Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Decades 2010 Challenge: The House of Mirth

This novel is anything but mirthful. It's more like a slow-motion social train wreck, set in late 1800's or early 1900's New York high society, when who you knew and who would admit they knew you could make or break a person nearly overnight.

Somehow Wharton, who lived and breathed in this world herself, sees it clearly and manages to describe it in ways that sound thoroughly modern. I had to keep reminding myself that these female characters are wearing multiple layers of clothing, petticoats, bloomers, and other unmentionables, and for the men, cravats, smoking jackets, top hats, and goodness knows what else. Wharton's story is the same: wordy, unhurried, wrapped in layers of prose, but with a modern core. Except for the outdated (thank goodness?) stranglehold of social convention, this novel could be in almost any period.

Our heroine, Lily Bart, lives and breathes in this world, too, and it is to her detriment that she sees it clearly. Her father was "ruined" in business dealings, but she has a taste for the good life and luxuries such as fresh flowers, servants, weekend parties at the country house, and gambling at cards. She knows that her only hope of securing these things is to marry well. She also knows that she's starting to be a little old, by the standards of the day, and that she'd better snag a rich husband before she gets much older. She is repulsed by what awaits her if she fails to marry: she cannot imagine herself a spinster, living alone in a rented room.

Lily's problem is that she recognizes her marriage plans as a very high-toned, socially acceptable form of prostitution. She never admits this in so many words, of course, but I think she knows it, just the same. She seems very conflicted psychologically, and what alternatives does she have? Time and again, just when she's about the close the deal, so to speak, something makes her miss the meeting or drop the wrong hint or otherwise sabotage her best efforts. And then her chance is gone, her reputation smudged, her problems intensify, and what seems like a good solution becomes a trapdoor that drops her a bit further from the center of the social action. It's a downward spiral that moves so slowly it's almost imperceptible. But it takes its toll in the end.

Wharton has created a sympathetic character full of intelligence and life, and drawn a picture of stifling society life where women and their reputations were treated like commodities. I can see Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Lily Bart having a little salon together in my head. Perhaps they will be happier there than in their novels. I certainly hope so.

Excerpt: Lily has tea with a gentleman who doesn't figure into her marriage calculations:

"I even know a girl who lives in a flat."
She sat up in surprise. "You do?"
"I do," he assured her, emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake.
"Oh, I know--you mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said marriageable--and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know."
"You shouldn't dine with her on wash-days," said Selden, cutting the cake.
They both laughed, and he knelt by the table to light the lamp under the kettle, while she measured out the tea into a little tea-pot of green glaze. As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.


  1. I love this book and I love this phrase: "a slow-motion social train wreck". Yes, yes! It's very much like Henry James as well, to add to your list. I think I find the slow motion social train wreck much more devastating than something quicker or more obvious - it's inevitable but totally unpreventable, in part because talking about it is impossible!

  2. I really enjoy what you have to say about books. So glad you got a blog.

  3. Colleen, I've never liked James but maybe I should give him another chance. And I'm still mourning how "society" chews Lily up and spits her out. She simply can't outmaneuver them, but I keep wanting her to be a kind of reverse Eliza Doolittle--living a real life, even in poverty, and to hell with "society."

    Oreneta, you really might like this one. I hardly ever foist books on friends, but I can't stop thinking (and talking!) about this one. Think about it, okay?


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