The House of Mirth is one of those books I was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read yet. And to be honest, I’ve been sitting here puzzling as to how I got my English degree without it – it screams like a book that should have been given in one of my classes along the way. However, I seemed to have missed it and that’s a bummer because The House of Mirth is one of those books I would have adored discussing in a classroom setting, looking at the character dynamics, symbolism, language etc. As it is, I spent most of the book liking Lily Bart against my better judgment and hoping against hope that the poor girl would make it out of the novel alive. [SPOILERS from here on out] Alas, it was not to be. Though props to Wharton for taking the accidental suicide plot to its conclusion, I kept expecting Lily to simply freeze to death on the streets of New York like other hapless orphans shunned by society.
So, rewinding a little, The House of Mirth is essentially a novel of manners following the beautiful but poor Lily Bart through the upper crust of New York society circa 1905. Lily is proud and vain so she tends to be picky about her marriage proposals which is why she’s still single despite being in society all her life with the one purpose of marrying a wealthy man. Because, that is all Lily is good for; her mother and society have seen to that. Through a series of misfortunes and some major backstabbing, Lily finds herself kicked out of the hallowed circles and trying to work for a living. Needless to say, it does not go well. In the end, Lily’s pride basically does her in and a series of misunderstandings means the one man who does love her (but has the spine of a jellyfish…wait…that may be an insult to jellyfish) thinks the worst of her for most of the book and only has his flashes of insight when standing next to her cold, dead body.
OK, so in college I took this fabulous class called Working Girls which looked at the portrayal of women as workers in fiction from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. During this class (which allowed me to write a paper on how men were superfluous to the heroine’s ultimate goals so you know I loved it), we read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and as I was reading, I kept comparing that book to The House of Mirth for obvious reasons. Both feature young, down on their luck beautiful girls trying to make their way into New York’s high society. However, Carrie triumphs in the end with her swanky apartment and wonderful career while Lily sadly overdoses in a run down tenement house. So, where does Lily go wrong? I think the difference in the two characters is Carrie was not raised in high society, something Dreiser stresses. Carrie simply carries an inborn sense of beauty and refinement with just the right amount of common sense and heartlessness; Lily is born to money and has it ruthlessly taken from her after she’s been made into nothing more than a beautiful clothes hanger that men fawn over. In fact, there is a scene in The House of Mirth where Lily is part of a tableaux and the men are literally just staring at her; Seldon, the man who loves her, sees her in her truest form while Gus Trenor, the man who’s given her money under false pretenses, sees something he’s paid for but isn’t allowed to touch. It’s a fascinating scene and one where the differences between Carrie and Lily are stark. Carrie is the focus of a male gaze she controls throughout her story, discarding lovers as she outgrows them to end up independently wealthy and single. Lily has absolutely no control over the gaze on her. In fact, she’s a slave to it in her belief that if she’d just submit, it will give her what she wants, i.e. a wealthy husband and social power.
So, that’s as English major geek as I’ll go on you. Honestly, I liked Lily Bart but I’m still trying to figure out why. I admired her moral code – in fact, she impressed me by sticking with it to the bitter end. I kept expecting her to crack, to compromise, to sink to the level of everyone around her but she never did. I also spent most of the book wanting to reach into the book, give her a good shake and yell, “snap out of it!” The same thing that I admired her for, sticking to her moral code, meant it was also the thing that drove me batty about her. She never bends at all or adjusts to her situation – in short, she never grows as a character. The Lily Bart we meet on the first page is the exact same Lily Bart we see depart on the last. Which may be the point for all I know but man was it irritating to read at times. Seldon, her love interest, also fails to change over time. He has potential in the beginning; both characters do but both lack the courage to follow through on anything really. Seldon I may have more contempt for than Lily – he is just flat out wishy-washy. Scared to act, to ask, to do anything but he’s often the first person to become angry and turn away from Lily. As a great romance, it left quite a bit to be desired.
However, as this was Wharton, I wasn’t expecting a great love story. After all, one of the reasons I avoided The House of Mirth for so long was my unfortunate encounter with Ethan Frome as an English major. Fabulous writing…deathly depressing story. I suppose I should be happy Wharton showed some kindness to Lily and killed her off in the end. What The House of Mirth does have is absolutely wonderful prose, prose you want to linger with – it has been some time since I read a book that I took my time enjoying the language of it, the tone of it, the very atmosphere of the book. It put me in the mood for some fabulous BBC drama with lots of velvet, taffeta and tea. As a movie, I almost worry The House of Mirth would be dull because while there is scandal aplenty, it’s only hinted at or explained in reactions from the characters. I wouldn’t want a movie to spell it out for me; the idea of everything happening behind a curtain and yet in front of a crowd is almost as delicious as the way Lily and Seldon react to them through the narrative. A novel of manners indeed.