Reviewed by Lily Ruth Hardman
The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton
Nov 2000 ed, Paperback, 320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1840224191
About halfway through Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of the characters tries to make sense of the seemingly incongruous actions of the protagonist, Lily Bart. “[S]he works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed,” the character remarks, [B]ut the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.” After a moment of quiet reflection, she continues, “…sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”
As this passage suggests, The House of Mirth is the portrait of a singular character, a dazzling but impoverished New York socialite in the Gilded Age who navigates a complex web of relationships, social conventions, and her own conflicting desires to find some semblance of autonomy in a world built on conformity. In the process, she goes from the apex of high society to…somewhere else (no spoilers here), a journey that is not as obviously triumphant or tragic as it would seem from a cursory summary. For a novel published in 1905, it is strikingly vivid. Furious, cutting, and poetic in equal measure, it remains a classic worth reading and rereading.
Lily Bart is born into high society and raised by her mother to be the ornamental wife of a wealthy husband. This fate is all the more urgent when her livelihood falls into the hands of a reclusive, Puritanical aunt and transactional friendships with wealthy women. Now at the near-geriatric age of 29, she must quickly find a husband to attain the financial and social security she craves. But whenever such opportunities present themselves, Lily makes decisions–whether conscious or unconscious–that sabotage them.
As a protagonist, Lily is not easy to love. She isn’t down to earth and feisty like a Jane Austen heroine or destitute and virtuous like one of Thomas Hardy’s. She is vain, materialistic, and small-minded. She obsesses over clothes, incomes, and table settings, and is cruel to the friends whose modest means render them socially useless to her. And yet, even before she starts making decisions that undermine her professed ambitions to “marry well,” Lily forces her way into the heart of the reader. She is savagely intelligent, dazzlingly beautiful, blithely manipulative, and ruthlessly persistent. She smokes, plays cards, and sleeps late, and she is aflame with indignation over her lot in life. Finding herself bored all afternoon by a suitor, Lily is all too aware of the irony and futility of her quest to secure him as a husband. As Wharton writes: “[S]he must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliance and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.”
Lily’s only glimpse outside this world of vapid excess and social transaction is Lawrence Selden, a lawyer of relatively humble means whose connections and independent income allow him to dip a toe into high society without ever being beholden to it. Despite his attraction to her, he disapproves of Lily’s materialistic ambitions, explaining that his definition of success is personal
freedom, or a “republic of the spirit” as he calls it. In this hallowed space, he claims, one may be liberated from both money and poverty. It is this belief that pinpoints the privilege in which he dwells, a world where he can sidle up to extravagance when it amuses him without having to rely on the savage hierarchy that drives it. Wharton slyly underscores the painful reality of their differences in Lily’s reply. “[I]t’s strange” she says, “but that’s just what I’ve been feeling today.” The day in question is a day in which she deliberately lets yet another opportunity to secure a husband slip away. For her, a step closer to the republic of the spirit is also a step closer to poverty. For him, it is just a step closer to an intangible state of intellectual freedom.
Wharton was intimately acquainted with the cruelty and inescapability of being a woman in such a world. She, like Lily, had been born into a wealthy family and was bred to be the crowning acquisition of a rich man. She bridled at the emptiness and ugliness of it all, but unlike Lily, was married off at a young age and spent nearly 30 years longing for escape. It would be fanciful to call The House of Mirth a feminist battlecry or an autobiography, but it is a raw and personal condemnation of a woman’s prospects at a time when they still did not have the right to vote or seek gainful employment. Choices, such as they were, were fraught with consequences.
In one passage, Wharton reflects on the futility of a woman of Lily’s station trying to stray from her pre-arranged path.
Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird’s breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature?
And yet, although much of the story revolves around the social cruelties exacted upon Lily, her path is ultimately the result of her own choices—her choice to not get into the carriage of a man on the brink of proposing to her, to not publicize letters that would redeem her reputation, to repay a debt to a predatory acquaintance, and so on. In this way, her downfall is, after all, a kind of liberation, an assertion of agency that could not have been achieved by following through her preordained path to an advantageous marriage.
The last 20 pages of this novel are, like its protagonist, utterly dazzling. There’s a reason Wharton is frequently cited as one of the great American novelists of the 20th century: her prose is crisp, vivid, and sensory. From the tactile, almost euphoric way she describes landscapes to the tentative, unsettling way she writes about feelings of love in a character for whom attachment is treacherous, she draws you into a world that is mercifully in the past, but acutely present in its overt rejection of complexity. Though the novel’s controversial ending may ring hollow for some, Wharton’s overarching theme of an imperfect woman pushing against the back-breaking pressure to conform and be grateful continues to resonate.
About the reviewer: Lily Ruth Hardman is a writer from Texas now based in England. She studied English and Film at Barnard College and Contemporary Theater and Creative Writing at the University of Surrey in the U.K. She writes the newsletter Wayword on Substack. Her website can be found here: https://www.lilyruthhardman.com/.