The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton, Nina Bawden After finishing this book I feel all over the place. On a purely emotional level, the book is very tragic, sad and depressing. There is no hope, there is no happiness. Normally, that is reason enough for me warning someone off of a book but House of Mirth is an exception. Edith Wharton’s novel is a must read for so many reasons. It is a must read as a critical examination of upper class politics, specifically late 19th century New York – but I believe that Wharton’s portrayal of the upper crust has resonance for us now. House of Mirth is a must read as a critique of the role of women in the late 1800s and early 1900s, looking at their limited access to opportunities and the extreme negative impact of singularly grooming women as wives and holding that up as the apex of their lives. "Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?""I have tried hard – but life is difficult and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence."And finally, this book is a must read when we consider failed opportunities and wonder if we should go for what we want, if we should tell people we love them. The main character in House of Mirth is Lily Bart. Lily Bart has been raised to believe her only value is her beauty and that her main goal should be in securing wealth. Her sole method to secure wealth is through marriage; to a woman during this time period and culture, there is no other way. "She was like a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowing blossom of her beauty."Lily's family was wealthy but lost their money; eventually her parents died and Lily is left alone. She drifts from relative to relative, relying on their generosity to support her. And ever desperate to be in the upper portions of society, Lily befriends married women and is invited to parties, travels, and country homes; in exchange she assists the wealthy wives write thank you letters and plan parties. What is the fair exchange though? Lily is getting food, stay at luxurious locations, travel and presence at the best parties. The exchange is not fair because ultimately, Lily is giving up so much more; she is giving up her safety, her security and her emotional well-being. The wealthy and the married want Lily to be with them and at their parties due to her beauty, her wit and her ability to entertain – this talent is somehow a reflection on them. Lily is used as a toy and as a decoration. The story opens when Lily is 29 years old. She is still supremely beautiful and despite her desiring wealth and independence, the reader is informed through various conversations that Lily has had a number of suitable offers of marriage, but she continues to decline them or push the men away once they want her. "Sometimes I think it's just flightiness – and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despites the things she's trying for. And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study."What is clear that Lily is in a precarious situation; she seeks independence and has her own ideas of what she wants to do, but no power (or money) to do anything. Lily travels through social circles as if she was her own person, she makes plans on her own – and it is much mentioned that she acts like a married woman – but she does not have the protections of marriage. Lily is used not only as a toy at parties, but tools for couples, men, women to accomplish what society limits them from otherwise. Ending a marriage? Hiding their infidelities? Attempting an affair with a much younger and beautiful woman? Lily is alone, without protection from parents or a spouse and thus vulnerable to people who want to use her. House of Mirth describes in detail of the horrible things that can happen to a girl without choices and protection. How Lily is controlled is through the threat of scandal; the scandal being sex and having sex – unmarried women were not supposed to have sex or lure married men into having sex with them. However, the irony is not missing – Lily's entire value is her physical appearance, her beauty and her allure to men which ultimately equates to her sexual desirability. "When a girl's as good-looking as that she'd better marry; then no questions are asked. There is no provision as yet for the young woman who claims the privileges of marriage without assuming the obligations.""If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself.""What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's story that's easiest to believe. In this case, it's a great deal easier to believe [the scandal] ."At several points in the story, Lily's dire situation – one decorated with fancy clothes and that leave her staying in yachts and fine hotels -- is contrasted with working class women who are suffering. Wharton employs these scenes with a dual purpose; we see that despite Lily's complaining and worries others suffer much more than her. But interestingly, while these working class women are not beautiful or fashionable and it is obvious they are tired and over worked – they have several things that Lily does not. They have family, they have love, and they have some limited ability to earn an income. Although, each of the working class women Lily encounters – their lives rotate and turn on the men in their lives. We first meet a maid in a desperate situation because her husband was turned out of his job. We next meet a young working class mother who was not a virgin when her husband agreed to marry her, but thanks to a loving man – he married her anyway. So despite their "success" and their resources, lower class women were still subject to similar limitations and standards. It is so interesting for me to think that this book was written contemporaneous to the time it was describing. Even more interesting, Edith Wharton came from a wealthy family and she ultimately divorced her husband. It is curious to think how much pressure Ms. Wharton experienced herself or witnessed. We now know that the early 1900s and late 1800s brought much change to society and suffering to various groups of people, so at first it seems hard to swallow or sympathize with such a jet setting crowd. Lily has quite a few faults. She was vain (how dare she understand her only value!), she was judgmental, and she was superficial. But did she have any other choice? This is what she was groomed for, raised for and even if she shirked it off, what else could she do? This book is very enjoyable and I highly recommend it. My one criticism is the descriptions and wordiness of the prose is not my thing, generally – but I was able to enjoy it. "It is less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness."