Wharton’s novel tells the story of the decline of Lily Bart, a well-bred New York woman climbing the social ladder towards an advantageous marriage who exhausts her possibilities and falls. I’d like to compare this novel to James’ The Ambassadors in the sense that both are concerned with the distinction between sense and sensibility. (Wharton paid for his prefaces in the New York editions.) Whereas in James, the novel plots Strether’s advancement from common sense to sense/sensuality (sight, taste, touch) to a sensibility of manners (perspective, taste, tact), it seems Wharton is engaged in a slightly different approach – a sort of American Vanity Fair.
Lily Bart’s extreme tact (in the sense of manners and strategic acumen) bars her from touching (emotionally or physically) any of the people around her. The notion of tact also has to do with her intact and frigid virginal body. The proliferation of money metaphors in the novel demonstrates how not only Lily, but the novel itself makes sense and sensibility part of the same flat surface, confusing literal and metaphorical, material and spiritual. Many of the novel’s main events are effaced – presented to us later in the form of gossip in which they are retold, rather than presented as events when they occur. A major event is Lily’s misconstruction of the money from Trenor as figurative, rather than literal, and some of the novel’s metaphors go so far from the things they represent as to question the alchemical properties of language, as if it were itself an unreliable market. Rosedale “stood scanning her with interest” 17 and “people say Judy Trenor has quarreled with [Lily] on account of Gus” 167.
“It was true that, during the last three or four weeks, she had absented herself from Bellomont on the pretext of having other visits to pay; but she now began to feel that the reckoning she had thus contrived to evade had rolled up interest in the interval” 123.
Much of this confusion seems to stem from Lily’s mother, who tells her that her beautiful face (like that of a coin) will always get her money. As she declines, she does so “at face value,” so to speak – her struggles are not reflective, but reflected outwardly – she is herself a perfect surface. Trenor has “been somewhat heavily ‘touched’ by the fall in stocks” 171, when Lily is repulsed by Trenor, “the words were worse than the touch!” 195, and Lily “gave to the encounter the touch of naturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations” 306. Towards the end of the novel, “the mere touch of the packet thrilled her tired nerves” when she is addicted to sleeping drugs 389 and it is only in this state that she can be “frankly touched” by Rosedale’s kindness, just pages before her accidental overdose (after which Selden finally touches her) 391.