Essential Passages by Character: Lily Bart
Essential Passage 1: Book I (Chapter 3)
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 had barely enough money to pay her dress-makers’ bills and her gambling debts; and none of the desultory interests which she dignified with the name of tastes was pronounced enough to enable her to live contentedly in obscurity. Ah, no—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 above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch.
At twenty-nine years of age, Lily Bart was unmarried and living with a widowed aunt since the death of her parents. For a lady in New York society at the turn of the century, this was paramount to failure in life. However, it is not that Lily has not tried. At this point, she is busy going from friend to friend, staying at their homes, enjoying their hospitality and social life in hopes of landing an acceptable husband (acceptable meaning rich and of high social standing). Her independent ways in the past has not yielded her as “marketable material,” yet she continues to make the effort. She is staying with her friends, the Trenors, and has set her eyes on Percy Gryce, an immensely wealthy yet shy man. She has little respect for him and even less in common with the bookish and socially awkward gentleman, yet he has shown an interest in her and thus has become a target for Lily’s matrimonial intentions. However, she sees the futility of this life. It is not what she wants. She would prefer to live independently of anyone’s expectations. Yet to do so would mean that she must give up her position in society, acquire a way to make a living, and living simply. This is something she absolutely cannot do.
Essential Passage 2: Book I (Chapter 6)
“I don’t know,” she said, “why you are always accusing me of premeditation.”
“I thought you confessed to it: you told me the other day that you had to follow a certain line—and if one does a thing at all, it is a merit to do it thoroughly.”
“If you mean that a girl who has no one to think for her is obliged to think for herself, I am quite willing to accept the imputation. But you must find me a dismal kind of person if you suppose that I never yield to an impulse.”
“Ah, but I don’t suppose that; haven’t I told you that your genius lies in converting impulses into intentions?”
“My genius?” she echoed with a sudden note of weariness. “Is there any final test of genius but success? And I certainly haven’t succeeded.”
Selden pushed his hat back and took a side-glance at her. “Success—what is success? I shall be interested to have your definition.”
“Success?” She hesitated. “Why, to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose. It’s a relative quality, after all. Isn’t that your idea of it?”
“My idea of it? God forbid!” He sat up with sudden energy, resting his elbows on his knees and staring out upon the mellow fields. “My idea of success,” he said, “is personal freedom.”
“Freedom? Freedom from worries?
“From everything—from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit—that’s what I call success.”
She leaned forward with a responsive flash. “I know—I know—it’s strange; but that’s just what I’ve been feeling today.”
Lily, spending the weekend at the home of her friends, the Trenors, is endeavoring to “catch” Percy Gryce and thus succeed at what is deemed the most important thing for a woman in New York society at the time—marriage with a rich man. She has definitely attracted is attention and his regard, thus seeming to have paved the way for an eventual relationship. Yet with the arrival of Laurence Selden, Lily begins to waver. Selden serves as her conscience and readily sees her for what she is, both the good and the bad. While she claims that success means a fortuitous marriage which will enable her to live in the style in which she is accustomed, Selden sees it as freedom from the two extremes, both in terms of finances and lifestyle. To him, success is freedom from shackling expectations of the world in which they both live. Lily...
(The entire section is 1970 words.)
Essential Passages by Theme: Betrayal
Essential Passage 1: Book I (Chapter 9)
…Lily knew that there is nothing society resents so much as having given its protection to those who have not known how to profit by it: it is for having betrayed its connivance that the body social punishes the offender who is found out. And in this case there was no doubt of the issue. The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct; she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference. But with a man of George Dorset’s temper there could be no thought of condonation—the possessor of his wife’s letters could overthrow with a touch the whole structure of her existence. And into what hands Bertha Dorset’s secret had been delivered! For a moment the irony of the coincidence tinged Lily’s disgust with a confused sense of triumph. But the disgust prevailed—all her instinctive resistances, or taste, of training, of blind inherited scruples, rose against the other feeling. Her strongest sense was one of personal contamination.
Lily receives an unexpected visitor—a cleaning woman from the Benedick, the hotel in which resides Laurence Selden. Having visited Selden alone in his apartment, she was an object of note by the woman, Mrs. Harrat, since it is of questionable behavior for a single lady to visit a man unsupervised or unchaperoned. In this visit, Mrs. Harrat brings Lily a package of letters that she offers to sell to her. Lily, confused of how these letters could be of interest to her, is told that they are letters of a suggestive nature from Bertha Dorset to Laurence Selden. Not sure of why she does so, Lily buys the letters. She realizes that these letters would be a powerful weapon against Bertha, should she choose to betray her. Yet she also realizes that by betraying Bertha she would also be betraying Selden. The choice is weighed in the balance, and she chooses to keep the letters unused. Struggling with the sense of power such a tool gives her, Lily is also overwhelmed by the disgust of the thought of what the letters portend.
Essential Passage 2: Book II (Chapter 3)
…Miss Bart had lingered for a last word with Lord Hubert, and Stepney, on whom Mr. Bry was pressing a final, and still more expensive, cigar, called out: “Come on, Lily, if you’re going back to the yacht.”
Lily turned to obey, but as she did so, Mrs. Dorset, who had paused on her way out, moved a few steps back toward the table.
“Miss Bart is not going back to the yacht,” she said in a voice of singular distinctness.
A startled look ran from eye to eye: Mrs. Bry crimsoned to the verge of congestion, Mrs. Stepney slipped nervously behind her husband, and Selden, in the general turmoil of his sensations, was mainly conscious of a longing to grip Dabham by the collar and fling him out into the street.
Dorset, meanwhile, had stepped back to his wife’s side. His face was white, and he looked about him with cowed, angry eyes. “Bertha! Miss Bart—this is some misunderstanding—some mistake—.”
“Miss Bart remains here,” his wife rejoined incisively. “And I think, George, we had better not detain Mrs. Stepney any longer.”
Miss Bart, during this brief exchange of words, remained in admirable erectness, slightly isolated from the embarrassed group about her. She pales a little under the shock of the insult, but the discomposure of the surrounding faces is not reflected in her own. The faint disdain of her smile seems to lift her high above her antagonist’s reach, and it is not till she has given Mrs. Dorset the full measure of the distance between them that she turns and extends her hand to her hostess.
“I am joining the Duchess to-morrow,” she explained, “and it seemed easier for me to remain on shore for the night.”
Lily has been invited by Bertha Dorset to join her and her husband George of a tour of the Mediterranean by yacht. Also accompanying them is Ned Silverton, who is only superficially a guest but in reality is Bertha’s lover. Lily’s sole purpose for being on the trip is to distract George so that Bertha may carry on her affair unhindered. However, George is not quite so gullible as Bertha supposes, nor so complacent, and confronts her when she and Silverton return to the yacht after being out all night. George is determined to at last divorce his wife and is supported eventually in this decision by Lily. Lily has occasionally given Bertha warning about her behavior and so has exposed herself as George’s ally. When confronted by George, Bertha makes excuses and makes amends with George. But she has decided that Lily’s usefulness is over and has instead become a liability to her social stature. Therefore, Bertha betrays Lily and ejects her from the yacht with subtle but discernible hints that Lily is after George, thus...
(The entire section is 2095 words.)