She says she envies Seldon's work, even though he is not of the highest orders of society, but she cannot emulate his masculine example:
"Ah, there's the difference -- a girl must, a man may if he chooses." She surveyed him critically. "Your coat's a little shabby -- but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop -- and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership" (Wharton 17-18).
This is a lesson that Lily learned early in life from her mother. On one hand, her mother taught her that refinement was important. On the other hand, because of her father's ruin and her mother's belief in the importance of keeping up appearances, Lily was counseled that her face was her fortune, and she must marry well. But her early sentimental education from when she was wealthy also remained with her:
There was in Lily a vein of sentiment, perhaps transmitted from this source, which gave an idealizing touch to her most prosaic purposes. She liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste. She was fond of pictures and flowers, and of sentimental fiction, and she could not help thinking that the possession of such tastes ennobled her desire for worldly advantages. She would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich: she was secretly ashamed of her mother's crude passion for money (Wharton 54).
Lily has been brought up in a society where appearances and money are all-important, but which keeps women in an infantile state about money and upholds the value of romance. Her destructive path seems inevitable -- she cannot bring herself to marry purely for money or love, and her sense of refinement makes her wealthiest suitors seem crude in her estimation. At the end of the novel, unable to either find a fulfilling life either in work or marriage, she decides that she has no future:
She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines; to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure sweep by her unregarded. She could not hold herself much to blame for this ineffectiveness, and she was perhaps less to blame than she believed. Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird's breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples? (Wharton 487).
Lily dies at the end of the novel, passively, half by intended suicide, half unintended, as a result of her addiction to sleeping medication. She can do nothing useful, but she does not have the money or the position to conceal this fact. She dies before Seldon can offer her marriage, but the question remains if Lily really does just miss being saved -- perhaps her real destruction came when she learned her mother's lessons about the importance of materialism too young in life which was combined with her internalization of the stereotype of a 'true' lady. She can neither marry purely for love or for money, leaving her in a kind of half-way house of morality -- the ironically titled House of Mirth.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. C. Scribner's sons, 1905. Google Books.
June 9, 2008. http://books.google.com/books?id=VruwAAAAIAAJ&dq=House+of+Mirth&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=lZsOStfVA4XFtgfU_qyQCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4