The main theme that emerges from this social milieu involves the ethical conduct of life among the rich. There are basically two sets of characters: the rich and those who live off the rich. Old New York has all but vanished; the social scene is dominated by a new generation of speculators and entrepreneurs whose unscrupulous business practices are reflected in the crude way they conduct their personal lives. Those like Lily Bart who decorate their drawing rooms and sit at their card tables but who lack independent means in effect become their servants. Lily finds herself attracted to the silken softness of this world but repelled by the moral compromises she must make to assure herself a continued place there.
The story of Lily Bart also contains an aesthetic theme. Lily is a beauty, her natural assets entitling her to a place at the very center of society. Through the eyes of Lawrence Selden, Wharton celebrates Lily's beauty a number of times. In one episode where Lily appears as Reynolds's Mrs. Lloyd in a tableau vivant, Selden sees her "divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part." Unfortunately Lily is twenty-nine, a perilous age for an unmarried woman of scant means. Three months after the tableau vivant, Selden sees her once again in Monte Carlo, but in the interim her beauty has undergone a "process of crystallization." She is now in "that moment of pause...
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