Law in Contemporary Society
-- AnjaliBhat - 15 May 2009

Lily Bart and the Nuances of Selling Out

In this class this semester many of us worried about 'selling out,' by which we meant working at a large firm with a big salary and little freedom. Class time focused heavily on the costs of such a sell-out. During this semester I also re-read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Lily Bart's misadventures made me see sell-outs differently. Lily recoils from acts that unmistakably sell out her ideals. This is her most admirable and most maddening trait. It made me care about her but simultaneously made me want to scream at her.

Why? Because, while she never decisively sells out, she constantly 'sells out' in small yet soul-crushing ways that are woven into her daily life. And with each refusal to decisively sell out, she increases the frequency with which she will have to less-obviously sell out in order to live the sort of life she values. If she took one of her chances to decisively sell out, on the other hand, she might never again have to sell out in any way. Her character presents a dilemma between doing something clearly contrary to one's ideals (thus averting future compromises) and refusing the big compromise (thus ensuring the necessity of many constantly-occurring small ones)

Avoiding the big sell-outs

At the novel's beginning, Lily plots her seduction of Gryce. A marriage to Gryce, who is rich, dull and priggish, would be an enormous sell-out. She charms him and conforms to his sensibilities. But she loses him through a fleeting rebellious impulse to seek freedom and companionship. She continues to avoid decisively selling out afterwards: she refuses Trenor's demands for favors in exchange for money, is set on repaying him when she finds she is in his debt, refuses to marry Rosedale (whose Jewishness indicates his undesirability in Wharton's work, though he does have redeeming traits), and repeatedly rejects the idea of blackmailing Bertha.

But Lily's refusal of Gryce results in her need to flirt with Trenor, while telling herself she's appealing to his fraternal instincts. Similarly, Bertha's yachting trip provides Lily an escape from marrying Rosedale and dealing with her Trenor-induced trauma and debt. Yet that escape route does not merely prove disastrous to her reputation. It also forces her into many of those niggling, mind-numbing compromises she accepts more readily than the big ones. After being kicked off Bertha's yacht, Lily finally faces the fact that her sole purpose there was to distract George while his wife cheated on him. Her Europe trip is spent toadying to the undeserving and burying herself among the stupidly superficial, as Selden critically notes (p. 205). And while she will not blackmail Bertha, that refusal forces her into a deeper compromise with the shallow and crude. She has to live on Mrs. Gormer and Mrs. Hatch, and finally descends into poverty.

The corrosive effects of the little sell-outs

Lily's refusal to decisively sell out paradoxically made her compromise more than she would if she had married Rosedale or blackmailed Bertha. Her revulsion at Gryce and especially Trenor are hard to criticize. Her disgusted trauma after Trenor's aggressive advances is painfully easy to relate to. But her rejection of Rosedale is different. Rosedale is mercenary and manipulative, but this makes him no worse than most of Lily's set. He is also admirably good-natured, honest and independent. He wants to marry Lily because of his admiration for her social prowess and intelligence as well as her beauty. By proposing to her, he's asking her to be his social partner, a job tailored to her talents. This would be a mercenary marriage (and to a Jewish man, which adds to her reluctance). But there could have been mutual respect. She could have had the life of aesthetic pleasure she so idealized, without any 'dinginess' or need to truckle to small-minded people. She does come to see his value despite her anti-Semitism, and probably would have seen it had they married. I cannot see how that would be worse than her enabling Bertha in Europe.

It is even harder for me to see why she should not have blackmailed Bertha. Lily strongly disapproves of blackmail. But even by her standards, is blackmail of a thoroughly vicious person worse than living a daily life she finds “false”? She seems to find the latter preferable to blackmail, not because she really thinks it's better, but because blackmail is an obviously ugly act that requires a mustering of willpower and a strong stomach. She can lie to herself about her daily falseness. She can pretend it's something it is not. Blackmail would require facing the fact of moral compromise, instead of sweeping it under the rug. That is what Lily cannot do.

Yet if Lily swallowed her ideals and decisively compromised, would she have been the same Lily afterwards? She would have the financial wherewithal to avoid much compromise in the future, but would the big compromise kill her desire to do so? Maybe the big compromise would have made her more willing to accept the little ones, even if she no longer had to.

Lily's story suggests that selling out comes in many forms. The less obvious forms might be as deadly to happiness and conscience as the obvious. It's tempting to say everybody should just avoid all of the selling out, but it's not that simple. For Lily, avoiding all selling out would mean dropping out of 'society,' or marrying Selden. The first would cut her off from the luxurious beauty she idealizes—another type of sell-out. The second would make her dependent on Selden, which would necessitate its own compromises since Selden is often ungenerous in his estimation of Lily.

Some degree of compromise might be inevitable. But Lily's determined unawareness of the importance of her everyday sell-outs leads her to betray her ideals more than she otherwise might. It allows her to make choices she otherwise might not. Her story shows how willful ignorance can kill integrity just as much as active betrayal. This is something to remember while contemplating selling out, or not, in the future.

  • Not every life compromise is a blow against moral integrity. And moral integrity is not the same thing as sexual propriety. The world punishes the flouting of convention more than it aids or enforces moral integrity. So far, I think, your views and those of Edith Wharton coincide. But it seems to me that thereafter your insights begin to differ more substantially. Wharton too understands that Lily is weak, but her weakness is stronger than that of the men around her. Wharton seems to want us to be acutely conscious that Lily would be able to do very well indeed in the world if she were able to get an education and possess, say, a law license. Catch her selling out then! would be Wharton's view.

  • Oddly enough, however, it isn't yours. You wonder whether Lily is failing a little bit in the shrewdness of her evaluation of socially compromising offers—largely because she doesn't share your clarity that anti-Semitism is passe, although you are both very clear that there's something exceedingly wrong with fucking for money. But Lily's love of luxury is no more a weakness than the mercenary motives of the men who are allowed to pursue them openly, and one sees that wielding their weapons she would make a splendid fight for herself. To you—to whom every form of equality that would make Lily thrive has been already conceded, and who will soon have the license that Lily would have been able to use to achieve everything she desired, including the freedom to have men without being dependent on them—one might expect a different set of conclusions to follow:
    1. Feminism is the name of the power that separates your world from the world of Lily Bart; and
    2. Selling out is only something you need to do when you haven't got equity;
    3. Your license is equity.

  • The novel is a tragedy because Lily is a woman. She has, like many of Edith Wharton's greatest depictions of human beings, chosen a path that only a woman unlike Wharton herself could have chosen, and she has paid a fearful price for her choice. Wharton, too, has paid prices that are heavy for her to bear, but in the end she accepts compromises against personal happiness rather than moral integrity, and becomes--like her friend, Henry James, who inhabits a surprisingly similar psychic universe--a very sensitive observer of the inner moral life of other people. But Wharton seems to be the feminist between you: she thinks Lily is a victim of the way men run society, and she wants Lily to be able to put the questions behind her and live the way you are free to do.

  • The novel is a tragedy for many reasons, Lily's femaleness being a huge one. Of course I think Lily is a victim of the way men run society and would be able to do a great deal with the freedom my license and today's laws give me, and deserves that freedom. But that seemed to me a very obvious point, and one that I did not have something original to say on. Rather, I was focusing on the personal characteristics that are also a huge part of Lily's tragedy: her scruples and her aesthetics. For the purposes of this essay, I was more interested in how Lily negotiates the structure of her society than that structure itself. I was focusing on her individual mental processes, not a broader feminist social analysis--though I certainly see the feminist issues here. What was interesting to me about Lily's psychology is what she finds beyond the pale, what the lines are that she won't cross, and which lines she will cross once she is pushed far enough (like marrying Rosedale). Wharton intended us to compare Lily to Selden, and wonder what she could have done with his law license and his opportunities. But I think she also intended us to be simultaneously frustrated, admiring and fascinated with Lily's value system and the scruples that she clings to.

  • Also, it's true that Lily's love of luxury is no more of a weakness than the mercenary motives of her male acquaintances--but most of those male acquaintances have "sold out" for the sake of riches. Or if they haven't, it's because they had nothing to sell in the first place. Moral integrity doesn't seem to be their strong point. The only exception is Selden, who shares Lily's morals and aesthetics. While Lily admires and envies Selden's comfortable but non-luxurious way of life, it's unclear how she would enjoy actually living it. She initially doesn't consider Selden a marriage prospect precisely because of this lack of luxury, after all. But she also sees extravagance as vital to a woman's social influence but not a man's. So maybe in a feminist world she would accept less luxury because non-rich women could be socially valued in the same way a non-rich man like Selden is. Or maybe not--it's ambiguous. That ambiguity is why I don't see Wharton saying anything as clear as "catch her selling out then." While selling out is only necessary if you don't have equity, it can also be tempting even if you do. Wharton's story is feminist, but it also shows the effects of a mercernary society on even the socially powerful (like men). Even if Lily had the same opportunities as any man it's not clear that she wouldn't "sell out," because selling out is required to some degree for the level of luxury that Lily wants. What is clear is that she wouldn't have to sell out as much, as painfully or as humiliatingly.


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r6 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:19 - IanSullivan
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