Monday, May 31, 2010

Wharton’s masterpiece remains a very powerful tale

I do not usually write about novels I am teaching, but after reading this novel I assigned to my graduate class, I thought I would write about it here. It is a classic American novel, and is one that bears rereading from time to time.

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (400 pages, Everyman’s Library, $22) was first published in 1905. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a beautiful young girl who seems poised to make an important marriage in the upper class world of early twentieth-century New York.

Lily has been brought up by her mother to marry well, and now under the guardianship of her aunt, she seems destined to do so. Country house visits are meant to throw young people together, and the novel begins with one such weekend, at which Lily has as her objective the young heir Mr. Percy Gryce.

Lily is able to charm Gryce, and she sees how easy it will be to handle him as she has been trained to do. But somehow her heart isn’t in it. She sees it as a game that she cannot really bring herself to play.

Instead she goes for a walk with her friend Selden, who is himself partly in love with her, but he also wants to help her and support her in her pursuits.

Things do not go right for Lily, however. She allows herself to take financial “tips” from one of her hosts, and he seems to expect something in return. She is appalled by this and looks forward to her own independence. But her aunt is becoming so irritated by Lily’s behavior—she gambles at bridge, for instance, because all her friends expect it of her, while in her aunt’s generation no such thing was ever thought of—that she has determined to disinherit her.

When Lily realizes how little she has to live on, she tries various ways to survive. At first she becomes the companion of a rather fast and unpopular nouveau riche about town, and although this keeps her physically comfortable for a time, she knows, and Selden reminds her, that it is doing little for her reputation.

Later other male friends step in to offer help, but in each case they expect her to compromise her integrity. One, Ned Rosedale, very prominent and wealthy, propositions her in very clear and uncompromising terms. Lily is almost tempted to accept this offer, but she cannot let herself fall this low, and instead she takes work in a hat-making shop.

She is not good at this work, and she becomes depressed at the very thought of it. Eventually she leaves, but then it is even less clear how she will live. For a time it seems that Selden will help, but even he becomes disillusioned after one too many misunderstandings.

Lily clings to a cousin, who is a kind of inspiration, but they do not have enough in common to make a go of it. Instead Lily struggles on her own. She forces herself to use what little money she has to repay debts that she feels leave her vulnerable to the men of society.

In the end, Lily cannot withstand the pressures that are overwhelming her. She succumbs to her own inability to learn how to live at ease with herself in the world.

Wharton tells this vividly feminist tale in a moving and thoughtful way. We see vividly what is happening to Lily, but we are all powerless to stop it. This is part of the power of the novel.

Edith Wharton

Get it at Vroman's, Powell's, or Amazon.

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