During Bertha Dorset’s affair with Lawrence Selden, Bertha wrote the young man love letters that he failed to destroy. When Lily Bart comes in possession of these letters, she realizes that Bertha’s reputation is in her hands, since these letters serve as incriminating evidence of Bertha’s adultery. Therefore, after Bertha spreads lies about Lily and ejects her from their social circle, the possibility for Lily to use these letters to blackmail Bertha represents a tempting opportunity, as it would allow Lily to regain her position in high society without creating a public confrontation. Although Lily’s visceral reaction to such a strategy is moral revulsion, she later feels tempted to use it to escape her desperate financial and social situation. Over the course of the novel, Bertha’s letters thus represent the difficult choice that Lily is going to have to make between two opposites: living a righteous life but being condemned to poverty, or sacrificing her moral values to re-enter the high society she so desperately wants to belong to. When Lily finally destroys these letters for good, she demonstrates her incapacity to behave in a way that is contrary to her principles, even if this means giving up on a lifelong dream. Bertha’s letters thus highlight the ways high society can be debased and immoral. They suggest that, to avoid its unethical temptations entirely, all an individual might be able to do is escape.
Bertha’s Letters Quotes in The House of Mirth
“The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
She lay awake viewing her situation in the crude light which Rosedale’s visit had shed on it. In fending off the offer he was so plainly ready to renew, had she not sacrificed to one of those abstract notions of honor that might be called the conventionalities of the moral life? What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial? She had never been heard in her own defense; she was innocent of the charge on which she had been found guilty; and the irregularity of her conviction might seem to justify the use of methods as irregular in recovering her lost rights.
“There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you—we are sure to see each other again—but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you—I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you—and she’ll be no trouble, she’ll take up no room.”