The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth is a story of Lily Bart. Lily came from a New York ‘high society’ family, and while most of the relatives may have lived in lofty Fifth Avenue apartments or country estates, they lived conservative unpretentious lives outside of the social spotlight. But Lily’s mom narcissistically had big plans for herself and her only daughter. Lily’s dad literally worked himself to death, while Mrs. Bart squandered the money, enjoying every known luxury. She doted on Lily, pampering her with extravagant vacations and clothes, assuring her from a very young age that she was born to be a princess.
By the time Lily was 19 years old, both her parents were deceased. She was financially worthless and in the care of an elderly aunt (Mrs. Peniston) who didn’t mind supporting Lily. Her aunt provided a bedroom in her Fifth Avenue apartment and a modest allowance for entertainment and clothing. This is where the novel begins.
Lily isn’t particularly appreciative of her aunt. She is preoccupied with her own life. She has one goal which she refers to as her “career” and that’s to find a rich husband – preferably an English Nobleman or Italian Prince. But she is willing to settle for a New York WASP as long as he is filthy rich.
So what defines Lily? A heroine? Not so much. A victim? Perhaps. Misguided? Without a doubt. Misunderstood? Questionable. Even the characters in the book were never quite sure.
The author’s assessment, “She was like a rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.
One unbiased character uncannily analyzed, “she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself, or goes off on a picnic… sometimes I think it’s just flightiness and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she is trying for.
Several things about Lily the reader discovers quickly: she is a mooching, scheming opportunist. She is disloyal to friends, is self-absorbed, patronizing, and above all – a snob. At the very least she shows poor judgement and is naive in thinking herself to be exceptional. Lily shrugs off her careless disregard for others proclaiming, “I wasn’t meant to be good” She puts on a great act, but unfortunately it’s just not quite good enough. People eventually see right through her because she inevitably slips up and gives herself away.
Lily offends one person after another, refuses marriage to men who are just not rich enough, flirts with married men, secretly takes money from her girlfriend’s “dull boring and repulsive” husband, hypocritically pretending to find him fascinating, and ultimately disgraces her aunt. As she is dropped by suitors and shunned by one elite couple after another, she descends the social ladder one rung at a time. Lily justifies her actions, swallows her pride, and lowers her expectations until one day when she is thirty years old (a spinster in those days), she discovers herself disowned by her family, destitute, and completely removed from the New York social scene.
Without a doubt, Edith Wharton paints a cynical picture of the New York elite and an even harsher image of the the wanna-be social climbers. Some readers dislike the book because they can’t sympathize with Lily. Perhaps she wasn’t meant to be a sympathetic character- or held blameless for being caught in the deadly web of society… “the great gilded cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom.”
The House of Mirth is a great book. Eloquent writing, captivating story, tragic plot. Lily was jaded and her goal was trite. She was like that fly in the bottle, but she did know the way out. She just refused to leave until it was too late.
Immensely popular when first published, this classic is sometimes referred to as dated and irrelevant. Irrelevant? Of course, the customs and morals presented in Edith Wharton’s 1905 The House of Mirth are outmoded, but with all the ostentatious bling flaunted in today’s society and the persistent quest to “keep up with the Joneses” (a cliche that coincidently originated from Edith Newbold Jones Wharton’s family), the story is timeless and a powerful lesson to be learned for all generations of every decade.
Rated 5 Stars December 2012
All contents © 2012 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.