What does the central character want? What is standing in her way? And what strategy does she pursue in order to overcome this block?
Lily Bart wants a happy, independent, and luxurious life. Unfortunately she is orphan and poor, and the society she lives in does not provide any means of independent income for women. On the contrary, it crushes poor women to make way for the rich ones. Her only option is to marry a rich husband, no matter she loves him or not. (who said women didn’t do business and politics at that era? It’s just more delicate than what men did!).
Who is telling you this story?
Wharton told it from third-person objective. I don’t know why, but she sometimes called the heroine as Lily, but at other times, Miss Bart. Was it just for variation, or did she mean something with it?
Images and metaphors
I found many imagery of water in this novel; the words like: wave, flood, sink, drowned, ocean, floating, etc. They usually represent Lily Bart’s unfortunate events, as if to highlight her helplessness against the powerful society movements, just like a tiny object in the ocean—it is swayed and crushed without the power to fight back. This object could not survive because the ocean is not its habitat. The same applied to Lily Bart; she does not belong to the society she was brought up for. One of the water metaphors:
“Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the moral shame was one with the physical dread. […] His touch was a shock to her drowning consciousness.”
Beginnings and endings
This book is opened with passivity and stagnation. Lily talks with Selden about how a girl with her ambition must force herself into the society, and marriage with a rich husband is a must. There is also a sense of imprisonment; I can feel from the opening that Lily is a free character; she knows what she must do (marrying a rich husband), but she is reluctant to make the commitment.
The ending is a resolution. Whether Lily has intentionally ended her life or not, even Selden knows that she won’t be happy if she had lived. Her dream is not correspond with the law of society at that time. Selden and Lily distinguish from the others because they have uncorrupted moral; but Selden survives because he is financially independent, whereas a girl does not provided with that privilege.