I remember reading something by Edith Wharton in 11th grade. Ethan Frome, I believe. I don’t remember particularly liking her style, which is why, when my book club at the library chose House of Mirth for our October selection, I was a little worried. I didn’t really want to delve into this one, and I hoped it would be like The Grapes of Wrath, which I loved despite my original hesitance. Well, this wasn’t quite the same as The Grapes of Wrath – I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. I’ll go so far as to say that, for the most part, I actually liked this book, though it might be awhile before I delve into anything else by Wharton. Kind of like how I feel about Thomas Hardy after reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 2006.
When I was about 125 pages into this book, I turned to Jason and said, “So here’s the set up. Lily Bart has grown up in upper class NY society. Her parents died and left her with very little, but she’s still trying to make her way in the only part of the world she’s ever known. She’s in love with a man named Lawrence Selden, who lives on the periphery of society (thereby making him ineligible for marriage to her) and who also loves her. Another man, a rich guy who isn’t very admirable, named Rosedale, is trying to court her. What do you think will happen by the end?” So we discussed it, and had fun making up guesses of the ending based on what other authors might have done. If this were Jane Austen, Lily would learn to be satisfied living on the periphery of society, and she and Selden would marry. Thomas Hardy, on the other hand, would have Lily disgraced (rightfully or not) in Selden’s eyes, have her turn to Rosedale in desperation, and once Selden comes around to loving her again, it’d be too late and she’d be with the bad match. Hemingway would have a thoroughly-ruined Lily standing on the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge, leaning over, admiring the calm of the water at night before she jumped.
I won’t tell you what Edith Wharton does. If you know the ending of Ethan Frome then you might have an inkling of Wharton’s style. I will say this is no Jane Austen.
So, what did I like and dislike about the book? What gives me that very neutral opinion stated above? Well, my primary issue with this book takes place within the first 150 pages. Wharton is tediously longwinded in places. I don’t mind so much the minute descriptions. I personally find them redundant and superfluous, but in general I just don’t like that style. It doesn’t bother me, though. I can skim through details that I don’t find worth conjuring up visually – I prefer to see the big picture. But I understand that many authors write in that style, and I respect them for it even if it’s not my favorite. What did bother me was the excessive amount of telling instead of showing, and the incredibly heavy-handedness with which it was done. Wharton’s sections where her characters were moving, speaking, etc were superb, and I could see the characters perfectly. However, the pages-long passages of narrative no more informative than ‘when this happens to Lily, she feels this; and then when that happens, she feels that; and then another thing happens and it makes her feel this, and so on, and so on.’ Not a direct quote, obviously. But when we pulled out of the narrative and Wharton stopped trying to tell us directly what lessons she wanted us to learn, I learned naturally from the characters, and that was very well done.
The first 150 pages or so were extremely tedious in this way. There’s very little movement, and I think a lot of it could have been stripped out. By the time I’d almost finished Book 1 (it’s split into two books), I was really to proclaim serious dislike for this book. But then suddenly, in the last 30 or 40 pages of Book 1, Wharton left behind all that heavy-handedness and suddenly the book came alive. I read the last 180 pages or so this afternoon. Partly that’s because I’m sick and confined to laying or sitting, but I could have chosen a movie or taken a nap. Instead, I got wrapped up in the book and didn’t want to put it down for anything. The plot engaged me, the language engaged me, and the characters engaged me, right down to the poetic, ironic, and oddly romantic (in an aesthetic sense) end.
Some people have compared Lily Bart to Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I don’t agree with the comparison. While the women meet somewhat similar fates, their journeys, motivations, and lives are very different. I don’t find Emma a pitiable character at all. She’s selfish and creates all her own problems out of boredom and greed. Lily, on the other hand, I feel very sorry for. I don’t think Wharton wrote her out to be a despicable character or to say that bad things happen to bad people. Lily’s grown up in rich society and can’t take herself out of that mindset, so in some ways she’s very helpless. Her greed is naive, her motives are oftentimes quite innocent, and at several junctures of the book, she passes off easy solutions because she prefers not to sell her soul for money. I think she’s an intrinsically good person, though desperately naive and childish. I sort of think she was set up that way on purpose, that Wharton was revealing the evils of upper class society by saying that the good don’t necessarily win – that they are in fact more likely to lose the game. This is further evidenced by the fact that the characters thought of as “bad” within the circle – Carry Fisher, for example – end up being some of the nicer, more generous characters in the book.
One random point: I would have liked to see more of Gerty Farish. She plays a major role, but I feel like she was passed over more than she should have been. I think Wharton lost an opportunity there.
And then my favorite quote from the book – this is beautifully written! It’s the last line of book 1, chapter 11:
Mrs. Peniston felt as if there had been a contagious illness in the house, and she was doomed to sit shivering among her contaminated furniture.
So in the end, the last 2/3rds of the book saved this one for me. I can’t say I love it. There was just too much of that tediousness at the beginning. But I didn’t end up despising it, and I do think it deserves its place of honor in the halls of classic literature.