The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton — book review


“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

As many readers have already pointed out, there is little mirth to be found in The House of Mirth (and I thought that The Age of Innocence and Summer had despairing endings…what a misguided fool).
As with the majority of her works, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is chiefly concerned with depicting the conflict between social and individual fulfilment, and it focuses on the experiences of American’s upper social class during the turn of the last century.
Wharton demonstrates incredible social nuance in her almost anthropological-like study of New York’s elite society. Her commentary regarding the prevailing behaviours found within this group of people is insightful, satirical, and witty. Her portrayal of this privileged class emphasises its pettiness, giving us the impression that beneath their refined appearances and manners lies hatred, envy, and hypocrisy. Wharton throws light upon the discordance between their behaviour and their values. They are little more than jealous gossips, ready to temporarily forget their strict sense of propriety if it means to tarnish someone else’s reputation. It’s very much an every person for themselves type of world (or as I like to call it, a shark eat shark kind of world). Someone’s ruin or misfortune might not result directly to your advantage but it’s guaranteed to entertain (and possibly detract attention from your own ongoings).
This group of selfish and wealthy individuals make for a rather unhealthy environment. Yet, socialite Lily Bart, strives to belong to it. While this is a story that follow’s a woman’s unsuccessful attempts at social climbing to define it simply as such doesn’t do it justice. Throughout the course of the narrative Wharton constructs and deconstructs Lily’s character, making her into much more than a social climber. Lily’s story provides a keenly observed social commentary, and Wharton does so without employing a heavily didactic or moralistic tone.
Throughout the course of her novel Wharton interrogates themes of gender and class. The narrative’s discourse of personal vs. social identity is epitomised by its main character, Lily Bart, and by her eventual downward path (view spoiler). Alongside her satire of New York’s high society, with its oppressive customs and its pretence at niceties, Wharton criticises binary thinking. Unlike her characters, Wharton does not pass judgement on Lily’s transgressions, rather she makes her protagonist’s changing circumstances make her aware of the way in which her values have brought about her own ruin. Although Lily is not painted as the story’s victim, the narrative informs readers of the limited options available to women in Lily’s position.9780140187298.jpg

Lily Bart is one of the many tragic heroines who is ruined by her own materialism and romanticism. These fictional women are often frivolous (Rosamond Vincy), selfish (Emma Bovary), inclined to transgress social norms (Sula Peace), mostly concerned with their own economic elevation (Becky Sharp), and often branded as evil or regarded unsympathetically. Yet, Lily’s character subverts notions of good and bad, as Wharton does not seem to equate her protagonist’s self-interest with vice. While other characters within this novel are quick to label and condemn Lily, we read of her various internal struggles (whom she wants to be vs. who others want her to be) and of her many ill-fated attempts at love and happiness.
Lily very much plays a role in many of her relationships, making herself into what others want her to be. Above all she is an actress, a performer. Yet, her self-fashioning aggravates the disconnect between who she is and who she pretends to be (and often results in problematic situations in which others expect her to do or act in a way that goes against her wishes).
Lily’s solipsistic nature did not make her into an unlikable character. Even when she seems to exhibit the same hypocrisy as those she criticises, I still found her to be a beguiling individual. While her debts are certainly a consequence of her own materialistic desires, if not opulent impulses, we come to understand the significance that appearances (such as one’s dresses) play in one’s fortune and reputation. Lily can charm those in her circle as long as she continues to live a certain lifestyle, she has to keep up with their expensive tastes and habits.
Lily often falls prey to ennui, a boredom that is tied to a sense of sublime potential, one that makes her feel superior to her environment. Lily is frequently unsatisfied by those paths that are open to her: to Lily, marrying a dull man would inevitably result in a life of ‘mediocrity’ and, more important still, in a restriction of her freedom.
So Lily remains adamant in her certainty that she been cast into the wrong role (or life), believing instead that she deserves to live as freely as she pleases, possibly married a man who is both sophisticated and wealthy, and more importantly surrounded by riches. While she certainly longs to and works toward belonging to this upper crust, she finds them to be both petty and shallow, and is often repulsed by their bad tastes, appearance, and behaviour.
This sense of self-importance allows her to manipulate those around her. Lily is a schemer, prone to self-pitying, and not very emphatic. Yet it is her very cleverness and charm that make into a formidable figure.
The novel mostly focuses on Lily’s attempts to find wealth (whether this is through a husband or fortune, she initially doesn’t seem to mind), and the way in which her plans often backfire. As her reputation is shredded beyond all repair, Lily slowly begins to reconsider herself, her values, and her past actions. Her character’s development is realised through extensive acts of introspection, and Wharton’s narration lends itself beautifully to Lily’s self-analysing.

What more can I say write? This story is populated by gamblers and gossips, who are eager to use and walk over Lily (and I hated them, how I hated them), but there are those who show compassion and love towards her. And yes, I am a sucker for a doomed romance (not sure if that makes me a romantic or a bit of masochist).
In spite of its satirical tone, this novel tells tragic story. (view spoiler)

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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