Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton

Oh dear, I've been drastically delinquent in my reading and postings to this blog. I can't even remember when I actually finished The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton, but it was at least two or three weeks ago. The only good news is that I haven't finished any other books in the meantime, so I'm not yet behind in writing up reviews. Actually, I seem to have developed a new obsession, and if everything works exactly the way I want it to, it just might blossom into a career. A career I'm actually excited about. I'll talk about it more when I write about one of the books I'm working on now, but it's the main reason I've been reading so little.

And then, after silently deciding to myself that I did want to participate in Cannonball Read again this year, because it's for a good cause, and 52 books sounds so much more reasonable than 100, I find out that Cannonball is already full. Oh well, I'll play on the sidelines. By myself. It's pretty cool that so many people are involved, though. I look forward to reading about the hundreds and hundreds of books I'll want to read but won't have the time for.

So, to get back to the topic at hand: The House of Mirth. I read The Age of Innocence many years ago (in college, maybe?) and loved it. The writing was amazing, and what I can remember of the restrained heartbreak was moving and memorable. So, I was expecting a lot when I picked up The House of Mirth, and although I was still very impressed by some of the writing, my interest and care for the heroine ebbed and flowed throughout, and I could never really buy into the plot. Although I definitely appreciated certain aspects of this novel, I'm afraid it's not one of my favorites. Seeing as how this book has been around forever and is pretty well-known, I'll be throwing in some spoilers below.

Miss Lily Bart is a twenty-nine-year-old socialite in fashionable New York City in the early 20th Century. Although Lily is orphaned and dependent on her wealthy aunt for everything, her beauty and style make her coveted and relatively powerful in the hierarchical and snobbish set in which she runs. Lily grew up with money and was taught by her mother that wealth, beauty, and presentation were more important than anything else, and Lily approaches her life knowing that success means securing adequate funds by marrying money. Although Lily is smart and tempting enough to accomplish this task, in the end, she is never able to force herself to play the game to its conclusion by tying herself to a man who bores the hell out of her. There is a man she cares about more than anything--Selden, and I believe that she truly loved him, but she doesn't consider him as a possibility because of his lack of funds until it is too late.

As the book unfolds, Lily misses or loses one chance after another to secure her future. As her prospects dim, her old "friends" turn away from her in judgment or disinterest, and the reader sees Lily's slow descent from the top pillars of society to barely scraping a living as a seamstress. Lily has too much pride to ask for much help, and she finally ends her life in despair, dying of a drug overdose.

Lily Bart is an intriguing character. She is one part Paris Hilton, a manipulative and shallow socialite who cares only about money and eschews love when she has it in her grasp. But at the same time, Lily is intelligent, witty, loving, and likable. The reasons Lily loses her position in society stem much more from Lily's conniving and mean-spirited acquaintances than Lily herself. In the end, Lily's tragedy stems primarily from the fact that she was too honorable to completely buy in to the social mores of the people around her. Although she had a couple chances of marrying into money and solving all of her problems, she could never bring herself to seal the deal. Lily also had the perfect opportunity to get back at a mean, cheating woman who was horrible to her, but she wouldn't do it.

And I guess this brings me to the problems I had appreciating some of the plot lines. The things that keep Selden and Lily Bart apart from each other felt a little manufactured. Selden hears something about Lily and then just happens to see her coming out of another man's house at the exact moment that it would look most damning. And then he makes some assumptions and doesn't talk to her for a couple years. But what I had the most trouble understanding was why Lily was so intent on being "honorable" to people who were horrible to her and whom she no longer had any contact with. Why was it more important for her to pay back some money to a man who would not even recognize her in society or even miss such a paltry sum, than it was for her to survive? Even when Lily is completely cast out of society--a society that acted with less honor and more hypocrisy than any group of people I've seen--the idea of restoring her honor is more important to her than living. I found this frustrating and difficult to understand.

1 comment:

Jen K said...

I haven't read The Age of Innocence, but I read this in a class once and while I liked, I didn't love it. However, I definitely recommend her novel Summer - I don't think it's nearly as famous as some of her others, but it's definitely my favorite of hers, and actually one of my favorite books in general - of course, it always helps having a professor that knows their stuff and can point things out to make it even more meaningful.