In reading The House of Mirth, we get the sense that Lily is as much a victim of high society as she is a member of it. It seems that she is bound to the cycle of judgement and pretense that riddles the society. As Selden observes, “She 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” (29). While Lily may be chained to the fate of high society, there does seem to be alternative lifestyles taken up by the other characters. For this blog entry, I’m going to analyze the presence of some of these alternative lives within the novel.
One of the alternatives to membership in high society is the lifestyle that Selden chooses. Selden maintains a job in order to support himself and live on his own. While he does admit that he feels “horribly” tied down to the routine of working, he is nevertheless not willing to marry into money in order to escape employment (33). Thus, Selden represents an alternative lifestyle where being employed offers the luxury of being able to sustain oneself and live alone — at the cost of not being a member of high society.
However, while Selden has the luxury to choose between these lifestyles, Lily does not have this option. This is hinted at when Lily is discussing Selden’s choice to not marry. She says, “Ah, there’s the difference — a girl must [marry], a man may if he chooses … We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop — and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership” (33). In other words, it seems as though women do not have the same luxury to be able to support themselves as men do in this society. Selden, then, represents an alternative to the participation and membership within high society — though one that is exclusive to men.
Another moment where an alternative lifestyle is discussed is in Selden and Lily’s discussion of Gerty Farish, Selden’s cousin. Lily is lamenting the fact that women cannot have the freedom of owning a house for themselves, to which Selden responds by bringing up Gerty, who does in fact own her own house. Gerty, then, offers another alternative lifestyle in which a woman can live independently and not have to participate in high society and rely on marriage.
However, Gerty again represents a lifestyle that is not feasible for Lily. For one, Gerty’s lifestyle requires that one can afford their own house — which is not likely given Lily’s finances. Additionally, it seems as if Gerty is different from Lily; that is, she may not be deemed fit to have a husband. Lily implies this when she jokes to Selden that Gerty is not “marriageable” and then subsequently criticizes the conditions of Gerty’s house. Thus, it seems as if Gerty’s lifestyle may exclude the possibility of marriage, or that Gerty lives in this way because she is not suited for marriage. In either case, the lifestyle does not seem fit for Lily.
Overall, we get the sense that while others do manage to live alternative lifestyles, Lily is nevertheless chained to her fate.