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Themes

The Safety of Love and Death

In The House of Mirth, Wharton presents love and death as the only two safe places for a woman to be. Lily especially subscribes to this theory, feeling hounded by her debts and financial woes and surrounded by loveless marriages. Love or death seem to be the only possibilities for salvation. In Book Two, Lily finds herself at a crossroads—either she can choose love, marry Selden, and find happiness without wealth; or she will find rest in the finality of death. Lily’s obsession with wealth and luxury continually prevents her from acknowledging and accepting Selden’s love, and so the safety love can offer is not a viable choice for her. She is left with death as her only option.

The Uncivilization of Manners

The social expectation of politeness, good manners, and the acting required to maintain a constant façade of enjoying one another’s company dominate all of the parties and interactions between the members of the elite circles in The House of Mirth. Lily recognizes the difference between a conversation she has with Selden, where they are both real and sometimes less-than-flattering in the honesty of their responses, and the acting she does with Mrs. Trenor and the other socialites, where they focus solely on gossip and pretense and are constantly calculating in order to manipulate one another. The artificiality of the good manners of the “most civilized” characters in the novel demonstrates just how bad their manners actually are. Lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, spreading rumors, and generally being hurtful and mean are common occurrences within this circle. Lily recognizes this, and at times she longs for the honesty and realness of her relationship with Selden. However, she isn’t able to detach herself from her desire for wealth, which demands that she continue to play the same manipulative game as the other socialites in order to get what she wants.

Freedom vs. Slavery

Lily’s relationship with money is obviously fraught with tension and drama, and she often describes the relationship in terms of freedom and slavery. When she has money and is able to pay her debts, she feels a sense of unparalleled freedom. But when the money is gone and her debts overwhelm her, she likens her situation to that of slavery—she is a slave to the whims and desires of others, a slave to the social demands of the upper-class circles, and a slave to her own inability to be happy without money. The idea of freedom and slavery also fits the different roles of the sexes. Percy Gryce, a wealthy, eccentric young bachelor, has large amounts of freedom, simply by virtue of his being a man. As a young woman, especially one without great wealth, Lily can never live the life of Selden or Gryce, and instead she must find a match that will ensure her protection and security. She will never have the freedom that the men have.

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What two life states does Wharton present as the only safe places for a woman?
Solitude and death
Love and death
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