Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
The principle of exchange, a principle that governs all aspects of social relations in The House of Mirth, institutes a fiction of parity even as it feeds on and reproduces the fundamental inequality of the transacting parties. Exchange does not mean mutual expenditure; it requires, rather, a paying party, there to meet the obligation, and a receiving party, there to collect the profits. Nonpayment—financial or otherwise—is the secret behind exchange. Lawrence Selden, despite his noble protestations, belongs firmly to the book's privileged, miserly company, for he refuses to part with his asset, his emotional capital. Lily is the only one who consistently pays, although, by the nightmarish logic of exchange, her scrupulous expenditure is precisely what constitutes her crime and justifies her punishment.