Lily Bart is doomed. If the patently ironic title hadn’t already given it away, the blurb of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth leaves you in little doubt that her fatally beautiful socialite with a love of the finer things is going to fall short.
The grim spell cast by this tale of woe is, however, in the telling. Wharton’s scalpel work in breaking the social wound she undresses in the very first chapter is not just an inquest; it is a trial, and society is in the dock.
A simplistic reading would blame the jealousy of men for the desultory fashion in which Lily is repeatedly picked up and admired before being tossed into a corner like a grubby toy at the first murmur of scandal. Certainly, this is the shadow across the brow of the usually so bovine Percy Gryce, who drops his suit when a mutual friend lets fall ominous insinuations about Lily’s insolvency.
Yes, rich men’s mortal fear of the phantom of an extravagance their bank balances could easily swallow has much to answer for, as does the toxic residue of an ages-old male obsession with virginity. But, if an inherited desire for exclusive possession of its mate gives ruinous rise to spasmodic pangs of moral fastidiousness in socially ambitious man, woman does not emerge unscathed from Wharton’s investigation either.
Lily’s antagonist in chief is ultimately Bertha Dorset, a woman with reserves of envy to drown even her male acquaintances’ jealousy. Although her remote campaign of denigration comes to be stimulated by self-preservation when she sees no choice but to subdue the devastating fact of her own infidelity with the idea of another’s, she is at first motivated merely by a wanton pleasure in a pretty friend’s destruction. The craven readiness of her parasitic inner circle to shun Lily is a still greater indictment of the self-interest of an entire class of women.
Occasionally, we leave the hornets’ nest of New York’s leisure class. The antidote to the highly-strung atmosphere of ostentation in which Lily moves against her better judgement is found in the person of Gerty Farish, her dowdy but kind-hearted friend. The revelation of Gerty’s hopeless love for her polished cousin, with whom Lily is entangled by dint of a protracted flirtation, shocks her as much as the reader lulled into thinking her altruism was all there was to know about her. Whether the meek can inherit seems doubtful; but a cat may look – furtively – at a king.
For every rich sufferer, of course, there are countless poor ones in the shadows. Lonely, self-effacing Gerty is the shade next to whom Lily’s star burns all the brighter and Nettie Struthers a late incarnation of the desperate poverty our heroine sees in her sleep. Both are distant victims of wealth’s insistence on beauty and connections and mistrust of any who don’t fulfil these strictest of criteria. But in human feeling they are more munificent by far than any of fallen Lily’s erstwhile playmates. Nettie tells her one-time benefactor: “Sometimes, when I felt real mean, and got to wondering why things were so queerly fixed in the world, I used to remember that you were having a lovely time, anyhow, and that seemed to show there was a kind of justice somewhere.” It is a cruel irony that the notion of a social conscience is anathema to precisely those people who could make a difference. The impulse of philanthropy in Lily that once turned Nettie’s life around was never going to last.
Before her expulsion from the temple of luxury, Lily is often likened to a bird in a cage, to be looked at from a safe distance. If Gerty is the rock dove to her canary, it is little wonder that she is better able to survive in the wastes below.