The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton
Summary

Chapters 10-12

Summary Chapters 10-12

Commentary

We see once again, at the beginning of Chapter Ten, that money gives Lily a sense of freedom from her other obligations, but unfortunately, Lily can never hold on to money for very long. One of the motifs of this novel is the meaning of financial wealth. Money is in fact a symbol in the novel, but it stands for different things to different people. To Lily, money represents freedom from her tedious obligations and the ability to live life however she wants. To Selden, who grew up in a humble family, money is not as important as the enjoyment of life and happiness in relationships. Selden, who always plays the outside observer to the social world, has seen that money is coveted and can lead people to some very serious problems if they deal with it carelessly in hopes of making more (particularly by gambling). It is, after all, her lust for money that leads Lily to gamble and speculate on Wall Street, both of which lead to her financial ruin and expulsion from society.

By this point in the novel, it is clear that Trenor has a romantic interest in Lily. When Lily asked him to invest for her, he hoped that Lily reciprocated that interest, but he is slowly realizing that she is not interested in him except as a tool by which she can make money. Trenor is one of the more interesting characters in the novel because of his rash anger that leads him to lose his temper. He is obviously very lonely and unhappy with his marriage to Judy Trenor, and he is trying to find companionship in his otherwise-loveless life.

The Bry fashion show presents an interesting question of reality. Lily's pose in the tableaux vivants is virtually perfect; everyone admires her as if she were a beautiful work of art to be studied. Lily in costume is wearing her finest dress and looks her best, which are signs of wealth and social prestige. However, outside of this aristocratic imaginary world, Lily does not always look beautiful, she is not flawless, and she is seldom admired by everyone in high society. The real Lily is "detached," as the narrator says, from her image in the show. The Lily of the masquerade, moreover, becomes a symbol for what Lily aspires to be.

At the same time, however, we must take into account the role of acting in the novel, which comes up continuously. Keep in mind that no one at the dinner parties lets his or her "true self" emerge. Everyone is acting to create a guise that will make others esteem them more. Thus, the Lily we see at the parties, like the Lily in the tableaux vivants, is a false representation of reality that does not accurately describe the truth. Indeed, all Lily's decisions are based on how people will perceive her, as though she were always calculating the ideal way to make herself more popular. One of the problems the novel addresses is the role of the true self; what is Lily's true personality? One of her only real gut instincts is her hatred of "dinginess" she inherited from her mother; much of her acting is solely designed to avoid that dinginess, but at the same time Lily must always live according to the rules of society. In keeping with the slavery-versus-freedom motif, Lily is a slave to acting a part that will make her liked.