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.
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Full plot summary
Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR