"It's all coming back to me now!" - was how I felt when first plunging into this one of all-time-favorites of mine, on my third read. And with it, I also saw things I haven't noticed previously. Here's my train of thoughts on the first four chapters.
=Lily stood apart
From the train station scene, where Selden saw Lily Bart standing uncertainly on the platform: Lily Bart always "stood apart from the crowd", and "always roused speculation". I questioned myself: is it her exceptional beauty? The next sentence answered it: "that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions". And I instantly felt sorry for Lily. For the upper classes it's like a fun show, where they sit comfortably on the top, watching her climbing up the society slippery stairs to reach them. They might cheer her along the way, or might even bet on her, just to see whether she'd make it or not, and if not, aah... it's been a fun show; then go home thinking nothing of it. Even Selden, who isn't really their set, also found Lily Bart 'interesting'. Indeed, you could find in ch. 1 only, the word "amused" quite often attached to Selden, concerning Lily.
And so it reminded me that Edith Wharton was one of the prominent Naturalims authors in 19th-20th century. And this treatment to Lily Bart is typical Natutalism literature, where we are brought to analyze how a character would react under influence of heredity and social environment. As is Doctor Pascal in Zola's Rougon-Maqcuart cycle, so is Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth - though I admit that Selden is more deeply involved into the story than Pascal (I guess, because I haven't read the last novel in the cycle, LOL).
Wharton also used animal-on-hunt analogy for Lily's approach towards Percy Gryce: "She began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack". Animals hunt to survive, and so does Miss Bart!
Still on the naturalism theme - Lily inherited her mother's "extravagant aptitude" and crude passion for luxury, while from her father, a refined mind and taste. And so Lily is always torn between these two poles. It will be much easier (and happier) for Lily if she was just like her mother - and marry Percy Gryce; or more like her father - and marry Selden (for I am convinced that Selden would marry her if she has given him the chance).
Lily knew that in order to survive, she must get Gryce, but at the same time, part of her revolted at the idea of being a mere trophy to a man. I think what she truly wants is marriage for happiness (an equal marriage), but Lily has been brought up in the environment of upper classes; it has became her habitat, that she couldn't do more than marrying money. And that's why Lily forbade Judy Trenor of inviting Selden to Bellomont, for she instinctively knew that her conquest would be faltering when Selden is present.
=Choices and Guidance
Lily's situation reminded me of my mother's advice years ago. No, I have never hunted for husband... LOL. But, as Wharton classified husband hunting as career, I then compared it with my own. Mom told me that one cannot always get the best of everything in life. So you must set your own priorities in your career - do you seek money or comfort? If you're lucky, you can find a job which pays well, and with nice atmosphere. But mostly you can only choose one of the two. I have left my first job with high salary, to move to my present (with lower salary) because my first job was full of intrigue, and they did not trust me. And now I'm so grateful I have listened to my mom in the first place; I have made the right decision. But not everyone is fortunate enough to have a good mother or family who could guide one through life. Poor Lily is one of these.
=Laziness and Procrastination
Chapter four was the turning point of Lily. Just when everything went smooth, and the target was within her reach, entered Lawrence Selden, bringing with him everything that Lily has been praising deep in her heart. Why do you think she stayed single at 29 years of age, with her beauty and "skill"? I think it's because Lily never felt sure she would be happy by marrying money, but she did not have enough strength to do otherwise. And so she kept delaying her decision to marry. I think she inherited too, from her father, the laziness to face uncomfortable truth. We don’t know for sure how Mr. Bart came to his ruin (the process, I mean, not the cause – for that we knew that the Barts spent more than what they could afford – and was he not a gambler? I vaguely remember… maybe Lily inherited that too?) But I imagined that Mr. Bart felt powerless while seeing his fortunes drained day by day, with the luxury they were enjoying, until the inevitable fact hit hard on him. I noticed that Lily did the same in chapter one after the Rosedale “accident”. Along the chapters we’d see that she had the habit of procrastinating important and “ugly” things, and let the thought passed “for the time being”.
Have you finished the first four chapters too? How is it so far?