The House of Mirth
By: Edith Wharton
Set among the elegant brownstones of New York City and opulent country houses like gracious Bellomont on the Hudson, the novel creates a satiric portrayal of what Wharton herself called “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers” with a precision comparable to that of Proust. And her brilliant and complex characterization of the doomed Lily Bart, whose stunning beauty and dependence on marriage for economic survival reduce her to a decorative object, becomes an incisive commentary on the nature and status of women in that society. From her tragic attraction to bachelor lawyer Lawrence Selden to her desperate relationship with social-climbing Rosedale, Lily is all too much a product of the world indicated by the title, a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” For it is Lily’s very specialness that threatens the elegance and fulfillment she seeks in life.
Edith Wharton is one of those authors that I’ve heard about for a very long time but for some reason have never gotten around to reading. Well, I figured now was a good time to rectify the situation and oh man, I could not put this book down =P Contains spoilers ahead! (I had a lot more to say about this book than I initially thought when I started this entry)
Where do I even begin? I guess I’ll start by saying that, and I’ve mentioned this a few times already, of all of the classic novels I’ve read that focused on Society and its role on human interaction and behaviour, it is at its harshest in this novel. I don’t know if it’s partly because of the setting or just the way that Wharton viewed upper society at the turn of the century but no matter what her prose said about how it just sort of drifted pass Lily in the second half of the novel, I could not help but feel like it is a vicious creature nonetheless. Or maybe it’s the way that the people who inhabit this echelon of society and their take of Society that makes it seem so…harsh.
From the first page there was something about Lily Bart that draws the reader to her. I think it’s the way she’s aware of her situation–a girl born and bred in the upper class who needs to marry in order to be comfortable in her social standing–but at the same time she wants more than that. There’s this inner self that she’s kept tucked away underneath the facade she shows to Society and that only her closest of friends can see. She dislikes the fact that she has to marry to be financially secure but at the same time she has no choice because during this period women of her position had no other alternative. This in a way is her downfall because she doesn’t know anything else, really. So she uses whatever means is at her disposal–her lady education, her beauty, her charm–to attract men. She knows she has this ability and she uses it on everyone, even on Laurence Selden. She uses Gus Trenor to speculate on her behalf but that creates complications thanks to Society’s perchance to gamble and Gus’ betrayal of Lily’s trust.
Lily’s downfall from Society right through to the end is a sad and tragic one. Part of it is her own doing: despite of her power to charm men, she is unable to ruthlessly see her plans through, suck it up and just marry one of her suitable admirers. By the time she realised what she had done, it was too late, she was already cast out and struggling to make ends meet. But she was too much a creature of Society to let go of her pride and she was never really educated on how to manage her spending/activities properly in the first place. But others have contributed to her tragedy, Bertha Dorset being the reigning queen of the lot. Her ‘friends’ abandon her one by one and by the time the reader realises who indeed are the good ones, the ones who won’t use her to fulfill their own interests (and let’s face it, every character in this novel had their own interests and looked out for themselves over Lily’s well-being at one point or the other), Lily is unwilling to let them help her. I don’t blame her, I think she smarted up at that point–a little too late.
Another interesting character that garnered my attention was Laurence Selden, the lawyer who moves between the upper middle class and the upper class with ease thanks to his occupation and position in society. In many ways he acts like an observer to the upper class. He is clearly the man Lily ought to marry: underneath his cleverness and his role as confidant and teacher (think Mr. Knightley), Lily is herself when she’s with him and both of them are painfully aware of how open they are with each other. They skirt the issue every time, both aware of where they are in society and their obligations to stick to those values (which adds to the doomed aspect of their love). Selden is not perfect and his flaws are all too apparent: he’s torn between his rational and emotional side and at one point he too abandons Lily to the unknown. The thing is that although he calls Lily a coward at one point for the situation between them, he is the coward for failing to step up when she really needed him.
Selden is also a coward because he also reacted too late to his feelings towards Lily. He teases and prods the issue, tells her he loves her but can’t/doesn’t want to marry her yet is drawn to her nonetheless. He reacts with jealousy and admiration just like any other man and yet he doesn’t really realise the depth of his feelings until later on. What’s really sad is that while Lily thought that he no longer loved her, he realised how much he loved her and was all bright and happy the morning after their last meeting, walking towards her place to tell her so. The shift in tone from a bright morning to a dark end really added to their story.
What I also loved about this novel aside from the characterisations and the details that propelled the drama forward was how timely some of the themes were. Money was just as much an issue then as it is now; I loved one of the early chapters were Lily was contemplating about her situation and how unfortunate it was that human society must rely on money so much to remain comfortable. Looking at today with the way that the economy is running and many of us are out there trying to find a job to make ends meet, it’s a universal theme and it sadly runs Lily’s life to the ground.
Overall I greatly enjoyed reading The House of Mirth, easily a favourite of mine. It’s rich in characterisations and character motives; no one is right or wrong per se but there are many unfortunate circumstances that fall on Lily Bart and everyone is out for themselves that many of them in the end are false and plastic. Wharton’s prose is wonderful and very reflective of the situations that the characters found themselves in and feeling. I highly recommend this novel if you’re into classic novels set in the Edwardian period or a good character drama.