The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Published in 1905, The House of Mirth was the novel that launched Edith Wharton’s name as a celebrated novelist several years into her occupation as a writer. An instant classic, it remains one of the pillars among her bibliography of more than fifty works. Why it took me this long to read it, I’ll frankly never know. The novel tells the story of bold, ethereally beautiful Lily Bart whose impassioned desire for all things luxurious in life clashes with her meager income and single status. Marrying rich seems to be her only option, and that excludes from her a future with Lawrence Selden, the handsome and inadequately-financed lawyer with whom she feels most liberated to be herself. Scurrying through the maddeningly treacherous formalities of the social sphere, Lily must learn to hoist herself up amid the unkind words and devious schemes of people disguised as friends. What makes Lily such a remarkable character, I think, is the rapidity with which she bounces from appearing superficial and pious to soliciting herself to the reader as a woman of genuinely profound insight. The alterations between which seem to be, in the context of the story, her ultimate downfall, but they work in the same way to build her up in her audience’s esteem. I won’t spoil the end of the novel in case anyone reading here hasn’t yet experienced it; but I will reiterate, as many usually do, that The House of Mirth is a heart-wrenching and bittersweet work. And it’s just beautiful.
I can understand, after finally reading it, why it carried Wharton to her initial success as a writer. This first reading has already catapulted her high on my list of favorite authors, and it has me wondering why it ever took me so long to read her. I feel like I've read The House of Mirth at an appropriate age all the same, particularly because it calls on so many emotions which, I think, are more acutely developed now. Lily’s plight, despite appearing here in New York’s Gilded Age, has moments that ring of familiarity to modern readers. The challenge of understanding, on the late edge of her twenties, what it is she should do with herself and finding amongst the torrid waters of social convention the true fabric of her own character can easily strike a chord with the appropriate reader. The difference, of course, illuminates the achievements of feminism in our time, though one could argue that the novel also highlights the continued flaws of contemporary society (a feat Wharton achieved with stunning clarity over one hundred years ago!).
Lily is a woman vastly ahead of her time in her aspirations, which are to be free of social obligation and to live her life in true, unfettered independence; to live however she would like, in her own brand of luxury, and on her own terms. Her convictions to make her future so are admirable, though the reader soon discovers with her that such a future isn’t so readily available. Her many ill-advised decisions, which have occasion to win out over her remarkable intelligence, lead her further from her dream life, but closer, in a tragic way, to a better and more blissful understanding of herself. This was, for me, the novel’s triumph as much as the love story between Lily and Selden. That latter piece, unfortunately, has all the chemistry a reader can want, but far too much distance. When the two share a scene their connection is wonderful, but there's a palpable divide between them that keeps the reader from ever really feeling like they've made a connection at all. It did make me wonder if that was Edith's intention because it adds a sort of final blow to the ultimate tragedy of the novel.
But what Edith went above-and-beyond with was her depiction of society. She was a zinger of a lady, completely unafraid to lay bare the scathing indecencies of Lily Bart’s scandalous social “superiors” and exploring in depth the unraveling of society’s merit in the face of classism, hypocrisy, and declining ethics. The people on whose level Lily aspires to reach are, the reader is quick to understand, decidedly far below Lily herself on a moral scale; but the vision of the social climate refuses to see things in that way, priding instead an affinity for the hollow glamour of wealth and status. It's a stab that resonates into the world of the novel's modern readership and clearly expresses why The House of Mirth has endured over time.
I was enthralled in Edith’s execution of The House of Mirth, from her use of language to the artistry with which she took the reader into the depths of her story. It wound around me with such solidness, such impenetrable realness; the sort of novel that will linger forever on my mind, as genuine classics do. The characters which populate the novel are immense in number – it was, initially, a bit difficult to work through the Trenors and Dorsets and Van Osburghs and Stepneys, etc. – but each came to life to set the stage for the dramatics of Wharton’s story, and I eventually came to know them well. Edith’s writing style and particular narrative language felt genuinely accessible to me, too. Her sentences are constructed in a way that are noticeably beautiful but also truly sensible. At the same time, it has its complexities (the huge cast is a good example), but great authors have a way of making their readers welcome complexities now and then. Edith certainly had a unique ability of encouraging her reader to work a little harder at some points and then rewarding them with the brilliance of her talent when they find themselves struck by some of her most impressive sentences.
Overall, I think The House of Mirth was one of the most invigorating books I’ve read from our proclaimed list of literary classics. While the romance between Lily and Selden felt on the brink of being barely a romance at all, there was so much else in the novel that boasted substance – really, Lily herself was powerful enough to carry the entire show on her own, right through every amusing, enlightening, and ultimately heartbreaking scene.