The House of Mirth stole my heart—and then bitterly shattered it—all in a neat 347 pages. I loved this book, but I’m never trusting Edith Wharton again. I suppose Ethan Frome should have been my first clue.
The House of Mirth features the dazzling, beautiful, manipulative yet endlessly charming Lily Bart, a New York socialite who has been raised and pampered to be nothing other than the decorative wife of a rich man. At 29, Lily’s time—and her beauty—is running out. To cement her place in high society she must marry, but at each opportunity to marry a rich man she runs away from the opportunity, her instinct and unfortunate morality taking precedence over her one goal: to catch and marry a rich man.
She’s sometimes arrogant, always charming, putting on a show to satisfy the theatre of a world she lives in. She is aware of her beauty and flaunts it, using it as a weapon against women and men, to either charm or assert her dominance:
To Miss Bart, as to her mother, acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity; and there were moments when, in the the consciousness of her own power to look and to be so exactly what the occasion required, she almost felt that other girls were plain and inferior from choice. Certainly no one need have confessed such acquiescence in her lot as was revealed in the “useful” colour of Gerty Farish’s gown and the subdued lines of her hat: it is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.
Despite her bad characteristics, Lily is also wise and sad. She constantly displays her penchant for discovering and pointing out uncomfortable truths about the society that made her who she is: an unskilled, yet intelligent, woman who believes, accurately, that her only function in life is to be a wife:
“From the beginning?” Miss Bart gently mimicked her. “Dear Gerty, how little imagination you good people have! Why, the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose—in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or no—I won’t blame anybody for my faults: I’ll say it was in my blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of the Charleses!” And as Miss Farish continued to press her with troubled eyes, she went on impatiently: “You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks.—My good Gerty, you don’t happen to have a cigarette about you?”
When she develops feelings for a man named Lawrence Selden, she begins to widen her horizons and expands her beliefs. Even though Lily wants to be free, she has no means to escape the world she lives in. As a woman, she can never be free and independent, a horrible fact that becomes cruelly apparent when Lily is shunned from the society she tried so hard to join. When Lily falls from grace, she learns that she has no skills to support herself, no true friends to help her, no family to support her. Even though she is the shining star of New York, admired and envied by all, Lily is ultimately completely helpless.
That didn’t stop me from falling completely in love with Lily. I loved her because she was honest with herself about her flaws; she knew how to charm people into falling under her power; she knew that she was unskilled and only fit to be a wife; she knew that she had the capacity for evil, but time and time again, almost against her will, Lily’s goodness won out, and society crushed her as a result.
The House of Mirth is a tragedy about a beautiful, capable, charming woman whose myriad talents and beliefs could not save her from being buffeted and ultimately broken by the crashing, rough waves of a hostile New York society.
And it gave me another literary heroine to admire and mourn.