Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

 

Do you ever find that a book splits you into two people, each responding in contradictory ways to the story that unfolds before you? That was the experience that I had with this elegant and unspeakably cruel novel. I’ve read Edith Wharton before and always admired the brilliance with which she evokes the shimmering veneer of her chosen civilisation – if one can thus term the vicious moneyed tribes that people her narratives – and the ugliness and lack of human sympathy that lies beneath. Wharton’s world is the turn of the century upper class rich, as they play their frivolous and pointless way through the New York season and the Long Island summers in a series of house parties and entertainments. The sensation of reading her carefully choreographed sentences is much akin to sipping a long, cool drink in the shade on a sultry day, but what desperate human plights she evokes with them! For the splendour of her society does not mask its rampant materialism, its innate competitiveness and its brutality to those who fall outside the charmed circle, and it is usually in its excesses and crimes that Wharton finds her subject matter.

 

In The House of Mirth, the victim is the beautiful but underfunded Lily Bart, whose charm and good connections have so far kept her afloat with the sharks whilst she waits to make a good marriage. But Lily’s love affair with luxury is undermined by her own intermittent but genuine moral impulses. She knows she must marry to secure her future, but fecklessness, carelessness or simple abhorrence of the reality of the transaction have so far kept her single. Wharton’s gaze is unsparing on the people who surround Lily; the wealthy men are dull or vulgar, the women in whom Lily places her trust and friendship are jealous and self-centred. When Lily says to Lawrence Selden in the opening encounter of the novel ‘You don’t know how much I need a friend’, she is speaking in greater truth than she is herself aware. Unfortunately, as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that Selden is not the man she needs as her friend.

 

Wharton is at her most fiendishly brilliant in the portrayal of this relationship. Lily will not marry Selden because he does not have money, but she falls in love with his good faith in a part of herself that is better than the company she keeps. Selden loves Lily and idealises her, but in that very act of idealisation he overlooks the real dangers and constraints of her situation, and he will eventually condemn her on several occasions for the appearances that he purports to despise. Theirs is a romance that never crosses the borderline into a more sincere and helpful territory; instead it makes both protagonists act out of pride and caprice, when played differently it could have been the making of both of them. Lily Bart is an extraordinary creation, for Wharton balances the superficiality and childishness of her character with great depths of sincerity and good will and a fatal adherence to an altruistic sense of honourable conduct. Selden comes off worst; he watches Lily’s downfall and walks away at the times when she most needs him, and his inability to embrace the courage of his so-called convictions is ultimately what will damn him. Lily’s lack of a man by her side, and wealth to keep her buoyant, will eventually sink her under the weight of unjust accusation, debt and dishonour, and the great tragedy of her story is that the man she asks to be her friend cannot rise above his own self-centred demands for her idealised purity to really help her out. I couldn’t help but feel, reading this novel, that I had the American equivalent of Madame Bovary in my hands: same preoccupation with money and privilege, same foolish desire in the heroine’s heart for a bigger future than her circumstances truly prescribe, same condemnation of the impossible relations between the genders, but the emphasis in Wharton’s novel falls all on the power of money, rather than the power of sex.

 

I said this novel split me in two; on the one hand the professional side of me recognised the chilling brilliance with which Wharton planned the inexorable descent of her heroine, and admired the thousand details, placed with the artistry and exactitude of beading on an elaborate ball gown, that were used to support and reinforce the inevitability of her fate. Yet the simple reader in me cried out for justice for Lily Bart – a justice I knew she was destined never to receive, and I found the novel almost unbearable in its closing stages. I almost gave it up once it became apparent how the story would end, because I wasn’t sure I could tolerate that claustrophobia of narrative entrapment. I wanted there to be a glimmer of hope, but naturally, there was no such thing. On the most direct and personal level of reading, I just hate that in a book. But I also felt that Wharton is justly recognised as one of the most stylish and exceptional of writers, for all that her passion burns like ice, rather than fire.

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19 thoughts on “Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

  1. Brilliant, Litlove! Actually, I like House of Mirth better than Age of Innocence, even if poor old Lily Bart is treated so unjustly. But I think that is Wharton’s entire point. She was herself a poor relative in a milieu that valued privilege and social prominence over all. Makes me want to read a Wharton bio…

    P.S. I wanted to point out an article to you that might or not be of interest on literary theory: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/gettingitallwrong-boyd.html

  2. What an incisive, beautifully written post. With Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton biography on the horizon (due to be released in Canada at the end of February–I’m not sure about the rest of the world), I’ve been thinking it might be time for a Wharton immersion…

  3. It is that unstoppable downward trajectory that I also found disturbing in Sister Carrie, a Theodore Dreiser novel from the same period. Knowing that nothing could stop that slide down the social ladder somehow made me deeply unhappy with both these books, even though the worlds in which they’re set are so interesting and colorful.

  4. If you seek a more unified experience of Lily’s story, just watch the recent film with Gillian Anderson. It’s hideous. It does not sparkle with the icy brilliance you describe; cruelty in the film version is sluggish and ponderous, dragging the film along inevitably to Lily’s death–for which it is difficult to feel regret, only relief. : )

  5. LK – first of all thank you so much for that extremely interesting link. I was going to email you to say it hadn’t come through properly on the other account, but posting it here means I can reach it, and it is indeed exactly in the area I’m thinking about. Thank you, thank you!! And I don’t know much about Wharton’s life and would love to read a bio. Kate – Hermione Lee’s sounds the perfect one for the job! I shall look it up on amazon, and I’ll certainly be reading more Wharton. Bloglily, I get the same feeling sometimes with Zola novels too; it’s the inexorableness that I find so difficult to read. It’s intriguing that all these authors wrote at the turn of the century – that can’t be coincidence. Hmmm, definitely something to think more about there, in that combination of our responses and the similarity of plot lines. Dorothy – it’s good to know that you and Bloglily had a similar reaction to the narrative. It helps to firm up my thinking about the novel.

  6. Tanglethis – your comment must have come in whilst I was replying to the others. I’d forgotten that there was a film made of this novel, although I do remember the publicity around it. I rarely enjoy films of Henry James’s novels, and I wonder whether the same would be true inevitably of Whartons. It’s all surface restraint and boiling depths, which never seems to come across on the screen.

  7. …recognised the chilling brilliance with which Wharton planned the inexorable descent of her heroine, and admired the thousand details, placed with the artistry and exactitude of beading on an elaborate ball gown, that were used to support and reinforce the inevitability of her fate.

    This is why Wharton was able to write some of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. And so beautifully put, as always, by you.

  8. I agree with your sentiments on Edith Wharton. 🙂 I love her, but often I’m incredibly depressed at the end of the novels. So, I can only read her when I’m in a certain kind of mood.

    I’m new to the book blogging community, and just wanted to let you know that I was going to add a link to your site on my blogroll.

    Oh, and I see that you’re a Sayers fan-I love her mystery novels. A teacher introduced me to them in high school, and they’re one of the few mystery series that I enjoy rereading.

  9. Have you read Wharton’s The Custom of the Country? It, too, is ruthless, but there is a sense of justification to it that The House of Mirth lacks. I read both books a couple of years ago, and much preferred The Custom of the Country.

  10. I haven’t read this one, so I don’t want to read your whole post, or, the comments (I hate knowing too much beforehand) until later. Wharton did have a great knack for writing about this part of society, didn’t she! My favorite Wharton novel (have only read a few) is The Age of Innocence.

  11. The forthcoming biography seems to have galvanised us all where Wharton is concerned. It’s due out here in England in February as well. I have to admit that my only experience of her has been through film (‘The Age of Innocence’) and TV (‘The Buccaneers’). A friend who is very much into Wharton suggested ‘The House of Mirth’ as the best starting point, but as Waterstones doesn’t seem to have cottoned onto the renewed interest there were no copies to ba had locally at the weekend. Now I think I may start somewhere else as from what you say this may have the same effect on me as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ always does. Every time I see that I just want it all to come out right this time!

  12. I haven’t read Mirth but we did study Innocence at school, where I came to the possibly unfair conclusion that the excessive suffocating detail is not just Wharton’s way of depicting these oppressive social strata but also reflects her own thinking being a little more mired in establishment convention than she would like. Her righteous anger does come through, but how much is directed at herself for not trying to change anything, inside or outside her books? It would be interesting to see what light a biography has to shed on that.

    At 16, of course, I was more interested in the fact that Martin Scorsese directed the film version, which was the first thing that made me look beyond the words in a book most of us found unspeakably dull. Interestingly, the voice-over narrative Scorsese uses has been adopted almost tone-perfectly for Desperate Housewives – has anyone written an analysis on the social pressures there yet? I think Wharton might approve.

  13. I love your take on Wharton. About the unbearable ending, I too felt as if I was watching Lily drowning, and hoping that she would kick hard once at the bottom so that she would come up again… but she didn’t. The only way she could have staid alive was to give up all pride, but she can’t do that because she has nothing left. I like very much Wharton’s language. During fall, I read her reports on WWI in France, it was a complete different side of her writing and personality.

  14. Litlove – thank you for this post on one of my favourite books. The first time I read this book it affected me deeply and I could not shake off its effect for days. I love all of Wharton’s writing without exception, I think she is a genius, but this particular book stands out head and shoulders above the rest, for me anyway. Yes, even the Age of Innocence, wonderful though that is.

  15. Isn’t Lily’s a tragic story? You know it’s not going to end well for her but you can’t stop hoping that maybe, just maybe it will all be okay. I love your description of how the book split you in two!

  16. Emily – I’d forgotten Wharton’s ghost stories, so thank you for reminding me! One to think of when the autumn comes around again. Eva – welcome to the book blog world! I can quite see how you would need to be in a particular mood for Wharton. But Sayers, as you rightly say, is a joy at any time. I appreciated both, as they are both extraordinary stylists. Courtney – looking forward very much to reading what you think of it. Sharon – I have read The Custom of the Country, and I know I enjoyed it very much indeed, only I cannot remember much about it! It was quite a few years ago now, and probably I ought to do some rereading. I don’t remember The Age of Innocence very clearly either! Danielle, as you’ll see by the previous comment, I did read the latter and loved it. I enjoyed the film of that one, too. Ann, our reading is very attuned, I think, because I thought of Romeo and Juliet as I neared the ending of the Wharton, and thought I discerned its influence. Thank you for the publication date of the bio. I shall certainly be looking out for it. Appropriate Monica – that link to Desperate Housewives is sheer brilliance. A PhD awaits you, when you feel that the travel writing is all through. Pauline – how interesting to have read her war reports – that’s a side of Wharton I’d be interested to look into. Elaine – your recommendation brought me to this book, and I was so pleased to have read it. It is something special. Stefanie – I think it’s that inability to stop hoping for Lily that makes it so hard to read!

  17. Pingback: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) | Unbridled Enthusiasm

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