A Mole in the House of the Modern

Edith Wharton’s passion for architecture was foundational, evidenced by her very first book, The Decoration of Houses, a work of notification. Wharton disdained the merely decorative in rooms and buildings, as she disdained it in her fiction. Her writing is severe, deliberate in its attacks and restraints, and lives in every detail and in the structure. Wharton’s novels and stories move from small moments to big ones (she manages to merge the two), from openness of opportunity and hope, to inhibition and tragic limitation, from life’s transitory pleasures and possibilities, to its dull and sharp pains and immobilizations. Traps and entrapment, psychological and societal, life’s dead ends become the anxious terminals for Wharton’s literary search for freedom and pleasure. (In her book, pleasure is freedom’s affect.)

The architect Wharton is always conscious of the larger structure, with her meaning central in each scene. She meticulously furnishes a room, so that all the pieces and lines in it function as emotional or psychological props, conditions or obstacles. Like cages or containers, her interiors keep characters in a place, often an internalized place. They enter rooms, meet, sit, talk, then Wharton lets them find the walls, the limits. She observes them in houses or on the street in chance meetings, and they fix each other—the gaze is her métier—to a moment in time, to a truth (about 324 the other or themselves), to a seat in the social theater. Everything that happens with effect, building her edifice. Wharton selected her words with a scalpel, as if with or without them her patient would live, die; she was precise in her renderings, otherwise the construction might fall, and other such metaphors. Her writing is never labored, though. Yet nothing’s simple, or simply an object, and never just an ornament. The ornament is redolent and may even be causal. (Think of “The Bunner Sisters,” thse poor women whose fate hung on the repair of a timepiece. A twisted tale, but then Wharton is perverse, and sophisticated and surprising in her perverseness.)

Wharton’s stately, measured rhythms let the reader linger over a sentence, then move along languidly. One may be stopped dead by some piece of psychological astuteness, a blunt idea by brutal clarity, or staggered by an almost excessive, because perfect, image. Slowly, Wharton draws beautiful portraits, deceptive pictures. (I sometimes wonder if Wharton ever felt rushed by anything, then I remember Morton Fullerton and her love letters to him, that rush late in her life). Beautiful language serves—like tea, an elegant service—ironic and difficult ends. It lures one into a network of sinister complications and, transformed, beauty leads to dreariness and viciousness. The reader will be torn by the loss of that plenitude, by failure, by hopelessness.

But Wharton is economical about elegance, stringent about lushness, display, every embellishment. Rarely extravagant. Maybe it’s because she understood position and space, knew she didn’t really have much room, no room for profligacy. She couldn’t run from reality, even if she wanted to (and I think she did), so she 325 had no room to waste, certainly no words to waste. The inessential might obscure the clarity she sought. She wouldn’t let herself go, let her writing go. She understood the danger, she understood any form of complicity. Her often privileged protagonists fatally conspire with society against themselves, become common prey to its dictates, helpless to disown or resist what they despise in themselves and in it. Wharton was profoundly aware that, seen by others, she was free to do what she pleased, a privileged woman, perhaps explained early on in The House of Mirth. Lily Bart “was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (I, 1, 8).


I have sometimes thought that a women’s nature is like a great house full of rooms; there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a doorstep that never comes. —The Fullness of Life (1891)

In Wharton’s scheme, Lily Bart’s fate was to be beautiful, to become poor and unmarriageable, and to die a suicide, a tragic heroine. Like bread crumbs, Wharton scatters clues to Lily’s predicament. “[S]he likes being good and I like being happy,” Lily says 326 of poor Gerty Farish to Lawrence Selden. Some of the clues correspond to Selden’s grand idea, proposed once to Lily, that there is a “republic of the spirit” she might enter. Lily’s conflict—her wish for freedom but her sense “that I never had any choice”— conspires to keep her from the independent or idiosyncratic life Selden represents. (His republic of the spirit is an imaginary structure, perhaps the house of mirth itself.)

Wharton’s use of architecture operates in the traditional way—as built structure, as expression of the symbolic order, as place, as evidence of the hierarchical order—but it is exercised for fictive ends. The novel begins in a terminal, Grand Central Station, and terminates in a rented room. The “house” is first a capacious, modern public building, a place anyone may enter and pass through, and last a cramped space open to the public but required only by the poor. Lily journeys, like Richard II, from bigness to smallness, from a magnificent building that seems infinite— kingdom, modern world—to small rented room of desperate finitude—cell, deathbed. Space and place change with Lily Bart, or change her.


Lawrence Selden makes Lily happy or sad whenever they meet. It is Selden whom Lily encounters by chance in Grand Central Station, and it’s Selden who finds Lily dead at the novel’s end. His presence frames Lily’s life, ghosts and subverts it, as the rooms, scenes and encounters Wharton sets Lily in structure it. What the reader knows of Lily’s thoughts about her impossible position is gleaned primarily in her discussions with Selden, her foil and confidante. Selden is a fitting comrade, a modern flawed hero or antihero. He arouses the dubious sprite fortune and its reversals, and with its partner hope and possibility, plagues Lily. No one underwrites Lily’s placelessness, or lovelessness, more than Selden.

Wharton had a keen interest in ghost stores and the supernatural, and Selden flits through The House of Mirth as if it were a Gothic tale and he were its elusive hero. Selden is a haunted and haunting figure who magnifies Lily’s unfitness and increasing inappropriateness whenever he appears. Her double in drag, he even impedes her so-called progress with other suitors, fulfilling his double-agent, phantom-lover mission as the budding star in a magnificent sense of plot points. His last appearance at Lily’s bedside makes her death more pointedly tragic and beautiful, since we see her through his shattered vision. At that deadly moment Selden becomes a character—or an ornament—Wharton might have borrowed from Poe.

The House of Mirth was originally titled “A Moment’s Ornament.” Lily Bart could have been its temporary decoration. Though from Lily’s point of view, the occasional ornament could have been Selden. But then Wharton enjoyed symmetries. Her house, the Mount in Lenox Massachusetts, which she designed and had built, has three front doors, one of them fake; Wharton wanted the façade to be symmetrical. Selden is symmetrical to Lily and does balance her even as he unbalances her. (Symmetry to Wharton, “the answering of one part to another, may be defined as the sanity of decoration” [Decoration, 7].) The uncoupled couple, the two-faced couple, articulates Wharton’s comprehension of how 328 women’s changed, conflictual desires are met by changed, conflicted men. Both are, in a way, misfits, though Selden’s eccentricity and inappropriateness, including his bachelorhood, have value while Lily’s spinsterhood and virginity daily lose theirs.


Wharton’s enclosures house conflicts and conflicted characters, created not just by ordinary walls. The author constructs walls, limits, that are both real and metaphorical. Wharton’s central and most sustained trope, architecture always alludes to Lily’s physical or mental space, her environment or psychological condition. The decor—couches, paintings, fireplaces, bric-a-brac—becomes evidence of the state in which she exists or of the character of the characters she meets.

[Mrs Dorset] could have been crumpled up and run through a ring, like the sinuous draperies she affected. . . . she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room. (I, 2, 21-2)

There was nothing new to Lily in these tokens of a studied luxury; but though they formed a part of her atmosphere, she never lost her sensitiveness to their charm. Mere display left her with a sense of superior distinction, but she felt an affinity to all the subtler manifestations of wealth. (I, 4, 34)

Look at a boy like Ned Silverton—he’s really too good to be used to refurbish anybody’s social shabbiness. (I, 6, 56-7)

The exterior suggests the interior or, rather, is the manifestation, the visible order, of an inner world.

Since architecture also defines space by what is not built and what lies outside, the trope allows Wharton to delineate the unbounded, permeable relationship between outside and inside, the flow and inevitable transmission between the so-called inner life and outer life. Lily contends with the limits of public life and space, with propriety and sensibility, with street life, the places without walls that are bounded and limited, to women.

All good architecture and good decoration (which it must never be forgotten is only interior architecture) must be based on rhythm and logic. (Decoration, 13)

For Lily Bart, leaving rooms and being on the street is hazardous; it’s when many of her most devastating and decisive encounters occur. Leaving Selden’s apartment, she accidentally meets Mr. Rosedale in front of the Benedick (bachelor) Apartments. She tells a lie that propels the novel’s story—and her undoing— into motion. Lily instantly realizes her error. (Rosedale’s appearance has been foreshadowed by an unkempt charwoman on the Benedick stairs, who unsettles Lily and with whom Lily compares herself. The charwoman also returns to plague her, blackmail her.)

Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? (I, 2, 19)

Her comings and goings are not easy; she doesn’t make smooth exits; and there are certainly no escapes.

Ironically, Lily identifies with the man who can undo her, Simon Rosedale, a noveau riche Jewish businessman initially sketched by Wharton with the brush of conventional anti-Semitism. He is, like Lily, “a novelty” (I, 2, 16). She “understood his motives, for her own course was guided by nice calculations” (I, 2, 16). Within a very few pages, Wharton serves up two male characters, dissimilar to each other and to her, as well as a dissimilar female, against whom to judge Lily. All balance our view of her, creating a kind of symmetry or the rhythm and logic fundamental to Wharton’s idea of design in architecture and fiction.

Later in the novel, “as [Selden and Van Alstyne] walked down Fifth Avenue [to Mrs. Fisher’s] the new architectural developments of that versatile thoroughfare invited Van Alstyne’s comments” (I,14,126). (Wharton may be commenting upon her techniques for outlining the “redundant” manners and modes she must contend with in society and in constructing, “corseting,” her fictions.) Then Van Alstyne remarks about Mrs. Bry’s architect: 

What a clever chap . . . how he takes his client’s measure! (1, 14, 126)

Architecture, to Wharton’s thinking, can reveal the whole of a character. When Van Alstyne and Selden reach the Trenor house, Van Alstyne reports it’s empty and remarks offhandedly that Mrs. Trenor is away.

The house loomed obscure and uninhabited, only an oblong gleam above the door spoke of provisional occupancy. (I, 14, 127)

At this moment, whose consequences also loom obscure, Lily is discovered in the doorway with Gus Trenor. She has just fought him off and is leaving. Her provisional presence, not inside, not outside, endangers her. Compromised, in the wrong place at the wrong time, seen by Selden, whose heart has recently turned more decisively toward her, and by her relative, Van Alstyne, her fortune is immediately reversed. But her name is never used; she has entered the realm of the unspeakable.

Wharton deploys a discourse on houses, about how an architect (maker/writer) can expose the character of the persons whose house he designs, to position Lily. When she appears in a place where she should not be, her presence there says something about her. Though this was not her design, many of the things Lily does are designed, and many that appear designing and manipulative are not. Ineluctably, Lily becomes ensnared in patterns not of her making that are not provisional enough.


To conform to a style, then, is to accept those rules of proportion which the artistic experience of centuries has established as the best, while within those limits allowing free scope to the individual requirements which must inevitably modify every house or room adapted to the use and convenience of its occupants. (Decoration, 15)

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. (Writing, 17) (2)

The distrust of technique and the fear of being unoriginal—both symptoms of a certain lack of creative abundance—are in truth leading to pure anarchy in fiction. (Writing, 15)

In The Decoration of Houses (1897) and The Writing of Fiction (1924), Wharton argues for conformity to style and tradition against originality for its own sake. The rhythm and logic of the past must be observed or at least taken into account and regarded, if not entirely followed. Wharton even claims that stream of consciousness and slice of life are the same idea; stream of consciousness is slice of life “relabeled” (Writing, 12). Her aesthetics and views on morality and convention form the underlying arguments in the novel and contain within them the seeds of conflict planted and harvested in Lily Bart.

Enshrined in Lily is a contest between new and old, tradition, innovation and the hazards of change. On the first page of the novel, Wharton efficiently marks her territory when Selden thinks to himself: “There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest” (I, 1, 5). To him she was so “radiant” she was “more conspicuous than a ballroom” (I, 1, 5). (The scale is striking, so disproportionate.) But not bold enough or too principled to marry for money and live any way she chooses, she cannot strike out on her own and exist on her meager income, like Gerty Farish. She is not a new woman. Wharton does not allow her a wholly new manner, which the author disdains, but she also does not provide Lily with vision for a new life.

(Lily is more like a new woman manqué. It’s as if Wharton invented her to put on trial and test her principle of “conform[ing] to a style . . . [that] artistic experience of centuries has established as the best, while within those limits allowing free scope to the individual requirements.” How one holds to tradition and style and discovers within them “free scope” is at the crux of Wharton’s contradictory, ongoing argument with the modernists and the social order.)

Lily contains within her traces and pieces of the old order and longings for the new. Wharton drops Lily between the two worlds, on the frontier, where no place is home or safe. Habitually, Lily pays the price for not being able to realize a new way and for needing the largesse of others whom she despises or for whom she has contempt.

That cheap originality which finds expression in putting things to uses for which they were not intended is often confounded with individuality. Whereas the latter consists not in an attempt to be different from other people at the cost of comfort, but in the desire to be comfortable in one’s own way, even though it be the way of a monotonously large majority. It seems easier to most people to arrange a room like someone else’s than to analyze and express their own needs. (Decoration, 19-20)

Lily’s difference from the “monotonously large majority” hangs her on a cross constructed from an opposition between novelty and individuality. She feels superior and wants to discover and “express [her] own needs,” as Selden does. She must find a way to “use” herself, not as a “cheap experiment” but in the intended way. But there is no intended way, not for her.


Men, in these matters, are less exacting than women, because their demands, besides being simpler, are uncomplicated by the feminine tendency to want things because other people have them, rather than to have things because they are wanted. But it must never be forgotten that everyone is unconsciously tyrannized over by the wants of others.

. . . The unsatisfactory relations of some people with their rooms are often to be explained in this way. They have still in their blood the traditional uses to which these rooms were put in times quite different from the present. . . . To go to the opposite extreme and discard things because they are old-fashioned is equally unreasonable. (Decoration, 19-20)

Desire is a strange brew, Wharton knew, concocted of the desires of others. Her psychological acumen suffuses The House of Mirth, in which Lily is “unconsciously tyrannized over by the wants of others.” Lily has “in her blood” the uses for which she was made but is unwilling to go to “the opposite extreme” and “discard things” because they are “old-fashioned.”

Once more the haunting sense of physical ugliness was intensified by her mental depression, so that each piece of the offending furniture seemed to thrust forth its most aggressive angle. (I, 9, 86)

Lily does want to get rid of ugly things. The effects of physical ugliness—disproportion—and mental depression intermingle in her. Their symmetry or dissymmetry serves Wharton’s notion of the interior as inextricable from the exterior. Lily’s internal conflicts are displayed in the outer world, where she is a beautiful but tormented trophy in its display case. Her inner struggles show themselves as much by what she does not do as by what she does. 

It must be pure bliss to arrange the furniture just as one likes, and give all the horrors to the Ashman. If I could only do over my aunt’s drawing room I know I should be a better woman. (I, 1, 8)

Lily’s longing to clean out her aunt’s room is a wish to change herself, to throw out her own horrors. In a better room, she might become better—setting and place affect character. But Lily can’t throw out the horrors, she cannot change the conditions in which she lives that have made her the kind of woman she is. When she strikes out against convention or her interests, by spending time with Selden and avoiding her rich, boring suitor, Percy Gryce, her revolt takes the shape of inaction, temporizing. She may want to remove horrors but she does not act or cannot. Cleaning her aunt’s room of horrors could also be another clever reference to the Gothic, but from the Gothic, which preceded Freud, with its insistence on the darkness in human beings and the cauldron of murky, unconscious desires that drive behavior, other ideas march in. They enter through a side door—call it the unarticulated or the unconscious—of Wharton’s subtle fiction.


. . . she was not meant for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury, it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. But the luxury of others was not what she wanted.

. . . Now she was beginning to chafe at the obligations it imposed, to feel herself a mere pensioner on the splendor which had once seemed to belong to her. There were even moments when she was conscious of having to pay her way. (I, 3 23)

Lily pays by being charming and by trying to keep her reputation intact. A twentieth-century Clarissa, who even fights off a rape, Lily’s chastity is a series of questions. Purity? Property? Repression? Inhibition? Architecture is, among other things, about bodies living within structures built for bodies by bodies. Lily is subject, even prey, to assaults within two kinds of structures—external or social and internal or psychological. The exterior holds, conditions and is manifested in the interior, interiority inhabited and penetrated by the social. (If houses and ornaments are mated, psychologies are married to societies.)

She had always hated her room at Mrs. Peniston’s—its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers. To a torn heart uncomforted by human nearness a room may open almost human arms, and the being to whom no four walls mean more than any others, is, at such hours, expatriate everywhere. (I, 1 5, 118)

She had tried to mitigate this charmless background by a few frivolous touches . . . but the futility of the attempt struck her as she looked about the room. What a contrast to the subtle elegance of the setting she had pictured for herself—an apartment which should surpass the complicated luxury of her friends’ surroundings by the whole extent of that artistic sensibility which made herself feel their superior. (I, 9, 86)

Lily wants her accommodations to fit her sense of superiority. But they usually don’t. She may even want a house or room, with its “almost human arms,” more than a man and marriage, a desire for which society traditionally punishes women. Living at her aunt’s, Mrs. Peniston—penal, penurious, penis—Lily must sleep and dream in a bedroom that’s “as dreary as a prison” (I, 9, 86). Since Wharton’s prisons are real spaces and metaphors, Lily’s mind and body are trapped not only in dreary rooms but also in the society whose customs shape her.


The survival of obsolete customs in architecture, which makes the study of sociology so interesting, has its parallel in the history of architecture. (Decoration, 5)

Excremental things are all too intimately and inseparably bound up with sexual things . . .The genitals themselves have not undergone the development of the rest of the human form in the direction of beauty; they have retained their animal cast; and so even today love, too, is in essence as animal as it ever was. (3)

Sigmund Freud and Edith Wharton were contemporaries. They lived during approximately the same years, Freud from 1856 to 1939, Wharton 1866 to 1937. Freud was as interested in archaeology as Wharton was in architecture; it was foundational for his thought. He mined it for metaphors and used it as analogues to human psychology. Wharton obviously had an interest in psychology, though it’s unlikely she read Freud. She was aware of him as every educated person would have been then, and wrote in a letter to Bernard Berenson, “Please ask Mary not to befuddle her with Freudianism and all its jargon.”(4) Though she eschewed Freud’s “jargon,” Wharton understood the terms, the ground on which she built her characters. Wharton had a sophisticated understanding of psychology, and her treatment and development of Lily Bart shows her exploring some issues that Freud did. Differently, of course.

Beneath the customs of society lie what the Gothic, and ghost stories, point to: human anxieties and fears, needs and motives drive by desires and instincts not governable by reason. The vicissitudes of sex and sexuality, duty and morality, wreak havoc on Wharton’s characters, whether in this novel, The Age of Innocence, or Madame de Treymes. Wharton is the poet of oppression and repression, and attending to her project, she presents Lily with obstacles. Freud might call them neuroses. Whatever one calls them, “things” are in the way of Lily Bart’s ability to thrive.

The preciousness of Lily’s reputation reflects the irrational foundations of her world. Taboos about virginity mark both so-called primitive and civilized societies. They mask, Freud theorized, universal human fears about female sexuality and sexuality itself. Wharton’s female characters dwell and flail about in a troubled, transitional period (a very long moment that continues to the present). Like Freud, Wharton was nurtured in a Victorian culture and then lived on into a newer, modern world. Like him, she studied the psychological effects on people resistant to, and transformed by, great cultural and social changes. (In The Mother’s Recompense, the mother flees her marriage, abandons her young daughter for her lover. Years later, the daughter whom she hasn’t seen since she ran away, will become engaged to that same man. It’s a cautionary Oedipal tale about what can happen if women chase after their desires. When the social order is overturned, duty and obligation ignored for siren freedom, Wharton intimates, incest is a possibility.)

Seated under the cheerless blaze of the drawing room chandelier—Mrs. Peniston never lit the lamps unless there was “company”—Lily seemed to watch her own figure retreating down vistas of neutral-tinted dullness to a middle-age like Grace Stepney’s. (I, 9, 80)

Inside this narrow world of prohibition and inhibition, Lily’s possibilities are limited. If Selden embodies Lily’s hopes, her Utopian vision, Grace Stepney personifies her fears of the nightmarish future—poverty, spinsterhood, social ugliness. The fear of turning into Grace alarms Lily as much as Selden’s freedom entices her.

Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses . . . Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as herself. . . Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed until we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership. (I, 1,12)


The social constraints for women are as clear as the crystal in the houses Wharton describes. But she proposes less obvious or visible constraints. Rarely insistent or repetitive, she is both about Lily’s beauty and her terror of dinginess. (Two sides of the same coin, they may constitute her fatal flaw.) Lily’s dread—“who wants a dingy woman?”—renders her incapable of happiness, even of living within her means. Even if one supposes one understands how Lily’s beauty works—as surface or appearance, as a manifestation of the sublime, as her difference from others, as artistic perfection and imperfection (the human golden bowl)—dinginess is still trickier, more obscure and difficult to grasp. But both refer to the liminal, mostly unseen relationship between interiors and exteriors.

Beauty and dinginess, beauty and the beast, depend upon each other. Dinginess isn’t brilliant, sublime, perfect, but dirty, tainted, dark, discolored, worn, or spoiled, used and disgusting. (The word “dingy” may come from the word “dinghy,” a small boat or vessel that sails by the side of larger vessels.) Lily’s mother instills the terror of it in her. Mrs. Bart’s greatest “reproach” to her husband is that he expected her to become dingy or “live like a pig” (I, 3, 26), one of Freud’s animals. (Anality comes to mind.) Treated with indifference and contempt, Mr. Bart’s a cash machine to his wife and to Lily, who has more sympathy for him. After he loses his money, his failure and inadequacy in Mrs. Bart’s eyes are made complete when he dies and leaves them poor, ruined.

After two years of hungry roaming, Mrs. Bart had died—of a deep disgust. She had hated dinginess, and it was her fate to be dingy. Her visions of a brilliant marriage for Lily had faded after the first year. (I, 3, 30)

To Miss Bart, as to her mother, acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity; and there were moments when, in the consciousness of her own power to look and be so exactly what the occasion required, she almost felt that other girls were plain and inferior from choice. (I, 8, 70)

Mrs. Peniston’s opulent interior was at least not externally dingy. But dinginess is a quality that assumes all manner of disguises; and Lily soon found it was as latent in the expensive routine of her aunt’s life as in the makeshift existence of a continental pension. (I, 3, 31)

Dinginess isn’t ever simple wear and tear. Contrasted again and again to brilliance, light, the sun, glow (as if Wharton were a Manichee), the dark and dirty that Lily fears and names dinginess emanates from what she doesn’t know and can’t see. There’s no clarity, no bright light by which to see these appalling, unconscious forces that threaten her every step. Stupidity, as dullness, is also dinginess (though for her to shine too brilliantly could attract unwanted attention and failure). But Lily is stupid before the irrational. Wharton knew everyone was.

In an extraordinary passage, Lily worries that Mrs. Peniston (“To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor” [I, 3, 32]) has been “too passive,” has not helped her enough socially; but Lily also fears she herself has “not been passive enough” and too “eager” (I, 3, 33).

Younger and plainer girls had been married off by the dozens, and she was nine and twenty and still Miss Bart.

She was beginning to have fits of angry rebellion against fate, when she longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself but what manner of life would it be? . . . She was too intelligent not to be honest with herself. She knew that she hated dinginess as much as her mother had hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it, dragging herself up again and again against its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch. (I, 3, 33)

She fights against being ruined. It’s a struggle to the death that she loses, one beyond her control, fought blindly, unconsciously. For a smart girl, Lily often acts impulsively and against her interests. But Wharton sometimes confounds the reader who is attempting to decide what is in her interest. Maybe nothing is. Even if Lily knew what her interests were, she might not be able to stop herself or control herself, for reasons she cannot know.


The question persists: If plainer and stupider girls could marry, why can’t Lily? Marriage’s promise is not just economic and social partnership, but also sexual union. Terror of sex and sexuality, of being made dingy, may be a piece of Lily’s unmarriageability, inscribed in her body as attenuated virginity. Intent upon weaving surface and foundation, Wharton lets Lily’s body and interior speak society’s prohibitive customs and conventions. 

(Imagining a character’s psychology can be as “slippery” as the “bright pinnacles of success” Lily can’t reach. But Wharton looks hard at Lily, as a condition, as a symptom of social injustice, restriction, inhibition, repression, oppression, as an unstable object in an uncertain structure. She scrutinizes her with a kind of clinical neutrality.

The chief difference between the merely sympathetic and the creative imagination is that the latter is two-sided, and combines with the power of penetrating into other minds that of standing far enough aloof from them to see beyond, and relate them to the whole stuff of life out of which they partially emerge. Such an all-round view can be obtained only by mounting to a height; and that height, in art, is proportioned to the artist’s power of detaching one part of his imagination from the particular problem in which the rest is steeped. (Writing, 15)

Her very sharp pen, held high, is dipped in the ink of ambivalence—fascination, contempt, compassion, anger, fear. Like all writers, Wharton works as much from what she knows as from what she doesn’t. The unconscious presents mysteries and allows pleasures, pains and pathologies a visibility that one can’t plan or control.)

Lily’s unlovableness and sense of unworthiness is disguised by her beautiful, impenetrable exterior. She’s valued for it alone.

One thought consoled [Mrs. Bart], and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty . . . it was the last asset in their fortunes . . . She watched it jealously as if it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian . . . (I, 3, 29)

The dinginess of her present life threw into enchanting relief the existence to which she felt herself entitled. To a less illuminated intelligence Mrs. Bart’s counsels might have been dangerous, but Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest, and that to convert it into success other arts are required. She knew that to betray any sense of superiority was a subtler form of the stupidity her mother denounced, and it did not take her long to learn that a beauty needs more tact than the possessor of an average set of features. (I, 3, 30)

Lily can’t manipulate what’s inside her, her feelings about who she is or isn’t. Her beauty is unassailable and absolute; no one touches it—or her. But its scale triggers alarms, calls too much attention upon her and maybe isn’t a good enough cover story. She manages it, like her intelligence, though it’s inconvenient and ill-fitting—“more conspicuous than a ballroom.” Lily’s “passion for the appropriate” (I, 6, 51) may be oxymoronic.


In The Decoration of Houses, Wharton claims that “structure conditions ornament, not ornament structure” (Decoration, 14). Lily’s an ornament that can be betrayed, deformed, in the wrong setting. Her beauty will turn ugly if nothing else around it, or within her, supports it, makes it function or harmonize with the structure that conditions it. Inappropriate and out of context, beauty can be empty, a thing, nothing but a facade, a fake. When Selden thinks he “see[s] before him the real Lily Bart,” she is a tableau vivant, an image, “Mrs. Lloyd” of the Reynolds painting (I, 12, 106). He suddenly perceives her “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” (I, 12, 106).

It’s a singular moment. Lily blends in, in the right setting, and is embraced by Selden for her perfection. Selden’s revelry is shattered, though, when Ned Van Alstyne trivializes her, and he becomes indignant.

This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda? (I, 12, 107)

He’s sympathetic to her; but she’s an idealized image. Wharton extols her beauty in this highly artificial, artful scene. She freezes Lily and portrays her as a living picture, so there’s something grotesque about it, and about her, too. She’s not quite human. But Selden, an aesthete, can adore her and suspend his harsh judgment of her. He can almost love her.

Selden’s no less harsh about her, and society, than she is. There’s dogged reason in Wharton’s pairing of these cool characters, each of whom mirrors the other’s desires and lacks. The differences between them elucidate differences based on sex, but through them, Wharton plays with balancing the unbalanced sexes.

If he did not often act on the accepted social axiom that a man may go where he pleases, it was because he had long since learned that his pleasures were mainly to be found in a small group of the like-minded. But he enjoyed spectacular effects, and was not insensible to the part money plays in their production. All he asked was that the very rich live up to their calling as stage managers, and not spend their money in a dull way. (I, 12, 103-4)

Like Lily, Selden isn’t rich, but unlike her he works for a living. Like Lily, he abjures dullness, appreciates beauty and the finer things, has a pronounced and cultivated sensibility, and recognizes and is repulsed by vulgarity. He feels above most people; he wants to avoid being bored. His lack of chastity isn’t, of course, an obstacle. Lily often talks with him about her chances for marriage. But she rarely thinks about or mentions love. (When Lily loves and thrills, it is to rooms and places. Her sensitivity to a room and decoration is as excessive as her beauty.) One of the times she considers love is when she thinks about Selden.

(Lily) could not herself have explained the sense of buoyancy which seemed to lift and swing her above the sun-suffused world at her feet. Was it love, she wondered, or a mere fortuitous combination of happy thoughts and sensations? How much of it was owing to the spell of the perfect afternoon, the scent of the fading woods, the thought of the dullness she had fled from? Lily had no definite experience by which to test the quality of her feelings. She had several times been in love with fortunes or careers, but only once with a man . . . If Lily recalled this early emotion it was not to compare it with that which now possessed her; the only point of comparison was the sense of lightness, of emancipation, which she remembered feeling . . . that glow of freedom; but now it was something more than blind groping of the blood. (I, 6, 52

Earlier in the scene, Lily wails for Selden to come to her, surrounded by nature, with which she “had no real intimacy” (I, 6, 51). Nature is another one of The House of Mirth’s uneasier foundations. What is woman’s nature? With freedom, will Lily Bart be “womanly,” capable of giving herself in marriage, having babies and conforming to social obligations? Or will she become too new, unusable?

She’s been “in love with fortunes and careers, but only once with a man.” Nature and love aren’t natural to Lily, and she doesn’t conform to feminine proscriptions that link women with nature, women with love. Lily thinks she knows Selden’s nature, since it’s like hers. His “air of friendly aloofness . . . [is] . . . the quality which piqued Lily’s interest” (I, 6, 53). Selden’s aloofness sets Lily up, off and down. She doesn’t know what to expect from him, never knows if he loves her or might be serious about marrying her.

Everything about him accorded with the fastidious element in her taste, even to the light irony with which he surveyed what seemed to her most sacred. She admired him most of all perhaps, for being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest man she had ever met. (I, 6, 53)

She admires him for an irony that keeps him at a distance. Like her his passions are oxymoronically reserved for the appropriate. Wharton’s odd couple are dedicated to controlling themselves. But love jeopardizes control; forces one to become involuntarily subject to another, even lost in the other. Selden’s suspicious of losing himself, and he’s so suspicious of Lily he thinks that “even her weeping was an art.” (I, 6, 58)

That which he projects ahead of him as his ideal is merely his substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood—the time when he was his own ideal. (5)

When Selden thought he saw the real Lily Bart, she was a living doll. Maybe he loved her most then as a lost part of himself, the illusory ideal he once imagined himself to be or have. They’re both difficult characters, wary of love, looking for perfection. Not finding it in themselves or others, they don’t lose themselves.

In a recent TV advertisement for a men’s perfume called Contradiction, a young man declares, “I don’t want her to need me. I want her to desire me. Need isn’t desire.” Lily needs Selden more than she desires him; Selden’s idea of freedom entails being wanted, not needed. Their attraction to each other is unstable and compelling, living, dying, again and again. The contradictory logic that might make them lovers—both are ambivalent, both want freedom—is precisely what makes them unfit for each other.


In this thwarted romance, star-crossed lovers want to love but can’t, do in some ways love themselves and each other, but also share in self-loathing, an effect, too, of narcissism. Freud wrote that loving oneself is not a “perversion but the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation, a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every living creature” (“Narcissism,” 105). Selden’s self-regard appears less compromised than Lily’s; she worries too much about becoming clingy. 

But both suffer from narcissistic wounds and lick them throughout the novel, sparing themselves the pain of further injury.

The effect of the dependence upon the love object is to lower that feeling [of self-regard]: the lover is humble. He who loves has, so to speak, forfeited a part of his narcissism, which can only be replaced by his being loved. (“Narcissism,” 120)

There is, in the act of love, a great resemblance to torture or to a surgical operation.(6)

Selden and Lily never stop preserving and defending themselves from imagined or real injuries and threats. Love—relinquishment of control—might be torture for them. When Lily visits Selden for the last time, she is finally able to articulate it.

Do you remember what you said to me once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well—you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. But the moment is gone—it was I who let it go. And one must go on living. Goodbye. (II, 12, 241)

Love’s dead, but “something lived between them also. . . . it was the love his love had kindled, the passion of her soul for his” (II, 12, 241). Her idea of love colludes with Wharton’s understanding of desire that arises from the desire to be desired. Even more abstractly, Lily understands that “she could not go forth and leave her old self with him; that self must indeed live on in his presence, but it must still continue to be hers” (II, 12, 241). Even when love is dead, no longer capable of causing pain, surgery—amputation— won’t be allowed. Lily’s fear of losing herself, giving herself up to him, certainly may be her magnificent desire to be herself. But what Wharton suggests is that her impassioned need to preserve herself at all costs may be an implacable obstacle to happiness; for it she will pay the ultimate price.


Not coincidentally, the most exquisite or maybe the only love scene in The House of Mirth is not between Selden and Lily, but between mother and child—with Lily playing the mother and becoming the child in a kind of self-love scene. (It’s also the only scene in which one character holds another with passion or for any length of time.) After the devastating last meeting with Selden, Lily bumps into Nettie Crane Struthers, one of Gerty Farish’s “girls,” on the street.

Nettie Struther’s frail envelope was now alive with hope and energy; whatever fate the future reserved for her, she would not be cast into the refuse heap without a struggle. (II, 13, 243)

Though poor, Nettie’s not rubbish, not dingy. Nettie invites Lily home: “it’s real warm in our kitchen” (II, 13, 244). In another of Wharton’s relatively few underscorings and repetitions, she italicizes “was” in Lily’s repeated thought: “It was warm in the kitchen” (II, 13, 244). (Warm or warmth occurs several more times in this hearth-and-home kitchen scene.) Nettie’s life, though different 351 from Lily’s, has its similarities. She was about to give up, having been jilted, but unlike Lily, Nettie found a man, George, married, and had a baby. Nettie’s reputation doesn’t stop George from marrying her; Lily’s stops everyone. Nettie’s success as a traditional woman, playing traditional roles, is severely contrasted to Lily’s failures, her flawed femininity and fatal unmarriageability. This extreme pairing, before Lily’s suicide, seems to enunciate the author’s ambivalence toward Lily and the allure and demands of femininity. And maybe it also addresses Wharton’s own maternal deprivation, since through the veil of fiction one writes what one wants as much as what one doesn’t.

When Lily holds Nettie’s baby, at first the child

seemed as light as a pink cloud or a heap of down, but as she continued to hold it the weight increased, sinking deeper, and penetrating her with a strange sense of weakness, as though the child entered into her and became a part of herself. (II, 13, 245-6)

Wharton fashions another tableau vivant, a Madonna and Child (by Bellini, let’s say), and paints the badly mothered Lily Bart into it. In a moment of devastating psychological revelation, Lily is transformed as the infant enters her. The baby becomes a lost part of her, an adult still so little, so undeveloped, she’s as weak as a baby, or she is the baby.

[Nettie:] “Wouldn’t it be too lovely if she grew up to be just like you?”
[Lily:] “Oh she must not do that—I should be afraid to come to see her too often.” (II, 13, 246)

Now Wharton’s gone Gothic again, writing a ghost story. Lily foresees her death, and, as a ghost, could return to visit the real Lily Bart, who has never actually existed. The baby could become the person she might have been, had she been loved and able to thrive. At Nettie’s warm hearth, Lily’s heartless mother is a spectral presence, with Lily’s pathetic, beaten-down father hovering in the corner where her mother placed him. (What kind of man could Lily love after him? Or, even, could Lily really love a man after him?) 


One may distinguish the novel of situation from that of character and manners by saying that, in the first, the persons imagined by the author almost always spring out of a vision of the situation, and are inevitably conditioned by it, whatever the genius of their creator; whereas in the larger freer form, that of character and manners (or either of the two), the author’s characters are first born, and then mysteriously proceed to work out their destinies. (Writing, 89)

In writing and design, Wharton strove for clean lines and economy, to remove excess. Lily’s excessive, a disturbance within the social structure. It’s rotten, but she’s a character formed inside its rooms. Lily wanted to be an original, and Wharton, conflicted and ambivalent about the new, gave her enough rope to hang herself— trapping her between the novel of situation (or circumstance and circumstantial evidence) and the novel of character. Through her imperfect heroine, Wharton proclaimed the vivacious allure of freedom, the voracious seductiveness and promise of modernity and change, with all its destructive potential, and the helplessness of individuals before the claims and blind dictates of society in which women and men lived. But she didn’t allow them a talking cure, and her characters have very little room in which to negotiate happy endings.


Another unsettling element of modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another, equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it. (Writing, 17)

Original vision is never much afraid of using accepted forms [my emphasis]; and only the cultivated intelligence escapes the danger of regarding as intrinsically new what may be a mere superficial change, or the reversion to a discarded trick of technique. (Writing, 109)

There is one more thing to be said in defence of conformity to style; and that is, the difficulty of getting rid of style. Strive as we may for originality, we are hampered at every turn by an artistic tradition of over two thousand years. Does any but the most inexperienced architect really think he can ever rid himself of such an inheritance? He may mutilate or misapply the component parts of his design, but he cannot originate a whole new architectural alphabet. The chances are that he will not find it easy to invent one wholly new moulding. (Decoration, 15)

When I read the last quote to Laura Kurgan, an architect, she said, “You could get rid of the molding entirely.” It’s what the modernists did.

I have discovered the following truth and present it to the world: cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of ornament from articles in daily use . . . Don’t you see the greatness of our age lies in its inability to produce a new form of decoration? We have conquered ornament, we have won through the lack of ornamentation. . . . for ornament is not only produced by criminals; it itself commits a crime, by damaging men’s health, the national economy and cultural development. (7)

Adolf Loos wrote his famous essay, or manifesto, “Ornament and Crime,” in 1908. Wharton’s work on houses and decoration preceded it by a decade. She was in line with Loos, and the modernists, to a point.

It is the superfluous gimcrack—the “ornament”—which is most objectionable, and the more expensive these items are the more likely they are to harm. (Decoration, 177)

The supreme excellence is simplicity. Moderation, fitness, relevance . . . There is a sense in which works of art may be said to endure by virtue of that which is left out of them, and it is this “tact of omission” that characterizes the modern hand. (Decoration, 192)

Wharton appreciated simplicity and omission. But she could see the reason, rhythm, and logic of certain kinds of decoration.

While plain paneling, if well-designed, is never out of keeping, the walls of a musicroom are especially suited to a somewhat fanciful style of decoration. . . . Fewer changes are possible in the “upright” [piano]; but a marked improvement could be produced by straightening its legs and substituting right angles for the weak curves of the lid. The case itself might be made of plainly paneled mahogany, with a few good ormolu ornaments; or of inlaid wood, with a design of musical instruments . . . (Decoration, 146-7)

Slavoj Zizek, lecturing at New York University, once urged the audience I was in to throw out the baby but keep the bathwater. Wharton wanted to keep the bathwater. Her disinclination to throw out everything—except what she called the “horrors”— makes her a vital candidate for rereading and rethinking. Wharton relentlessly forced her characters to live, and die, struggling against or submitting to conventions, acknowledging their contradictions, while trying to create paths through or around rigid social customs. They were usually blocked. She did not imagine a utopia. She didn’t see a way of divorcing the past from the present. She didn’t see the necessity of abandoning all traditions or styles. Even molding, in proportion to the room, could be beautiful.

It is a curious perversion of artistic laws that has led certain critics to denounce painted architecture or woven mouldings. As in imaginative literature the author may present to his reader as possible anything that he has the talent to make the reader accept, so in decorative art the artist is justified in presenting to the eye whatever his skill can service to satisfy its requirements nor is there any insincerity in this proceeding. (Decoration, 40)

Her ideas were modern—she wanted to clear house of nineteenth-century vestiges, stuffed chairs and stuffed shirts, to question conventions and numbing, absurd traditions, but she was far from being a card-carrying modernist. Wharton was skeptical about the new, not positive that progress was progress, not sanguine about the future of the joys of speed and flight, as the futurists were; she took off and looked back over her shoulder at the past. She doesn’t fit comfortably into the modernist canon and has suffered for it.

Architecture articulates space, the movement within walls and without them, delineates the relationships of the built to the unbuilt and surroundings. Wharton’s prose makes its own particular space, its complex borders pierced by new and old. It’s one of those uncanny pieces of fate—less colloquially, historical overdetermination—that her reputation, her literary place, is inflected not just by her idiosyncratic relationship to Modernism but also by three biographical facts: She was female, upper-class and Henry James’s younger friend. Not mentioning James in relation to her is like not mentioning the elephant in the room, a room which she did not, of course, design. Her critical reputation stands mostly in his large shadow. (Her primary biographer R.W.B. Lewis’s first sentence in his introduction to the House of Mirth begins “Henry James . . .”)(8) Few U.S writers who are women make it, as the song goes, to standing in the shadows of love, critical love. (And her books were about love, its promise and seductiveness, its inevitable impossibility within a harsh, prohibitive world.)

The ironist Wharton might have appreciated, in her perverse way, the secondary or minor position she has attained. (Perhaps in the way Deleuze and Guattari appreciate minor literature) Ironically, undidacitally, Wharton teaches that separate isn’t equal; difference shouldn’t be but usually is hierarchical, and change in any establishment or tradition is like her sentences, slow.


The author would like to thank Gregg Bordowitz and Kenneth Frampton for their invaluable help in the writing of this essay.

A brief, preliminary version of this essay appeared in Conjunctions: 29, Tributes, Fall 1997 (pp. 122-125); it was entitled “Edith Wharton: A Mole in the House of the Modern.”


1. Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses (New York: Classical America and Henry Hope Reed/Norton, 1998); first published in 1897.

2. Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction (New York: Touchstone, 1997); first published in 1924.

3. Sigmund Freud, “Contributions to the Psychology of Love,” in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 63.

4. Edith Wharton, The Letters of Edith Wharton, ed. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (New York: Scribner’s, 1988), 450-1.

5. Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” in A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. John Rickman, M. D. (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 116. 359

6. Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals, trans. Christopher Isherwood (London: Picador, 1990), 14.

7. Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” in Adolf Loos: Pioneer of Modern Architecture, ed. Ludwig Munz and Gustav Kunstler (New York: Prager, 1996), 226-8.

8. R.W.B. Lewis, “Introduction” to Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (New York: Bantam, 1984), viii.

Share this essay