In twentieth-century New York’s high society, Lily Bart belongs to a social world in which friendships are constantly limited by self-interest. In the same way that people use her for social advancement, Lily uses her so-called “friends” to enhance her own prestige and financial resources. However, as Lily becomes better acquainted with people such as Gerty Farish and Lawrence Selden, who do not belong to the same circle as her, she realizes that the friendships she has experienced in the upper crust are superficial and dissatisfying. By contrast, the affection Lily receives from Gerty and Lawrence has not only brought her unconditional support, but has also contributed to shaping her character, inspiring her to become a better, more honest person. Over time, Lily concludes that, as high society corrupts relationships, the only way to build sincere, intimate relationships is to escape hierarchies of power. This also involves making herself vulnerable—not only to receiving the support and care she needs in her most desperate moments, but also to becoming the honest person she has always known she could be.
In the competitive, potentially vicious world of high society, friendship is limited to ties of power and money, as people use each other to achieve greater social prestige. Lily, who is committed to remaining part of this social sphere, thus seems bound to live a life deprived of sincere affection. Following the example of her peers, Lily organizes her friends according to a “utilitarian classification” based on who is more or less likely to support her in the advent of trouble. However, the difficulty of taking into account other people’s own thirst for power makes such relationships fraught with instability and danger. For example, when Lily asks Gus Trenor to invest her money on the stock market for her, she manipulates him by making him think that they share a special friendship. In turn, though, Gus believes that helping Lily financially will allow him to ask for sexual favors from her—an assumption that later puts Lily in a dangerous position, as she has to preserve her reputation and her honor against Gus’s advances. The two characters’ beliefs that they can use each other for their own self-interest reveals that such friendships are nothing more than a form of transaction, aimed at asserting power.
Lily’s descent into poverty forces her to re-examine her life and her relationships, as she realizes that true friendship can only exist outside of relations of power. After Bertha Dorset spreads slanderous lies about Lily, the divorcée Carry Fisher is the only person who initially shows Lily affection. Over the course of months, she helps Lily befriend the wealthy Sam and Mattie Gormer, and finds her a job with Mrs. Hatch, a rich woman in need of a social secretary, and, later, with Mme. Regina, a hat-maker. However, when Mrs. Hatch is involved in a scandal, Carry fears becoming connected to that scandal and cuts ties with Lily, indicating that her own reputation is more important than her devotion to her friend.
It is only once Lily becomes better acquainted with Gerty Farish, who is not part of high society, that she discovers what true friendship involves. Gerty, who has no reputation to defend, places little value on Lily’s social or financial status. In delicate social and financial situations, Lily realizes that the only person she can turn to is Gerty, since her high-society friends would not be willing to help her without receiving anything in return.
As Lily’s increasing financial troubles force her to give up on her previous friendships, she realizes that true friendship and love not only helps people in life, but also serves to define who one is or can become. Through love, Lily finally gets in touch with her true self.
The only people who have always trusted in Lily’s goodness are Gerty Farish and Lawrence Selden. These two characters believe that beneath all of Lily’s social artifice lies “the real Lily,” who is capable of noble sentiments and of honoring values greater than materialism. However, for most of the novel, it remains ambiguous whether or not this “real Lily” actually exists, since Lily herself often ignores her true feelings in her quest for money and power. By the end of the novel, though, she admits to Lawrence, who has always loved her and with whom she too is in love, that she has kept “the Lily Bart you knew” with her throughout her life, adding that the knowledge of Lawrence’s love “has always helped me.” Lily thus admits that Lawrence’s affection has not only given her comfort in difficult times, but has also impacted her character, reminding her that she could be more than a self-interested member of high society.
Lily’s views about the impact of love on one’s sense of self coalesce when she meets Nettie Struther, a woman who Lily once helped through Gerty’s charity. Seeing the way Nettie has fought against poverty with the support of her husband, Lily becomes convinced that “it had taken two to build the nest; the man’s faith as well as the woman’s courage. […] Her husband’s faith in her had made her renewal possible.” Applying this thought to herself, Lily becomes aware that she, too, could hope to thrive through Lawrence’s love. Lily concludes that true love elevates human beings, magnifying their goodness and allowing them to connect with each other in a way that makes both sides stronger.
Therefore, it is only once Lily escapes the suffocating world of high society that she understands that her worth as a human being is based as much on her own actions as on the quality of her relationships with other people. Lily becomes convinced that love can reveal to vulnerable human beings what their true potential is—and perhaps, over time, help them realize it. Against an ideology of individuality, the novel thus shows that people’s capacity to connect with each other on an intimate level reveals their deepest, noblest humanity.
Love and Friendship ThemeTracker
Love and Friendship Quotes in The House of Mirth
He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?
“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 for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? 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.”
There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive’s gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight. She 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?
When had Lily ever really felt, or pitied, or understood? All she wanted was the taste of new experiences: she seemed like some cruel creature experimenting in a laboratory.
It was before him again in its completeness—the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dullness of the talk, in the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance.
“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.”
It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper impoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the headless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.
As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered vague and luminous on the far edge of thought—she was afraid of not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well.
It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.
He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.