In twentieth-century New York high society, people’s social fortunes are determined by their social reputation. Like so many other members and aspirers of the upper class, Lily Bart follows the rules of the game and takes part in deceit and manipulation to secure her social standing. However, when Lily herself suffers from defamation and is then given the opportunity to take revenge on her enemy, Bertha Dorset, through blackmail, Lily is forced to confront the moral validity of her actions. She has to decide whether she is willing to sacrifice her moral principles in favor of the social codes of high society (according to which blackmail is an effective and therefore acceptable means to preserve her reputation), or whether she will give up on her ambitions for social power in order to defend her integrity (according to which blackmail is an immoral act). In the end, Lily makes a choice that will define her entire life: to side with truth and justice, and give up on her dreams of social and material comfort. Lily’s decision, which highlights the moral depravation of high society, proves that individual uprightness is infinitely more valuable than the pressure to conform to society’s degraded norms of behavior.
In the high society of which Lily Bart aspires to be a member, people do not hesitate to defend their reputations through lies and deception. Too eager to become part of this world, Lily is initially willing to participate in manipulation to obtain the power or money she desires.
While Lily does not actively seek to harm others, she does engage in social manipulation of her own. In her effort to marry a rich man, Lily is ready to lie about her true self. When she tries to seduce Percy Gryce, a rich, boring man with puritan values, Lily pretends to be someone she is not: a conservative woman who attends church regularly and has never gambled or smoked cigarettes. The fact that Lily is actively duping her potential future husband does not strike her as inherently wrong, since she considers it a logical step in her social game. Believing that her end goal, money and power, is a noble ambition, she does not bother to dwell on the moral validity of her actions (although she does feel averse to sacrificing her own happiness for money alone).
This attitude is reflective of a general environment in which truth matters less than public appearances. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe,” Lily cynically tells her friend Gerty Farish. Lily has experienced such hypocrisy herself, after her “friend” Bertha invented a lie accusing Lily of trying to seduce Bertha’s husband, George, to detract public attention from the accusations of adultery that Bertha herself faces. Even though most people know that Bertha is lying and that Lily is innocent, Bertha’s accusation condemns Lily to social isolation, since Bertha has a powerful “social credit” that Lily sorely lacks: money. Truth and justice are thus considered irrelevant in a world where people’s wealth determines their public credibility.
Although Lily accepts that her social world does not follow traditional rules of justice, Lily herself retains moral values that keep her from harming people intentionally. Lily’s actions also occasionally reveal her interest in helping others. Once, she surprises herself by giving money to Gerty Farish for charitable work, even investing some of her time and energy by joining one of the charity’s meetings. While Lily’s motives aren’t purely selfless, since she derives a sense of power and self-esteem from this action, she still discovers that an aspect of her personality is remotely interested in social justice: “Lily felt a new interest in herself as a person of charitable instincts: she had never before thought of doing good with the wealth she had so often dreamed of possessing.” Lily thus becomes aware of the possibility of thinking beyond her narrow desires and interests, and of using her power to do good.
In addition, Lily exhibits strong moral principles about repaying her debts. After she discovers that she is deeply indebted to Gus Trenor, she becomes convinced that she needs to find a way to pay him back, even though she lacks the means to do so. By the end of the novel, when Lily has lost so much money that she is condemned to a working-class life, she remains committed to her moral principles and addresses a check of nine thousand dollars to Gus—a decision that she knows will condemn her to financial ruin. This show of honesty reveals Lily’s underlying moral principles, which keep her from accepting money for free.
These conflicting aspects of Lily’s behavior—her sometimes-strong moral compass coupled with her desire to do whatever it takes to secure her spot in high society—are put to a test at the end of the novel, when Lily has the opportunity to blackmail Bertha Dorset in order to re-enter high society. Lily’s ultimate decision to refrain from immoral behavior reveals that she has taken a permanent stance: she will not engage in dubious moral acts for the sole purpose of social advancement. Rather, she prefers to remain an honest, upright person, even if this means giving up on her dreams.
When Lily gains possession of letters that Bertha Dorset wrote to Lawrence Selden, with whom Bertha once had an adulterous affair, Lily has the opportunity of using these letters to blackmail Bertha. Lily even receives a promise from Sim Rosedale, a rich man who is attracted to her, that he will marry her if she succeeds in returning to high society—which would secure Lily’s economic situation for the rest of her life. After contemplating her desperate situation and hesitating at length about what to do, Lily is finally struck by a moment of moral enlightenment and decides that she is not capable of blackmailing Bertha. Instead, she decides to burn Bertha’s letters so that she will never again be tempted to use them for her own advancement.
This decision condemns Lily to poverty and social isolation, but elevates her on a moral and spiritual level. As Lily understands that justice and self-worth are more important than social and economic advancement, she denounces the degradation of high society, arguing that it should be rejected in favor of greater ideals. Lily’s decision is morally inspiring, revealing the importance of investing in moral integrity instead of social advancement.
Morality vs. Hypocrisy ThemeTracker
Morality vs. Hypocrisy 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.
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.