The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

housemirth

 

You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. 

 

Though Lily Bart didn’t grow up rich, she was born into a comfortable and respectable home with relatives high on the social scale. Like most girls in this class her only purpose in life is to find a wealthy, respected husband. Lily doesn’t just have hopes this will happen, she is very good at making it happen.

But it all comes crashing down when her father makes a series of bad business deals leaving her at the mercy of relatives and friends. Her luck holds out longer than many in this situation, because her beauty and charm is sought after and admired in her ‘set’ who continue to include her in their social gatherings, weekend outings and trips abroad.

Because her future is dependent on whom she marries Lily, like all women of her class, must calculate and weigh every conversation, each action and event she makes. She becomes a keen observer of the most minute details of what is socially acceptable and there are so many! One wrong word or action, one misinterpreted conversation or negative comment against her or showing too much interest in a man or not enough, can have devastating consequences.

The Power of Gossip and Lies

When the gossip about Lily and the unfounded lies begin to run rampant, the same friends who welcomed her into their world at her father’s death, abandon her and are willing to watch her fall rather than come to her defense and risk damaging their own reputations. As Mr. Rosedale admits to her,

Mrs. Dorset…did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness.

One misstep in judgment (going to the apartment of her close male friend alone) begins the downward spiral of gossip and innuendo Lily never recovers from. And her pride makes it impossible for her to fight back.

Not only has the gossip killed any prospect for marriage, the question of how can Lily then support herself must be considered. In this class system, women like Lily are born to be dependent. There is never a question about working or learning a trade. Though she tries her hand at various occupations, Wharton writes a remarkable passage of truth that Lily is conscious of:

She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure seep by her unregarded…Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbirds’ breast?

 Wharton’s Unsentimental Pen

I have railed against Wharton for writing such depressing novels as Ethan Frome  and Summer. It isn’t that I expect a fantasy of happy endings, but Ethan Frome, Charity Royall and Lily Bart cannot catch a break from the rigid social norms they struggle against.

However, about half way through The House of Mirth I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment: Wharton doesn’t write depressing novels, she just writes with an unsentimental pen. She chooses to write stories about people’s fate or more precisely that they can’t escape it once an action or word sets them on that trajectory; that social norms are so rigid and a person’s duty to their class is so morally strong there is no wiggle room for escape or independence from it. For whatever reason, Wharton writes about the injustices of a system that kills passion, desire and freedom.

And was this personal? I have read many times Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical novel she has ever written. So perhaps all this thwarted desire is her personal biographical commentary.

Women as Instigators

It is horribly sad that women in the novel are the instigators of the lies and stories that bring Lily down and that her own aunt with whom she is living believes the gossip about Lily accepting unwanted attention from married men. She not only believes it, but instead of asking Lily outright if what people are saying is true, she is incensed that Lily has allowed herself to be talked about in the first place,

It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.

When your own family members turn against you, what recourse do you have? And when you know fighting back is useless, how do you cope?

Bullying in The House of Mirth

While The House of Mirth is rooted in its time period, something struck me as very contemporary. Lily’s death is suspicious in terms of it being an accident or self-inflicted. But the stage was set because of the devastating effects of the bullying and meanness she was subjected to. This is the same behavior and sometimes the result many teenagers of today are forced to endure.

Lily Bart shows us the tragic outcome when this behavior is allowed to grow and fester unchecked. I think this puts to rest those critics who wonder if  classic literature should still be taught in schools.

***************

My Edition:
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 317
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

 

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9 thoughts on “The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

  1. Thank you for a wonderfully perceptive analysis. I have always loved _The House of Mirth_ and I think it’s because Lily Bart’s descent into the precariat is so well delineated and her sense of ethics in particular situations are stunningly un-self-serving. This is a novel that has rewarded me through several rereadings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “and her sense of ethics in particular situations are stunningly un-self-serving.”

      This is really important and I completely agree. I think Wharton wrote about Lily Bart very perceptively and with such depth. Her sense of morality, even in the face of the lies and gossip, held so strong. The final scenes with the young woman she helped long ago and her baby, just pulled at me.

      I assume there will be a reread for me, as well.

      Like

  2. I have only read one novel by Wharton, The Age of Innocence, and it was amazing! It seems that she wrote about the social norms she knew and most likely experienced in her early life. I wonder if there was a little -or maybe even a lot- of an Ellen Olenska or Lily Bart in Wharton.

    Like

    1. Hi BJ. The Age of Innocence is next up for me sometime this year. After the three I have read, I am really interested to see what this book is like. Have you ever heard of Edith Wharton: A Biography: R. W. B. Lewis? I picked it up several months ago and have only just started it. Because I think you are right, “write what you know” seems to be what she does at least in these three and it sounds like The Age of Innocence, too.

      It’s fascinating to see these patterns in a writer. Now I just want to know what they mean!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope you enjoy The Age of Innocence when you read It! I look forward to reading your review of it! I have not heard of this biography, and I hope that it’s interesting one. Maybe the author will explore her patterns and help you figure her out a little more. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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