In Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the heroine Lily Bart is prohibited from the self-invention she seeks by socially-constructed conceptions of who she must be. Lily is imprisoned in a projection of male desire, fantasized simplistically in polar terms: angel/monster,(1) virgin/whore, innocent/seductress; which implicate each other in an inevitable reciprocity of female entrapment. Lily's most ardent expression of her desire to escape such confining definition is also her most elusive. Critics have never identified "the word which made all clear" between Selden and Lily which Selden thinks he knows at the end of the novel.(2) Yet, this word is first suggested by Lily herself when she writes a note to Selden, and Selden breaks the seal: "-- a grey seal with |Beyond!' beneath a flying ship" (163).(3) Lily chooses the word "Beyond!" for her seal; Selden then appropriates it from her. In the fervor of his idealization of Lily after the tableaux scene, Selden rushes to interpret its meaning: "Ah, he would take her beyond -- beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition and corrosion of the soul --" (163).
Intimations in The House of Mirth that there may be a transformative word in the text -- that language, in other words, can bring about a transformation -- occur earlier in Selden's conversation with Lily in the country. In his infamous "republic of the spirit" speech, Selden suggests that "|there are sign-posts [toward it] -- but one has to know how to read them'" (71). "|Well, I have known, I have known!'" Lily responds: "|Whenever I see you, I find myself spelling out a letter of the sign -- and yesterday -- last evening at dinner -- I suddenly saw a little way into your republic'" (71). Selden concludes, remarkably, that "|names can alter the colour of beliefs'" (73).
Selden once more alludes to Lily's suggestive "Beyond!" after he talks about Lily with his cousin Gerty Farish. Facetious upper-class society is Lily's "element, not his. But he would lift her out of it, take her beyond! That Beyond! on her letter was a cry for rescue" (167). But Selden does not keep his resolution. He thinks he sees Lily compromised fleeing from Gus Trenor's home late one evening; he then backs out from his planned liaison with her. As Lily sits tensely waiting for him, her mind again drifts to the communication between them; she worries that Selden "had misread her hurriedly scrawled note, taking the four for a five," and she "hastily resolve[s] to write more legibly in the future" (184). But writing more legibly is not the problem. Indeed, that women cannot use language clearly is a type of masculine red herring that might be used if a man did not want to really "hear" a woman's message. Legibility will not remedy the way Selden's ability to interpret "Beyond!" has been borne down and restricted by his own patriarchal values: he does not keep continuous faith with his first reading of Lily's "Beyond!"
As mentioned, Selden refers finally to "Beyond!" as "the word which made all clear" between Lily and himself after her death. Though Selden's own faith in Lily's word may falter, he is correct in assuming that his first interpretation matches Lily's referent for this word never spoken between them. "Beyond" haunts the text as Lily dies:
As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered vague and luminous on the far edge of thought -- she was afraid of not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well. (341)
Selden makes conscious what has been semi-conscious and preverbal for Lily. Lily chooses the emblematic "Beyond!" to seal her own letters tentatively: it is a strategic utterance of her wish for transformation mediated by the emblem. The sphere of art (as with the iconic emblem here) is the only sphere in which Lily can experience a transformation, as we shall see later. …