Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, is a tragic tale that depicts the last two years of New York socialite Lily Bart’s life and her fall from the upper class. After Lily and Lawrence Selden, whose romance is a primary focus in the novel, Miss Gerty Farish is arguably the novel’s most intriguing character. As Selden’s cousin and Lily’s close friend, Gerty is intimately involved with some of the story’s highest drama. Wharton describes Miss Farish extensively and in numerous ways, but Gerty remains a stable force in a plot filled with indecisive characters. Wharton provides several perspectives of Gerty—most notably those of Lily, Selden, and society as a whole—but above all else, she is shown to be a faithful friend. In a novel that vividly details the social consequences of an unforgiving society, Gerty Farish is a constant breath of fresh air for Wharton’s fatigued readers and a picture of true friendship to a protagonist that so desperately needs it.
While she is alluded to in the book’s opening chapter, Wharton introduces Gerty to her readers for the first time in chapter 8. The initial description is not flattering:
The young lady who thus formulated her admiration of her brilliant friend did not, in her own person, suggest such happy possibilities. Miss Gertrude Farish, in fact, typified the mediocre and the ineffectual. If there were compensating qualities in her wide frank glance and the freshness of her smile, these were qualities which only the sympathetic observer would perceive before noticing that her eyes were of a workaday grey and her lips without haunting curves. (95)
Right off the bat, Wharton makes it a priority to point out that society fails to, or refuses to, look beyond Gerty’s underwhelming physical appearance. It is what defines her to the upper class. Moreover, Wharton suggests that a woman’s appearance determined her fate in the same way wealth did for a man. Regardless, any attempt to escape such a fate or rise above a modest lifestyle is not a priority for Miss Farish. However, in a society obsessed with luxury, this is not considered an admirable trait. Continuing Gerty’s introduction, Wharton writes, “…there was something irritating in her assumption that existence yielded no higher pleasures, and that one might get as much interest and excitement out of life in a cramped flat as in the splendours of the Van Osburgh establishment” (96). Gerty Farish is so unlike everyone else in the novel because she is simply content with her life. While she lacks the envy and greed of those surrounding her, Wharton’s chief criticism is that this contentment borders on freeloading: “…it must be remembered that Gerty had always been a parasite in the moral order, living on the crumbs of other tables, and content to look through the window at the banquet spread of her friends” (160). As a member of the upper class, it is unclear to what extent Wharton’s critical tone is genuine disdain. When pointing out Gerty’s flaws, she seems to esteem the pure heart from which they are born: “It was characteristic of [Miss Farish] to take a sentimental and unenvious interest in all the details of a wedding: she was the kind of person who always kept her handkerchief out during the service, and departed clutching a box of wedding-cake” (96). It is evident that Gerty’s enjoyment of social events is both blissful and shameless, yet she does not lack hospitality herself. When Lily visits Gerty’s flat in Chapter 14 (Book 1) and Chapter 8 (Book 2), she is offered a cup of tea and a bed to sleep in as Gerty scurries around tending to her friend’s needs. And though Wharton’s use of the word “parasite” is telling, it is not the lone view of Miss Farish. In Chapter 5 (Book 2), Carry Fisher acknowledges, “Gerty’s a trump and worth all the rest of us put together” (245). Carry’s admission shows that the upper class may be in denial concerning Gerty’s worth, but they are certainly not unaware. Despite typically viewing her through a condescending gaze, society is both baffled by Gerty’s apparent satisfaction with dinginess and impressed with her selfless lifestyle.
Understandably, the primary voice Wharton uses to develop Gerty’s character is that of her protagonist, Lily Bart. In the book’s opening chapter Wharton establishes that Lily maintains society’s disapproval of Miss Farish: “‘Oh, I know—you mean Gerty Farish.’ She smiled a little unkindly. ‘But I said marriageable—and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat…But we’re so different you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy” (9-10). Many of Lily’s comments and allusions to Gerty have a backhanded undertone, but Wharton reveals her heroine maintains a far greater understanding and appreciation for her friend than this passage suggests. It is clear that Gerty’s desire to see the best in people borders on naivety, as Wharton writes in Chapter 11 (Book 1), “[Lily] knew that Gerty Farish admired her blindly…Miss Farish’s heart was a fountain of tender illusions…” (131). Later in Chapter 14 (Book 1), she points out, “Gerty Farish was not a close enough reader of character to disentangle the threads of which Lily’s philanthropy was woven” (161-162). And while this may be construed as a fault in Gerty’s character, Lily realizes this is part of the beauty that makes Gerty such a unique person. In Chapter 8 (Book 1), she tells Selden, “I envy Gerty that power she has of dressing up with Romance all our ugly and prosaic arrangements” (102). Lily understands the “power” of perspective, though she fails to use it herself until the very end of the novel. Wharton provides this duality in Lily’s view of Gerty to reveal the character of both women, but more than anything Gerty is there for her friend. Lily may not show her appreciation for this friendship, but she never forgets it. Upon receiving sympathy from Mrs. Kilroy, following a scolding from the milliner Mrs. Haines, Wharton powerfully notes, “Lily’s colour rose at the unexpected advance: it was a long time since real kindness had looked at her from any eyes but Gerty’s” (304). In the climactic Chapter 14, Lily’s distressed heart immediately seeks refuge from Gerty, acknowledging and assuming her selflessness. Throughout Book 1, Lily is well liked, popular, and appreciated, yet these empty friendships offer her nothing when times are tough. Wharton fills her plot with characters that are socially superior to the meek Gerty Farish, but none of them put Lily before their own interests—including Selden, Carry Fisher and her aunt Julia Peniston. Lily knows all the wonderful aspects of her dear friend, despite her failure to reciprocate them or communicate her profound appreciation.
The relationship Gerty has with her cousin, Lawrence Selden, reveals a great deal about the inner workings of her heart. For the most part, Selden is a fine cousin to Gerty. Any time he speaks of her, his words are complimentary and endearing. When he and Lily talk about Gerty’s wedding behavior in Chapter 8 (Book 1), Wharton notes, “There was not the least trace of embarrassment in his voice…” (102). Beyond a simple cousinly affection, however, there is little else in the way of care from Selden. His thoughts about Gerty are infrequent when he is not with her and unassuming regarding their relationship. There is clear affection on Selden’s part, but the feelings are mild and undeveloped. Wharton encapsulates Selden’s view of his cousin in Chapter 8 (Book 2): “He found Gerty as he had left her, simple, undemanding and devoted, but with a quickened intelligence of the heart which he recognized without seeking to explain it” (284). In Chapter 14 (Book 1), Wharton unveils a sort of unconventional love triangle to her readers when she depicts Gerty’s love for Selden. These feelings appear to be dormant and unspoken, but deeply rooted nonetheless. While this love triangle does not define the plot, Gerty’s suppressed emotions toward her cousin and dear friend seemingly lie tacit in the background of every scene involving the three that follows Chapter 14. Like Lily, Selden never makes any significant effort to affirm Gerty’s selfless lifestyle. In the book’s final chapter, his eyes are opened at last: “Gerty shook her head with a smile. ‘No: this is what she would have wished—’ and as she spoke a light broke though Selden’s stony misery, and he saw deep into the hidden things of love” (345). This is Wharton’s last exposition of Gerty Farish, and it illustrates both Selden’s inaction and his cousin’s unrelenting sacrifice.
Of all the perspectives Wharton provides, the most important is Gerty’s view of herself. Chapter 14 (Book 1) is the book’s most eventful chapter and Gerty is a central figure in it. It is in this chapter that Wharton presents Gerty’s introspection and reveals to her readers how the humble Miss Farish sees herself. First, Wharton describes Gerty’s motivation as, “…that sharpening of the moral vision which makes all human suffering so near and insistent that the other aspects of life fade into remoteness.” This helps explain Gerty’s actions within the novel and overall lifestyle. She cares for others above herself because she has conditioned the petty aspects of life to be distant concerns in her mind. Conversely, she has brought herself close to human suffering and those in need by establishing the Girls’ Club, in addition to her extensive involvement with other charity work. Wharton makes it clear that Gerty Farish has a taste for the finer things in life, but unlike most of the other characters, she is not enslaved to these luxuries. Gerty has a mature prioritization of what’s truly important in life and puts simple realities into a more meaningful perspective. Following this explanation of motivation, Wharton alludes to Gerty’s excitement that Lily has visited the Girls’ Club with her, writing, “…[Gerty] rejoiced in the thought that she had been the humble instrument of this renewal” (ital. added, 162). Throughout the entire novel, this appears to be Gerty’s highest view of herself. Without a doubt, she is defined by her humility. Wharton’s tone dramatically shifts later in the chapter as Gerty talks to Selden about Lily. After finally finding someone else who believes in her dear friend, Gerty is excited to share this sentiment with her cousin. However, she quickly realizes the two are in love and feels used and alone.
It was at this point, perhaps, that a joy just trying its wings in Gerty’s heart dropped to the earth and lay still. She sat facing Selden, repeating mechanically: ‘No she has never been understood—’ and all the while she herself seemed to be sitting in the centre of a great glare of comprehension. The little confidential room, where a moment ago their thoughts had touched elbows like their chairs, grew to unfriendly vastness, separating her from Selden by all the length of her new vision of the future—and that future stretched out interminably, with her lonely figure toiling down it, a mere speck on solitude. (167)
It is here that Wharton’s rhetoric surrounding Gerty Farish turns from encouraging to heart wrenching. Moreover, she exposes some of Gerty’s internal flaws. Wharton mentions “Gerty’s suddenly flaming jealousy,” (172) and as she lay in bed, “Reason, judgment, renunciation, all the sane daylight forces, were beaten back in the sharp struggle for self-preservation. She wanted happiness—wanted it as fiercely and unscrupulously as Lily did, but without Lily’s power of obtaining it. And in her conscious impotence she lay shivering, and hated her friend” (173). In her broken devastation, Gerty shows herself capable of the unkind human tendencies she so earnestly fights against: hatred, jealousy, vitriol, and selfishness. However, the tragic element of Wharton’s exposition is not that Gerty is a flawed individual, but rather that she finally submits to the cruel societal constraints that falsely project worth through wealth and physical appearance. As Gerty sits alone in her flat, Wharton writes, “Gerty felt the poverty, the insignificance of her surroundings: she beheld her life as it must appear to Lily.” Wharton continues this potent language: “[Gerty] went into her bedroom to undress. In the little glass above her dressing-table she saw her face reflected against the shadows of the room, and tears blotted the reflection. What right had she to dream the dreams of loveliness? A dull face invited a dull fate” (173). Despite constantly holding out Gerty Farish as a portrait of selflessness and grounded humility, Wharton reveals to her readers the insecurities and intimate struggles that exist in even the finest human beings.
Gerty’s role in terms of the plot is simply her relationships with Lily and Selden, but the overarching impact she has on Wharton’s readers is her enduring friendship. A closer examination of this friendship reveals how Wharton uses Gerty’s character to leave a lasting impression on her readers, including the silver lining to a tragic conclusion. The ending of Chapter 13 (Book 1) leaves Lily alone outside Gus Trenor’s house, emotionally devastated and overwhelmed. Transitioning into the climactic Chapter 14, Wharton’s heroine desperately desires refuge and security, but feels abandoned with nowhere to turn. As she walks down Fifth Avenue, she thinks of Gerty. Wharton’s diction displays both Lily’s need of friendship and her confidence that Gerty will provide it, “…if only she could feel the hold Gerty’s arms while she shook the ague-fit of fear that was coming upon her… It was not so late—Gerty might still be waking. And even if she were not, the sound of the bell would penetrate every recess of her tiny apartment and rouse her to her friend’s call” (159). Indeed, Lily’s assumptions prove to be accurate. Immediately following Wharton’s detailing of Gerty’s inner struggle and “hatred” of Lily, the doorbell rings and Gerty answers it without hesitation, remembering, “…that such calls were not unknown in her charitable work.” After Lily “caught and clung to” Gerty, Wharton describes her heroine as “one who has gained shelter after a long flight.” Given the context, Gerty’s willingness to help Lily seems extraordinarily admirable, but Wharton mentions, “Gerty’s compassionate instincts, responding to the swift call of habit, swept aside all her reluctances. Lily was simply someone who needed help…disciplined sympathy checked the wonder on Gerty’s lips” (ital. added, 174). This unquestioned service from Gerty is commendable, but it is only part of Wharton’s full portrayal of Miss Farish’s steadfast heart in the chapter. While Lily is crying about her desire to be with Selden, she understands Lily has won his heart: “The mortal maid on the shore is helpless against the siren who loves her prey: such victims are floated back dead from their adventure.” However, when she is presented with the opportunity to betray both Lily and her cousin, she resists the temptation.
Gerty stood cold and passive. She knew the hour of her probation had come, and her poor heart beat wildly against its destiny. As a dark river sweeps by under a lightning flash, she saw her chance of happiness surge past her under a flash of temptation. What prevented her from saying: ‘He is like other men?’ She was not so sure of him, after all! But to do so would have been like blaspheming her love. She could not put him before herself in any light but the noblest: she must trust him to the height of her own passion. (177)
Gerty’s passionate love for Selden is on full display, but so too is her loyalty to Lily. After aiding Lily in her time of distress, Gerty emotionally surrenders to protect both her friend and her cousin. Furthermore, this “trust” in Selden hints at another characteristic of Miss Farish: her faith.
Wharton establishes Gerty’s motivation in Chapter 14, but implicitly leaves clues as to what fuels Miss Farish. There is almost no mention of religion or spiritual beliefs within the novel, but on some level Gerty values the Bible. In Chapter 14, Selden hears her quoting scripture as Wharton describes his thoughts, “His mind turned to Gerty Farish’s words, and the wisdom of the world seemed a groping thing beside the insight of innocence. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (164). In Chapter 5 (Book 2), Wharton contrasts Lily’s thoughts from Gerty’s, labeling them “worldly wisdom.” It seems Gerty’s hopeful vision for Lily sees her escaping the unfulfilling prospect of affluence and embracing a more meaningful life. No matter what Lily does, Gerty refuses to give up on this hope: “Having once helped Lily, she must continue to help her; and helping her, must believe in her, because faith is the main-spring of such natures” (250). Regardless of any dogma she may subscribe to, Gerty’s faith gives depth and purpose to her character. Wharton hints at this in Chapter 8 when Gerty pleads with Selden to regain his faith in her, “‘But now all the things she cared for have been taken from her and the people who taught her to care for them have abandoned her too; and it seems to me that if some one could reach out a hand and show her the other side—show her how much is left in life and in herself’” (286). Had Selden maintained a faith similar to his cousin’s, Lily Bart may have avoided her tragic fate. Given the unhappy ending, the book’s silver lining comes in Chapter 13 (Book 2), when Lily runs into Nettie Struther. Nettie was “one of the girls at Miss Farish’s club” (331). As she tells Lily her story of finding love and purpose, Wharton illuminates many encouraging revelations in Lily’s heart. Perhaps the novel’s zenith comes when Wharton writes, “Lily remembered Nettie’s words: I knew he knew about me. Her husband’s faith in her had made her renewal possible—it is so easy for a woman to become what the man she loves believes her to be!” (339). These words illustrate the unfulfilled nature of Lily and Selden’s love, and the insufficiency of Gerty’s faith in altering Lily’s fate. Dismal indeed, but the satisfaction Lily gains from this epiphany leaves Wharton’s readers with a heartwarming sentiment in the midst of a discontenting conclusion. Perhaps Nettie is meant to be a picture of a happy conclusion for both Lily and Gerty. Without a doubt, however, she was brought into Lily’s life through Gerty Farish, and she has a powerful impact on the novel. This theme of faith is relevant throughout Wharton’s story, and she choses the humble Gerty Farish to carry the banner from start to finish.
In the end, The House of Mirth is not a novel that tells the story of Miss Gertrude Farish. Often referred to as a novel of manners, the book centers on Lily Bart and the late 19th century New York City society in which she lives. Edith Wharton, known for her psychological realism, presents a multifaceted depiction of Gerty Farish, but provides no resolution for her character. Gerty truly loves Lily and Selden, always putting them ahead of her own desires without ever receiving appreciation. Indeed Miss Farish’s role is to be a foil character for Wharton’s protagonist, but the author’s thorough exposition suggests her readers can learn from Gerty just as they do Lily. In a story filled with beautiful depictions of human interaction, Edith Wharton’s portrait of Gerty Farish, and her extraordinary friendship, is one of the novel’s greatest takeaways.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Ed. Jeffrey Meyers. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.