In The House of Mirth, three dominant moral codes compete with each other: fashion vs. transaction vs. love. Sadly, Wharton spends very little time displaying the power and glory of love (i.e., faith, courage, and freedom). But she does a first-rate job presenting the values of fashion and commercial transactions. Lily, ever the social starlet, is a master of tones and textures, of makeup and hair, of hats and dresses, and of subtle modulations of voice, with which to express pleasure or shame or indignation. As a matter of survival, Lily adapts these means to her ends. The dance of fashion and artifice is shot through with expediency. This is an important thing to consider. Now, folks like the Trenors, Van Osburghs, and Simon Rosedale, who is one of the two great unsung heroes of the novel (more on this in a future post, I hope), have a dog-sense certainty for the commercial value of things, like jewelry, wine, cars, boats, real estate, equities, and so on. They calculate and reckon the commercial value of things to achieve status. As a matter of conspicuous consumption, they adapt these means to their ends. The dance of commercial transactions is shot through with expediency. In other words, fashion and transaction are only seemingly distinct realms of value. They’re not. They have expediency in common. Wharton does a marvelous job exploiting this commonality. Because fashion and transaction imperceptibly shade into one another, it allows Wharton to gradually slide Lily from a vivacious woman to a corpse, all while relying on values Lily holds dear.
The House of Mirth (6)