Ecclesiastes 7:4: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Book Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Original Publication Date: 1905
Edition Read: Penguin, 1985
Total Pages: 338
Genre: Classic Fiction
Reason Read: Always a fan of successful women writers back in the day
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”
He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.
“Don’t I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?”
“And having to work – do you mind that?”
“Oh, the work itself is not so bad – I’m rather fond of the law.”
“No; but the being tied down: the routine – don’t you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?”
“Horribly – especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer.”
She drew a sympathetic breath. “But do you mind enough – to marry to get out of it?”
Selden broke into a little laugh. “God forbid!” he declared.
She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.
“Ah, there’s the difference – a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” She surveyed him critically. “Your coat’s a little shabby – but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop – and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”
Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.~ Book 1, Pages 11 – 12
And therein lies the conundrum that is Lily Bart, the protagonist/heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. On the one hand, she is at the mercy of money and men in order to have success. On the other hand, it is difficult to feel sorry for her because she covets money and success so much.
Written by Edith Wharton to portray with satire the elite high society of New York City that she herself grew up within and was at the height of its own success at the time of publication, we are introduced to socialite and wannabe rich, elite and powerful woman Lily Bart. She is within the walls but near the edge of her desired economic circle, kept at bay only because of her poor financial standing in relation to her friends. Orphaned by deceased parents who lost their fortune but kept up appearances out of spite for the dingy world of the working class, she is at the mercy of her rich aunt who covers many expenses and provides an opulent home, though not a regular allowance on which Lily can live as she pleases. Lily continues her mother’s lessons of looking the part in order to keep her foot in the door. Her only hope of joining the ranks permanently is to use her stellar beauty and refined social skills to land herself a rich husband.
Lily has a habit however of sabotaging all her greatest chances for the success she seems to want and need so badly. I have read many commentaries of Lily’s character analysis and they all say that Lily kept screwing up and bypassing the proposals and opportunities she had from suitors because she always felt she could do better. I have a different perspective on this. I think she did feel she could do better – but not in the sense others seem to feel. It wasn’t because she was greedy or a snob. I think it was because inside, she was a big romantic. She wanted to marry for love – and money. She grew up without a lot of love and compassion. It was a big gaping hole inside of her emotionally. Yet she was placed in a world that focused only on shallowness, greed, false pretenses and deceit. She moved forward seeking that which she had always been told she was destined to achieve and that she was built for. But inside, she had much stronger needs and desires for human love, companionship and happiness. These emotions were so foreign to her, I don’t think that she even knew how to categorize or express them. So each time she said No when saying Yes would have solved all her problems, it was really her good heart inside stepping in to keep her from having an empty life that money could not make better.
Part of the driving force behind Lily’s inability to settle on the proper path to the societal life she craves is that she has got it bad for Lawrence Selden. Selden is a lawyer who makes enough to have a comfortable life, but not enough to provide the level of lifestyle that Lily demands. He is welcome in the high society circles that Lily travels within, but has no desire to join their ranks completely and therefore is not viewed as a desirable eligible bachelor good for marrying when you are trying to climb the social ladder like Lily. He has the luxury of being able to stay put by his own design. Lily does not. If she were to follow her heart and marry Selden, she would remain a part of the middle class, on the outside looking in, with a husband constantly working rather than someone to take her to all the grandest events and exclusive resorts around the world.
In addition to shooting herself in the foot whenever a rich bore of a marrying man comes along to seek her hand, she also has a string of incredibly bad luck with her few finances when she is taken advantage of naively. I think this is also a result of her living with blinders on. The very folks that she admires and wants to be considered equals with so badly are the ones who set her tragic demise in motion and implement devious plans to shame her, banish her and send her into a desperate spiral of depression, made all the more hard to witness due to her continued delusions that she can still rejoin their ranks.
Lily Bart has pride, morals and the basic human desire and need for being cared about rather than abandoned and alone. But she is also addicted to money and the life of luxury. Is it possible to feel sorry for a gorgeous woman whose idea of struggling is sailing the Mediterranean with her rich friends? I say Yes. Lily gets walked all over, embarrassed, wrongly accused of adultery, disowned, abandoned and impoverished. She loses some of her selfish outlook and begins to see that there is happiness in the world without riches to accompany them. More frustrating is that she has the resources to avenge those that wronged her and repair her reputation. But once again, her inner heart steps in and keeps her from using them because it could at the same time harm the one man she loves and who has always been in her corner.
At times the text is tedious with detail. But part of that I believe was intentional on the author’s part, because every little action, appearance and mood were examined, noted and judged by the society we are placed inside of. This book is certainly one of social commentary and covers the theme of survival of the fittest. It is also quite tragically romantic. Not usually my cup of tea. But I found my inner sap was quite pleased with the experience.
This book rocketed Edith Wharton’s writing career and helped propel her from a loveless marriage to a life that from what I have been able to discern was quite happy, and financially successful. She found much of what Lily Bart searches for throughout her novel. In a time when women truly were dependent upon men and their money for financial freedom from worry, it is admirable that Edith Wharton paved her own way. She is quite a heroine herself for women seeking strength to carve their own path.