Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

House of Mirth (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)     The House of Mirth centers around Lily Bart, a woman born into the privileged world of New York's upper east side.  Her life of ease and comfort firsts begin to crumble when her father (with some help from his wife) loses the family fortune.  Lily's parents die soon thereafter, but not before her mother tells Lily that she must get it all back, namely by marrying well, and by well I mean rich.  One might expect this to be a fairly simply task for someone like Miss Bart.  Even her financial circumstances are not much of a turnoff to potential suitors, as she is expected to inherit the estate of Julia Peniston, an aunt who takes in the then orphaned Lily.  However, though beautiful and skilled in the arts of high society, Lily fails to marry. 

Lily is not a romantic. She is not holding out for true love.  She does care for one man, Lawrence Selden, who in turn cares for her. (The world love doesn't seem quite right for either of them.) Unfortunately Selden simply does not have enough money to enable Lily to live the life she wants.  And so because Lily will not marry for love at the expense of money, their relationship does not venture beyond a close friendship.

Seldon is not Lily's only suitor.  There is another viable candidate in the form of Simon Rosedale, an unabashed social climber.  He worships Lily, both for her beauty and her social skill.  He seems to genuinely like her and see her for who she truly is, warts and all, but Lily turns her nose up at him believing she can do better.  Later, when she is running out of options and she condescends to accept the marriage proposal she had previously turned down, Rosedale, in a burst of honesty that even Lily finds refreshing, notes that the tables have turned and now he, with the wealth he has built up over the passing years, can do better than her.

Lily's inheritance turns out not to be quite what she expected.  Without a large inheritance or a rich husband, Lily must depend on the hospitality and generosity of friends.  This works for awhile, a long while in fact, but eventually it all falls apart.  Some of it Lily's fault.  She gambles on cards, spends recklessly, gets herself into debt, and becomes involved with dubious people.  Some of it is due the cruel actions of others, most notable Bertha Dorset, a woman Lily once considered a  friend.

Lily was an interesting character, but not an entirely sympathetic one.  Although she is cruelly used by Bertha Dorset and unfairly treated by former friends who wish to stay in the good graces of Bertha, Lily is not exactly innocent.  Some of her problems are due to her own bad choices and stubbornness.  At times it seems Wharton was trying to paint Lily as a woman trying to stay true to her ideals, but I didn't buy it.  Lily is just too full contradictions and standards that are little more than excuses for snobbery.  For instance, she does not seem to see the contradiction in aspiring to marry wealth, but despising a man who would marry her for her social capital.  I also could not help but think that if the shoe were on someone else's foot, while she might not be as deliberately cruel as Bertha is, Lily would not be that generous or nice to the unfortunate soul either.  There are rules to the New York high society Lily was born into and struggles to stay in, and she plays by those rules willingly.  Even Lily's saintly friend Gerty Farish notes that after losing so much, Lily never seems to realize that what she aspired to was not so important after all.   
This book can also be seen as a comment on the economics of marriage for women in the late 1800s/early 1900s.  Lily is told repeatedly that the solution to her financial (and later social) problems is a husband.  This made me wonder about where, if at all, Lily Barth fits in on the feminist spectrum.  I understand that she has limited options, both due to her gender and the time she lives in.  One of my favorite passages touching on the inequality between men and women was where Lily remarks how as a woman she is expected to look and dress well if she wants to be accepted into the social tapestry, but a man can show up in an old coat.  While she is right about the inequality in expectations of men and women, Lily Bart is not exactly a banner for the feminist cause.  She simply wants to be rich and enjoy life without the attendant responsibilities.  I kept wanting her to make a choice and either: (1) marry Seldon and accept a more moderate lifestyle, (2) marry for money and stop complaining about the shortcomings of a husband who is willing to fund her extravagant lifestyle, or (3) walk away from high society and strive for independence even if it meant giving up the fancy dresses and opera boxes.  At various points Lily does talk about independence and to be fair, she does finds a job making hats.  This does not go well for as Wharton demonstrates through Lily's failure to master sewing, women like Lily were brought up to be beautiful and social and not much else.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that they are ill equipped for much else.  More to the point, Lily's desire for independence goes no further than a desire to be independently wealthy.  While I understand this desire, it does not make Lily an idealist or a particularly sympathetic character.

I very enjoyed much reading The House of Mirth.  It is the kind of book that compelled me to underline passages.  It is the kind of book that makes me wish I was sitting in a college literature class as this is a book that needs to be discussed and dissected.  I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, especially book groups, and look forward to reading more of Edith Wharton.

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