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Lily Bart is both a victim of her upbringing and her society and a shaper of her own sorry destiny. In this mix lies Wharton’s realism. While being careful to show Lily as a person conditioned by her upbringing to use her beauty and charm to attract men for marriage and to marry only for money, she is also a person who is making active decisions.
On the side of social conditioning and social pressure, Lily Bart’s most immediate influence is her mother. Mrs. Bart always spent above her means, made her husband feel lowly for suggesting that she do otherwise, and considered poverty to be nothing more than poor taste. She seems to have been a rather heartless person. When her husband’s business fails, she treats him as a nonentity until he dies. She raises her daughter on the determined plan that she should use her beauty to gain wealth, something akin to prostitution. Perhaps if Lily’s family had not gone bankrupt, she would have been raised on a more muted version of these values.
Since the family business failed, Lily experienced a life of want and of the shame that her mother felt in her poverty. The society of Lily Bart’s adult years lives the values her mother taught her. People like Mrs. Trenor assume that Lily’s task as a young woman of twenty-nine is to work hard to get a rich young man to marry her, regardless of her feeling for the rich young man. When Lily fails at winning Percy Gryce, Mrs. Trenor is genuinely puzzled at Lily’s failure of will in conquering her desire to act on her feelings towards Lawrence Selden when it interferes with economic expediency.
Carrie Fisher advises Lily on several occasions to break up the Dorsets’ marriage and marry Mr. Dorset. Neither she nor Lily ever mention Lily’s feelings (or lack thereof) for Mr. Dorset. Mrs. Peniston, Lily’s benefactor, studiously keep her eyes closed to the machinations a woman in Lily’s position must put into play to get a husband. She is only concerned that Lily not engage herself in scandalous behavior. In light of these social influences, it is no wonder that Lily has trouble finding a moral grounding to rest on.
The narrative never indicates where Lily gets her rudimentary moral gumption. Often it’s more impulsive than carefully considered. For instance, when Lily has gotten Percy Gryce so close to marrying her, and she is using the fabrication that she often goes to church as the final clincher, she can’t bring herself to put on the dove gray dress and go down to meet him. Instead, she puts on a pretty dress and goes down to find Lawrence Selden. Is this a moral choice to turn away from the lie and the man whose politics are less than charitable, or is it merely an impulse to play and flirt instead of be serious? Wharton provides sound reasons for both questions. Lily has sat at the dinner the night before listening to the empty chatter of the others and noticing Lawrence Selden’s superiority to them, the attractive alternative he seems to provide to the emptiness of the others. She has spent a day with Percy Gryce and been terribly bored. She has heard him condemn divorced people and she knows that as his wife, she will be forced to ostracize them as well.
The true test of Lily’s moral strength comes at the end of the novel. She has entered into an association with Gus Trenor which her avoidance of facing moral issues squarely has kept her from recognizing for what it is. Gus Trenor gives her the impression that he is investing her small sums of money for huge returns, when in fact he is merely giving her money in a desire to get sexual favors from her and to get her to help him bring Simon Rosedale into society. Lily pays him back with her last chance at a life. She also proves her moral strength when faced with the temptation to gain power over Bertha Dorset. Mrs. Dorset has hurt her chances at marriage to Percy Gryce, she has publicly humiliated Lily, initiating her ostracism from society, and has even maneuvered to get Lily fired from her work with Mrs. Gormer. Lily can ruin Mrs. Dorset with the letters she has of hers, but she never uses them despite her dire poverty at the end of the novel.
It is Lily’s inability to sell her soul completely that keeps her from being totally determined by her upbringing. Wharton creates in Lily Bart a complex character, one whom the reader does not admire and does not condemn, but one whom the reader can understand and sympathize with.
He doesn’t have a great many scenes in the novel, but he plays a large role in the moral landscape of the novel. He could be seen as the star-crossed lover of Lily Bart, but he doesn’t fit that romantic role very well. Wharton’s commitment to realism prevents her from painting him as a romantic hero, or even as an entirely good figure. Lawrence Selden is in roughly the same economic shape as Lily Bart, but he enjoys the privileges of a man in his time. He has earning potential as a lawyer and therefore has no pressing need to marry for money. Men in his society are also not expected to be decorative as women are and therefore don’t have to spend so much money on clothes. He can live very comfortably in his apartment and he can be invited to all the same parties and social functions that Lily is invited to, but he is not under the same pressure to be charming, beautiful and entertaining.
His position on the margins of the inner circle of old rich in New York allows him a vantage point for critique while maintaining his status as an insider. In this position, he is similar to Lily, who is also an relative outsider by virtue of her lack of income. He recognizes that Lily’s job is to find a rich husband and that her method of getting one is flattery, beauty, and deceit. He doesn’t seem to judge this method at the beginning of the novel, but instead says he enjoys the spectacle. He tells Lily he likes to watch her operate, that she is a sort of artist at her job. However, he does come to judge her. It seems that even in his earlier admiration, there was some criticism of Lily’s choice to prostitute herself in the search for luxury.
Lawrence Selden has an idea that there is a small group of people who are similar in their commitment to living their lives freely and deliberately. He calls this the "republic of the spirit." He intimates that Lily would not be admitted to this republic since she sacrifice freedom for luxury; she submits to boring, stupid, small-minded people in order to gain luxury. He says rich people can seldom get into the republic and married people can seldom get into it. In this idea, Selden doesn’t take into account the privilege he enjoys as a man. Lily tries to explain it to him, but he does not seem to take her seriously. Selden does in fact stand out from the other people in the social circle of old New York rich. Lily notices it at the dinner party at the Trenors’. He is sharper and more deliberate in his choices than the other people at the table. In some sense, Lawrence Selden is in the novel as an ideologue--a person who stands for an idea--and he functions as such to show a side of Lily that her other friends do not bring out.
Like Lily Bart, Lawrence Selden’s nature has two contrary elements. On the one hand, he is fiercely committed to the idea of freedom from entanglements and on the other hand, he is attracted to the idea of living life as his parents did--people whom he admired for their allegiance to the beautiful. When he considers marrying Lily Bart, he thinks of his mother. He imagines for those moments that Lily will be like his mother, content with a few exquisite things and a life of good company and conversation. He seems to be ready to marry Lily Bart only when he thinks she needs him. He considers marrying her the first time when Gerty Farish tells him to help Lily.
Yet, when he sees Lily emerge from Gus Trenor’s townhouse and thinks she has been having sex with him, Lawrence drops her abruptly. When he hears that Lily is in trouble in Monte Carlo, he again wants to come to the rescue. The final time he wants to marry her, the desire is also based on the knight in shining armor romanticism of saving the damsel in distress. He’s too late, though. Lily has accidentally killed herself. At the Trenor’s weekend party, when the two of them took a walk together and discussed life, Lily told him he would only approach her if he knew she would refuse him. It seems that in the end, when he felt he was ready to marry her, the same situation applied.
She is a woman who is closely connected to the old wealthy families and is occasionally invited out of a sense of charity to their functions. She is Lawrence Selden without the income from his law practice and she is Lily Bart without her willingness to jump through loops to keep getting invited to social events and without Lily’s beauty. Gerty Farish is often treated as a sort of caricature in the novel. Edith Wharton saves her from such a fate at the climax of the novel when her self-effacing good-heartedness fails her and she falls for Lawrence Selden. When she realizes he doesn’t love her back, but is instead in love with Lily Bart, she begins to hate Lily. The scene of Gerty Farish taking Lily Bart in and comforting her while she is harboring such intensely negative feelings about her is rich in pathos.
It is through Gerty Farish that Edith Wharton shows the broader societal issue of women’s economic dependence and their social inferiority. She does charity work, having established an organization called the Girls’ Club. It is set up to help women of the working class when they have fallen outside the realm of societal protection. In a woman like Nettie Struthers, the reader gets an idea of what these women’s lives were like. Nettie Struthers worked in an office, was seduced by a superior, dropped by him, and left stranded alone. When she became sick, she had no resources for recovering. Gerty Farish’s organization saved her life, and, ironically, Lily Bart’s contribution was the means of doing so. Edith Wharton, thus shows that the problems Lily Bart is having in upper class New York society are paralleled in the working class.
She represents a successful Lily Bart. She recognizes all that she must do to make a living and she does so with a great deal of finesse as well as bemusement. She plays a minor role in the novel, but is quite important to the larger concerns of the novel. She shows one more position of women in the society. She is a divorced woman who must earn her living. She does so by helping people of new wealth into the social circles of those with old wealth. The life is a tenuous one, full of dangers of lost security and momentary periods of economic sufficiency. She advises Lily and tries to give her jobs. She doesn’t understand Lily’s reticence, always at the moment before success, to play the games of society. She seems genuinely surprised at Lily’s reluctance to destroy the Dorsets’ marriage in order to marry Mr. Dorset or to marry Simon Rosedale. Wharton adds an element to her character when she shows her in a quiet--and economically self-sufficient moment-- living with her daughter. Lily wonders whether Carrie Fisher wouldn’t spend all her time with her daughter living quietly like this, if she had the means to do so.