This book was fantastic. The subtleties of human emotion and social interaction that Wharton captured were really breathtaking for me. I sympathized with Lily Bart from the beginning, despite her materialism and privilege, because she was so vibrant and talented. (Albeit at manipulating people…)
The most fascinating aspect of the novel, for me, was its continual discourse on class and social convention. Throughout the book, Lily presents nuanced and usually contradictory theories on the society in which she lives. She covets wealth and luxury, yet refuses to marry in order to gain them. She falls in love, but similarly refuses to yield to that desire. As she eloquently explains her view on high society: “I’m sick to death of it! And yet the thought of giving it all up nearly kills me…” (349). The character of Seldon similarly finds himself caught between these two convictions:
“It was pitiable that he, who knew the mixed motives on which social judgments depend, should still feel himself so swayed by them. How could he lift Lily to a freer vision of life, if his own view of her was to be coloured by any mind in which he saw her reflected?” (206)
Both characters struggle against their almost involuntary dependence on the approval of their social group, despite the understanding that such judgment is based neither on merit nor truth. The book forces the reader to confront the question: Is this need for approval frivolous or characteristic of the human condition? If human beings are social creatures, does that mean the need to be liked and approved of are natural instincts? Or merely desires of the ego?
Lily is perpetually caught between her distaste for superficial social traditions and her inability to exist in any other world. She can’t stand being rejected by the very society that she refuses to align herself with through an “advantageous” marriage. Addicted to wealth and beauty, she yet refuses to sacrifice other kinds of happiness for them, even if she remains unable to identify just what other kinds of happiness there are. She realizes that she is no more than “some superfine human merchandise” (334) to the men of her social group and that “where a woman is concerned,” the truth is “the story that’s easiest to believe” (293). And yet even knowing this, she is unable to break away and create another kind of life for herself. This seems to be the real tragedy: her inability both to accept and to escape the only lifestyle she has ever known.
(I loved Seldon’s reaction to hearing Lily’s beauty lightly and crudely discussed by older men of their group. He asks himself indignantly, “Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda?” (174) I also loved the repeated allusions to the Oresteia as Lily begins to find herself in trouble. The beating of the furies’ wings follows her as a symbol of her inability to escape from the social mess she has made of her life.)