No reader of The House of Mirth forgets this scene. The Wellington Brys have given a “general entertainment” in an attempt to ensure their new and still-precarious position in New York society, and a “dozen fashionable women” have been induced to participate in a series of tableaux vivants, posing themselves after the paintings of such Old Masters as Titian and Van Dyck. Nymphs dance through a garden, lutenists gather by a fountain, and their real identities are sometimes difficult to spot beneath their costumes. But when the curtain opens on the last of them there is no mystery at all.
Joshua Reynolds’s 1775–1776 Mrs. Lloyd shows a woman in profile with her hair piled high, carving her husband’s name on a tree and dressed in an ivory robe that looks diaphanously loose and provocatively clinging at once. Its representation makes all New York gasp, and not only at its loveliness. The woman who has chosen it may “embody” Reynolds’s work but she has also banished “the phantom of his dead beauty by the beams of her living grace.” Nobody in that ballroom thinks of Joanna Lloyd at all, for the picture before them is “simply and undisguisedly the portrait” of Lily Bart. Edith Wharton’s heroine has in effect come as herself:
The impulse to show herself in a splendid setting—she had thought for a moment of representing Tiepolo’s Cleopatra—had yielded to the truer instinct of trusting to her unassisted beauty, and she had purposely chosen a picture without distracting accessories of dress or surroundings. Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm.
This great scene about a scene occurs just before the novel’s midpoint, and marks the height of Lily’s social triumph; her fall will begin the next day. Yet who is she? And what can this moment tell us about The House of Mirth as a whole? Wharton’s description of the tableau as “the portrait of Miss Bart” looks like an allusion to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881), but another and earlier novel seems more on her mind here. The predecessor for this incident is surely the chapter devoted to charades in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–1848), a chapter in which Becky Sharpe mimes out the murder of her own husband. Becky too will reach an indecent height in acting out this image of her own desires; and she will immediately stumble as well. Lily stands halfway between Thackeray’s heroine and James’s Isabel Archer. She has too many scruples to be an adventuress, and too few to remain above suspicion.
Watching her at the Brys’, Lily’s childhood friend Gerty Farish says in her dull sincerity that the dress makes her “look like the real Lily—the Lily I know.” To her the moment has allowed Lily to reveal a radiant inner beauty. Other spectators see something different. Lily has no protecting husband’s name to write, and as the men get their coats at the end of the evening they talk of her with locker-room appreciation. “What’s a woman want with jewels when she’s got herself to show?” says the old rake Ned Van Alstyne, adding that “I never knew till tonight what an outline Lily has.” The outline her costume makes especially clear is that of her legs: the robe in Reynolds’s portrait models each limb separately, from the thigh to the ankle, and with a triangular fold of the cloth bunched between them.
Her posture announces that she is herself as a work of art. She stands on display, showing what she has, and the moment at which she is most herself is also the one in which she most becomes a thing, an object consumed by those eyes, and consumed perhaps in other ways as well. For art is often sold. Lily has here turned herself into a commodity, and poses as if she’s up for auction. The scene works to literalize the idea of the marriage market, the market of which she speaks in the book’s first chapter, over a fatally innocent cup of tea with the lawyer Lawrence Selden.
Lily is twenty-nine when the novel begins and though her beauty has lasted she has also known eleven years of late nights and hard dancing. Her friends, she says, “are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry.” That’s what she’s “been brought up for,” in Selden’s words, and it ought to be her “vocation.” Yet though Lily has no money of her own she nevertheless defines herself as “very expensive” indeed, and in several different ways. She means not only that she has expensive tastes, but also that she has cost a lot to make; and she means too that any potential husband must be ready to pay for her with dresses and carriages and houses. In order to attract such a man she must, however, be seen to be worth having, and that too is expensive, for “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself.” Lily must consume conspicuously in order to be conspicuously consumed, in order to figure, as Thorstein Veblen put it in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), as an emblem of a man’s ability to pay.
Wharton and Veblen are often now read together, as if each were the other’s perfect illustration, and indeed one of the things that makes The House of Mirth so rewarding to read and to think about is that it touches in so many ways upon the intellectual currents of its day. To say that isn’t in any way to deny its artistic power, Wharton’s ability to make her readers care deeply about Lily’s fate. It does, however, invite us to look at the terms of that fate—to ask what forces have shaped Wharton’s understanding of her heroine. Lily’s appearance at the tableaux vivants contains a paradox. It may put her on the market, but it also celebrates the self, suggesting a countervailing desire to stand alone, free and self-determined. Indeed, that rare individuality ought if anything to increase her value. A conversation with Gerty Farish some chapters later, however, shows just how impossible that dream of autonomy must prove. In trying to rescue her from social disgrace Gerty asks Lily to tell her story, from the beginning, and though her reply is playfully ironic her words nevertheless define the limits of her freedom. “Why, the beginning was in my cradle,” she says, “in the way I was brought up and the things I was taught to care for. Or no, I won’t blame anybody for my faults; I’ll say it was in my blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress…”
For readers of Wharton’s day Lily’s words would have linked both the novel and its heroine to a particular strand of contemporary fiction, one associated above all with the French writer Émile Zola. His characters have had their lives determined by the grinding interplay between their heredity and their environment; their individual efforts, in such books as Nana (1880) or Germinal (1885), have virtually nothing to do with their fates. They are instead the victims or beneficiaries of the enormous impersonal forces around them, a vision of the world that goes by the name of “naturalism.”
Naturalism insists that we live in a mechanistic universe, without anything approaching the freedom of choice that James’s characters believe is their birthright. We are creatures of instinct rather than bearers of consciousness, and always subject to the inescapable laws of an indifferent world. But while many naturalists concentrated on the life of the poor, Wharton herself discovered that she could use what she had learned from Zola to define a milieu that, however well-clothed, remains as remorseless as a blast furnace. Her upper-class characters have a jackal-like urge toward self-preservation; Bertha Dorset will show no hesitation at all in impugning Lily’s reputation in order to mask her own adultery. The social law these characters can least afford to break is that of appearances, and in trying to maintain the carefully rouged illusion of a blameless façade they will almost all prove ruthless.
Almost all. Lily is in many ways as shallow as her friends, as devoted to the rituals of couture and cards and as narrow in her prejudices, and yet she cannot quite imagine the full degree of other peoples’ duplicity, or finally allow herself to be so dishonest. It saves her; and it kills her. She wants to believe that there’s a better world than the one she lives in. That’s why at the start of the novel she fails to do what she knows she should, and marry dim rich Percy Gryce. She’s planned to do it—only need the boredom start so soon? Can’t she first have another walk with the charming Lawrence Selden, even if he’s too poor and frightened to marry her himself? Carry Fisher, who as a divorcee is allowed the freedom to speak her mind, says that she sometimes chalks up Lily’s failures to her “flightiness, and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”
But there is no better world, not here, and late in the novel Wharton will describe her character’s fate in terms that recall not Zola so much as Darwin. Lily has missed a hoped-for inheritance, she has sunk down through three tiers of New York society, and she has finally attempted and failed to earn her own living. For the combination of heredity and early training have made her:
…an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose leaf and paint the humming-bird’s breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?
By this point Lily knows that she ought to blackmail Bertha Dorset; it is the one way in which she might retrieve her social position. She won’t let herself do it, though, not because it’s wrong but because it doesn’t match her self-conception. It doesn’t fit the image she had created at the Wellington Brys’. On that night she stood as the finest product of her world, an embodiment of a grace and beauty that wasn’t merely physical, though it was that too. But that grace is a mirage. No one in Lily’s New York acts up to it, even or especially if they profess to believe in it, and her very fineness has made her unfit, like a bird whose elegant beak can no longer crack open the seeds she needs to survive.
In writing Wharton tried a couple of different working titles, at one point calling the book “A Moment’s Ornament” and at another “The Year of the Rose.” The title she eventually chose at first looks like an odd one for a book in which all laughter rings hollow and a trap seems to close around its heroine with each progressive page. Knowing its source makes its burden clear, however, and suggests that Wharton wants us to look beyond the character and toward her society as a whole. The words come from the book of Ecclesiastes, that most scouring of Old Testament prophets, whose second verse announces that “all is vanity.” Thackeray knew it well. Wharton found her own title in the book’s seventh chapter, where we are told that “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Those words amount to an indictment of the world she describes, and many of the novel’s first reviewers echoed its charge. They all admired the panache of the writing and most of them maintained their sympathy for Lily herself. But “as for the society in which she moves,” wrote Mary Moss in the Atlantic Monthly, “Wharton has no colors too black, no acid too biting for its unredeemed odiousness and vulgarity.” The anonymous critic in The Nation went even further, and argued that Lily’s milieu, whose denizens have “neither wit nor humor nor tact nor grace…is utterly unsuitable for conversion into literature.” All naturalists faced such charges, which in essence asked, How one could possibly make something enduring out of the sordid and the trivial?
The critics had said much worse of Zola, and perhaps the best answer, and the clearest statement of her purpose, belongs to Wharton herself. Writing almost thirty years later in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), she said that in trying to give her material some “deeper bearing” she had realized that a “frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” That is what happens to Lily Bart, and for a century and more readers have found an awful fascination in watching her, from her first appearance “in the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station” to the bottle of chloral that awaits her at the end.
A version of this essay will appear as the afterword to the new Signet Classics edition of The House of Mirth, to be published in October.