Is Selfishness the Key to Happiness?

I’m sure most of us would immediately answer “no” to the question the title poses. I do. I think self-care and self-love are important in order to be able to share love and affection with others, but I don’t think selfishness leads to happiness.

However, one of the characters of Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac (1984) thinks that selfishness is just what everybody needs in order to be fulfilled. Mr. Phillip Neville preaches this doctrine to the protagonist, Edith Hope, an apt name for a woman who in the end decides to ignore his advice.

Here’s what Mr. Neville believes.

The secret to contentment “is simply this. Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everything she desires, if she is discontented upset, restless, bored. . . simply please oneself—there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again” (p. 94-95).

These words are appealing to Edith, who has a married lover and who has recently left her fiancé at the altar because she could not go through with the marriage. She is taking a break from her life at the Hotel du Lac, where she is attempting to write her latest novel and forget the troubles of her recent life. What she wants is her married lover David, but her memories of him remind us (and her) that he isn’t worth having and that he isn’t hers.

I found Mr. Neville’s treatise on selfishness interesting because it so clearly echoed what David had been doing to Edith and to his wife. Given some hints throughout the novel, we can surmise that he does it to many women. He is selfish. He puts himself first. He pleases himself, but this wreaks havoc on many women’s lives.

This way of living has hurt Edith, but she finds it appealing because of her philosophy about the tortoise and the hare. She believes it is “the most potent myth of all” (p. 27). We are supposed to believe that the tortoise wins every time because he is good and dependable and hard working, yet Edith believes “this is a lie” (p. 27). In her view, the fable was written for the tortoises, but “hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. . . . he simply does not recognize the tortoise as a worthy adversary. That’s why the hare wins… in life, I mean. Never in fiction” (p. 28). She recognizes that those who are more selfish and unreliable may in fact win more, at least in her experience, and she longs to be one of those winners. It is an appealing philosophy.

Yet, in the end, Edith has scruples and she sticks with them. She rejects an offer of marriage from Mr. Neville, who presents the offer as a partnership in which they will both please themselves, but gain social standing because of it. Edith begins to believe this is desirable. She even writes to her lover David to tell him that she is done with him and getting married, not out of love, but out of convenience. However, she then catches Mr. Neville in some bad behavior, and she realizes that such a life is not what she wants. She doesn’t want a husband who is sneaking about having affairs and pleasing himself while keeping up appearances in public. In effect, she doesn’t want what David is, and she doesn’t want Mr. Neville either. She decides to choose herself. And in this, I guess we can say that “selfishness” does lead to her happiness.

Throughout the novel there are other interesting themes. Edith is somewhat annoyed with some of the other hotel guests, Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer. They are rich and gregarious, always taking up attention and demanding the admiration and loyalty of all others. The hotel is a rich amalgamation of various characters, all of whom serve as moments of human illumination for Edith and for us.

In the end, I was proud of Edith. The novel seemed to be taking a turn that I did not like, and yet I could understand it. I could see why she would agree to a loveless but well-matched marriage. I could see why it appealed to her, but I could also see that she had run away from marriage once and that this one would not suit her any better.

She chose herself.

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