Sunday, July 06, 2014
The House of Mirth
Posted by JaneGS
I'm somewhat of a late-comer to Edith Wharton--sure, I read Ethan Frome in high school and watched The Buccaneers when it aired in 1995, but I only read The Age of Innocence a few years ago. However, after finishing The House of Mirth this week, I can count myself as a Wharton fan. I was so impressed with The House of Mirth--the writing is brilliant, the structure flawless, and the dialogue convincing.
As with any tragedy, I repeatedly wanted to step into the story and take Lily Bart in hand and shake some sense into her. The copy of the novel that I read, a Modern Library Classic, contained a number of contemporary reviews of the work and I found myself disagreeing with most of them. They talked about Lily's descent, her love of material things, her mistakes, but I saw the novel much differently.
In a way, I saw the story as her transcendence, her ascent above material goods and the superficiality of her society. The House of Mirth chronicles a two-year period in the life of Lily Bart, circa 1890, society girl in New York City in which she goes from having the pick of America's most eligible bachelors to living in poverty, an insomniac, friendless and futureless. Yet in the end, she is the "noblest Roman of them all."
If I look at the various scenarios in which she "makes mistakes," I can't say she should've done anything differently. She was a babe in a shark tank but she never gave in to the desire to live a lie.
Having been an Austen fan for four decades, I thought it interesting to think about Lily's inability to actually seal the deal with the many men who pursued her and become someone's wife. The story begins when she is 29, already well past her coming out, and although she was raised to marry well, she ends up sabotaging every relationship before it actually results in marriage.
I admired Lily immensely for her inability to treat marriage as a financial contract. Without marriage, she cannot retain her identity in society, but to the end, she retains possession of her soul.
I am so looking forward to watching the movie version.
This is my American classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.