Violence and the Novel, Part Two

I’m rereading The House of Mirth for class right now, and I’m taking under advisement mariah’s suggestion that I remove Laurence Selden from my list of characters I’d like to smack around. Perhaps she’s right: it seems logical that I make allowances for the novel’s ostensible perspective on its characters, distinguishing between those the reader is meant to like but who are nonetheless so annoying as to drive one to violence (e.g., Dick Diver) and those the reader is meant to view skeptically from the get-go. Like Laurence Selden. A good point.

And yet. Selden’s flaw — his most literal weakness — is his inability to commit to any depth of feeling. Poor boy, wants to live free in the republic of the spirit, and all that. The problem, for me at least, is that he seems to think that he is being brave in this desire for freedom, rather than shrinking in cowardly fashion from human contact. Complete self-deception, in other words. And the cost of that self-deception, for Lily, is high indeed. Take this early moment: having happened upon Lily in a train station, he is drawn to her “as a spectator,” and yet cannot resist getting involved:

“What luck!” she repeated. “How nice of you to come to my rescue!”

He responded joyfully that to do so was his mission in life, and asked what form the rescue was to take.

That combination of attraction and hesitation, making her — even in jest — his “mission in life” and then demanding to know the particulars of what she needs, presages everything that is wrong with Selden. His ultimate, genuine failure to come to Lily’s rescue when she most needs it is perhaps explicable; he is weak, after all, and it would take a kind of courage that he does not possess to save her. But it’s finally his utter lack of self-knowledge, his determination to understand his cowardice as bravery — epitomized by the novel’s penultimate lines — that carries him beyond the pale for me:

He saw that all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart; since his very detachment from the external influences which swayed her had increased his spiritual fastidiousness, and made it more difficult for him to live and love uncritically. But at least he had loved her — had been willing to stake his future on his faith in her — and if the moment had been fated to pass from them before they could seize it, he saw now that, for both, it had been saved whole out of the ruin of their lives.

Fated? Willing to stake his future? I doubt both of these conditions highly — had Selden found her alive and well at novel’s end, I can only assume that some other new reservation would have interposed itself between him and committing to her.

All this to say that perhaps it’s not — or not only — the novel’s perspective on its characters that might determine whether or not they’re worthy of being throttled, but — or but also — the characters’ own self-regard. There are those — and Dick Diver and Selden both fall into this category — who seem to consider themselves more sinned against than sinning, when the rest of the text seems rife with evidence to the contrary.

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