannot live being shut out from him.
No, I drink too much tea. She will play that social game no longer. This visit is at dusk, night will fall soon – as they both know. In the first visit, the words came quickly, lightly, flirtatiously. Here the words are weighted and spaced.
She will throw away her life as she throws the letters into the fire. Why? It is problematic. It may be a gift to him. It may be an unconscious gesture to him of what he has thrown away. Is she aware that he has abandoned her cruelly – more so than the others since he had her trust? Wharton expects us to understand as she is dazed with stimulants, drugs, near starvation and despair – she is still coherent. She wants him to see – let him see. And in this novel of watching – she must have a spectator for her grand gesture. She can go now. She can do nothing else – chained to sadness, to destiny. She has the energy for nothing else – the façade is gone.
Lily is splendid in this passage. Selden is a little boy, as are really all the men in this book. Her Russian sister, Anna, understands her well.
He will find her the next morning for the final viewing when he visits her shabby boarding house and small, paltry room and possessions. She has left envelopes on the desk, including a check to Trenor, as her small legacy arrived the night before -- and an empty bottle of the chloral. Fitting, since this is a novel about money. And like a good girl she has paid all of her bills. What a good girl is our Lily.
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