The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

Lily Bart is befriending the Dorsets in hopes that she can "make use" of her enemy, Bertha Dorset. She spends time talking with Dorset, which is easier than dealing with the rude and aggressive Trenor.

Trenor has lost money in the stock market. Lily worries that Judy Trenor, who suddenly seems less friendly to her, may have heard about Lily's flirtation with her husband, Gus.

At Carry Fisher's urging, Lily helps the nouveau riche Wellington Brys throw a party where women volunteer to recreate famous scenes of art or history. These scenes, called tableaux vivant, are admired by the wealthy guests at the party, among them Selden and Gerty Farish, whom Lily has invited. Gerty tells her cousin Selden that Lily has donated money to her Girls Club, and has visited the girls there, too. Gerty says the girls there admired Lily and Lily behaved nicely with the girls. Lily was not condescending and did not act "as if she were being charitable."

The tableaux ("a superior kind of wax-works") are scenes from famous paintings, and someone has helped the women choose characters who match them. Carry Fisher is a Goya painting, someone else a Titian, others are Kauffmann nymphs garlanding the altar of Love. Lily has dressed as Mrs. Lloyd from Sir Joshua Reynolds' 1776 painting, and everyone in the audience gasps at her beauty.

Some people are shocked by Lily's boldness in showing so much of her body, but Selden admires her. He walks outside with her and tells her he loves her. They kiss, and Lily tells Selden to love her "but don't tell me so."

Analysis

Many critics have written about the tableaux vivant scene; most consider it the climax of the novel. In her tableau vivant, Lily Bart imitates a painting of a woman in a transparent gown, like a wood nymph, carving her husband's name into a tree. The scene itself contains a paradox: as she stands there, alone and uncovered pretending to be in a natural setting, Lily celebrates the individual outside of society. However in performing the tableau vivant Lily is more clearly than ever on the marriage market, making her body into something to gaze at and eventually buy through marriage. In the tableau vivant, Lily has also completely silenced herself; if she "speaks" in this scene at all, it is entirely through her static body: she has made herself into an ornament.

Her ultimate failure in capturing a mate is suggested by Wharton's comment that Lily had "shown her artistic intelligence in selecting a type so like herself that she could embody the person represented without ceasing to be herself." Men may want what Lily represents—luxury, beauty, class—but they certainly do not want her.

The tableau is also full of artistic imitation: Lily imitating Mrs. Lloyd imitating a wood nymph; Lily imitating a painting of someone pretending to write. This novel contains both a critique of the way men represent women—as beautiful, silent objects to gaze at—and a satire of the male tradition that had not created a language for female artists to use. Some critics see the entire novel as a picture of the growth of Lily into an artist. Whether readers agree with this interpretation, they can see that at the moment that Lily is most fully transformed, she is most exposed.

Much of this about Lily we already know. The chapter may therefore be more revelatory in its depiction of the male characters' reactions. Selden thinks he is seeing the real Lily Bart for the first time, "divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part." Gerty also says the simple dress "makes her look like the real Lily—the Lily I know," which brings up the question: Who is the real Lily? In this social world of artifice and lies, how can Lily even know who she "really" is? Ned Van Alstyne responds to Lily's presentation in a lascivious way: "Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up, but gad, there isn't a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!" Gus Trenor, who feels the claims of ownership, calls it "Damned bad taste."

In the light of these reactions, Selden's desire to connect physically with Lily may demonstrate his ability to see her for who she really is, or it could be interpreted as his longing to save her from common, base desire. Regardless, Lily's rejection of him shows that she is not able to make the transformation from art to reality.

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