Honesty and Beauty Within: Gerty Farish in The House of Mirth
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Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth presents the maxim that without truth, beauty is meaningless; without honesty, happiness cannot be achieved; and without giving of oneself, life will have little, if any meaning. She conveys this through the difference in values, lifestyles, and morality of Lily Bart and Gerty Farish.
From the onset, Wharton presents her central character, Lily Bart, as possessing extreme beauty, as well as the internal ugliness of dishonesty. We first see her through the eyes of a friend, Lawrence Selden, who spies her at Grand Central Station:
An impulse of curiosity made him turn out of his direct line to the door, and stroll past her. He knew that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him; and it amused him to think of putting her skill to the test. (Wharton 2)
Her beauty was obvious; she “was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveler rushing to his last train” (4). Having endured a “riches to rags” life in her teen years, she was schooled by her mother to let her beauty reacquire the luxuries she was accustomed to. More than beauty was needed: “Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest, and that to convert it into success other arts are required” (34).
With her relations and beauty she is able to ingratiate herself into “society”. She mastered the “art” of deception and manipulation. Her friend Lawrence Selden, who she sees after giving a suitor the pretext of a headache, describes her as “an artist and I happen to be the bit of color you are using today” (66). When Selden confronts her about her quest for wealth and position, he brings her to tears; sadly, “he said to himself, somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art” (72).
Lily will not “settle” for the wealthy potential spouses “presented” to her, and her monetary debt increases as she continues to enjoy the fine life. Word of her borrowing is an embarrassment, and she schemes to have a friend’ stockbroker husband to invest her meager funds (77-85). The subterfuge is natural: “(h)er personal fastidiousness had a moral equivalent, and when she made a tour of inspection in her own mind there were certain doors she did not open” (82). Hers, and others’ lies destroy her.
She learns the “return on her investment” from the broker was in reality his cash gift to her, and his brutish attempt for a sexual “payback” left her reeling (140-148). Another “friend”, cheating on her husband, makes a show of “evicting” Lily from a cruise, ostensibly because she was involved with the husband, in a sense, “sacrificing” her to disguise the truth (218). She is part of, and inhabits a world of lies and half-truths. “What is truth?” she asks. “Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe” (226).
Wharton distinguishes Lily’s friend Gerty Farish, Selden’s cousin, also unmarried but reconciled to her fate: “(w)hat right had she to dream the dreams of loveliness? A dull face invites a dull fate” (161). Lily ridicules her lifestyle, her unmarried status, and her apartment, “a horrid little place”(7). Lily succinctly states what separates them: “…we’re so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy” (7).
Gerty was a “giver”; she had devoted her life to helping the poor and downtrodden. Gerty was overwhelmed when Lily took an interest in her activities:
Gerty’s affection for her friend—a sentiment that had learned to keep itself alive on the scantiest diet—had grown to active adoration since Lily’s restless curiosity had drawn her into the circle of Miss Farish’s work. (150)
Lily is oblivious that she has done little to reciprocate Gerty’s affection, and equally unconscious of the fact Gerty’s affection remains, regardless. But Gerty was as unfamiliar with the motives of Lily as she was of the society dinners and events Lily swirled in:
Gerty Farish was not a close enough reader of character to disentangle the mixed threads of which Lily’s philanthropy was woven. She supposed her beautiful friend to be actuated by the same motive as herself—that sharpening of the moral vision which makes all human suffering so near and insistent that the other aspects of life fade into remoteness. (151)
As her life disintegrates, Lily is drawn to Gerty, who will do anything for her distressed friend. Gerty offers to share her own apartment and offers to find her a job. Selden implores Lily to return to Gerty, yet she refuses (279). It is even as though Gerty’s influence upon life self will conspire to help her tragic friend. Nettie, one of Gerty’s “success stories”, a young woman Lily had also assisted during her “philanthropy” tries to rescue a drifting an emaciated Lily when she finds her on a park bench and takes her into her home (312).
Wharton indicates Lily’s destiny, and provides the metaphor for her inability to grasp value beneath beauty:
Once, when we were children, and I had rushed up after a long separation, and thrown my arms around her, she said: “Please don’t kiss me unless I ask you to, Gerty”—and she did ask me a minute later; but since then I’ve always waited to be asked. (271)
As Lily has pushed away someone who truly loves her, only to request the kiss on her own terms, she has inadvertently stifled Gerty’s nature to reach out and help.
Lily’s last contact of significance was with Nettie and her infant in the warmth of Nettie’s kitchen. “It was the first time she had ever come across the results of her spasmodic benevolence, and the surprised sense of human fellowship took the mortal chill from her heart” (316).
However, it was too little, too late. She was never able to grasp the significance of life beyond the wealth and luxury that occasionally surrounded her, but never belonged to her. With that terrible characteristic, she alienated those who loved her.