Sunday, April 28, 2013

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton

I fell in love with this book from the first couple of sentences. That's all it took for me to know I was really going to enjoy it: "Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station, his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart."

It was a great opening for a great story. I like its detailed study of everyday life and the deep reflection of a particular society, especially one as deceiving and tricky as the upper classes of the turn of the century. I guess I have to read more works belonging to the American literary naturalism movement. Edith Wharton is an amazing representative; she was so meticulous and thorough it made me feel very much involved with the story and its main character. 

Lily Bart is a beautiful woman of the upper-class turn-of-the-century society of New York. She doesn’t have money of her own but has an important social standing because of her family’s former wealth. She is obsessed with money and luxury and the only way for her to survive in this society is to marry “well.” She cannot conceive a life outside of what she is used to, even though this means sacrificing her true feelings. In order to achieve her goal she uses her two most powerful tools: her astonishing beauty and the impact it has on the people around her, and her ability to keep appearances and always do and say the right thing at the right time. She is great at reading people’s expressions, reactions, even their eyes. That is the only way to obtain the truth of people so obsessed with been “civil” and doing what is “convenient” and it allows her to manipulate others.

This is a ruthless society. It is obsessed with money even though the rule is to pretend it doesn’t matter. It is an artificial society because nothing on the surface is true: they lie, cheat, manipulate, back-stab and step on everybody behind a cover of polite manners and the false pretense of enjoying each other’s company. Navigating this sea of manners, customs, traditions and prejudices is an art and the women successful in it could have easily been successful diplomats: knowing to whom to be loyal depending on what is convenient, helping pave the way into society of a newcomer who could be of use once in it, turning your back on the “wrong people” in order to save yourself from scandal, etc.  I wonder if there was any truth in anything they said to each other in their efforts to be successful. 

Hypocrisy is at the order of the day in many ways. They disapprove of women who openly want to marry for money but they will turn their backs on the ones who don’t marry into money. Men are allowed to behave “suspiciously” but women aren't,  they won’t even receive the benefit of the doubt, the worst is always assumed and gossiped about. The saddest part of this is that a woman’s worst enemy is another woman. They will destroy each other if they have to, they will even do it out of spite.

Everyone plays a role, everyone acts. Keeping appearances was the goal, a way of life, an ideal, even though it involved so much misery most of the times. 

Lily is the victim of this society but she almost sabotages herself as well. She eventually comes to realize that money will never bring her true happiness, but she also knows she will never be happy without it either. She is destined to always be dissatisfied. One could easily condemn Lily for wanting to marry for money, for wanting a “nice” life. But that wouldn't be entirely fair. At the time, women could not support themselves at that level unless they were heiresses. The only way to obtain a safe, secure, “nice” life was by marrying well. It was a matter of survival. One could also say: “What’s the need to be rich and fabulous? She was a fool”. And yes, she was a fool several times but consider her context, her upbringing, what she thought she was made for:

“Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose”.

The consequences of Lily's actions and decisions caused her a great deal of pain and I found myself being angry at her for her foolishness but at the same time angry at a society that created an unsustainable situation for women like Lily. A society that created an impossible standard of righteousness that they didn't follow themselves but tried so hard to enforce. 

What should have surprised me but unfortunately didn’t is that even though times have changed and women don’t have the same limited position, the upper class societies are basically still the same prejudiced, false and elitist group of people. Lima is so far away from the elite New York society of the late 1890’s but one can indeed perceive the same obsession with money and appearances. I guess some things never change, it doesn’t matter how much “evolved” we are or in what part of the world we live. Money is power, always, everywhere. Looking the right way, going to the right places and relating to the right people is as important as it was then. 

I really enjoyed this book and admire Edith Wharton more than ever for being so insightful. I read The Age of Innocence last year and thought it was a wonderful book but I like The House of Mirth even better. It is a complete story and every part of it has its purpose. The construction and development of the characters is so well round-up. I wanted to hate Lily Bart sometimes but she was so complex, so human, I couldn’t help liking her and admiring her even; I was really rooting for her.


David Bates said...

This really makes me want to read the book, as well as revisit the film (which is quite good) some time. Gillian Anderson is remarkable as Lily Bart.

Class always looms large in British novels, the system being more rigid and formal (not to mention older) than in the United States. I am reading "Clarissa" at the moment, and of course Richardson's book is as much about class society as it is about the psychological makeup of the characters.

Having read the book, you should also review the film once you see it. As if you need more on your "to do" list. :-)

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you for your comment, David! I really want to see the movie, I wouldn't have thought of Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart but I'll probably be pleasantly surprised.
Reviewing the movie is a good idea, especially because I have the book fresh in my memory and will be able to see how much was changed for the adaptation.

"Clarissa" is in my list for the Classics Club but I admit it intimidates me. I think I'll work on one daunting project at a time and stick to Shakespeare for a while :).

David Bates said...

Well, now I feel like an idiot. Even though you mention New York in your review, I put "House of Mirth" in the company of British literature, and Wharton was an American. I guess I recall the film as being so steeped in class issues that it seemed British. Seriously, this is what middle age does to your brain!

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Hahaha that is a completely understandable mistake! The subject of this book did remind me of some other British books related to class issues. It also reminded me a lot of Henry James, who I believe was American but wrote a lot about the British upper-class.

Caro said...

This was the post you recommended me, wasn't it? You truly do know me. :D

This novel seems like such a captivating look into human nature and western society. I love how Wharton calls out the absurdity of raising women to be proper and quiet and then blame them for not fighting. And I truly love that Lily never seems to be demonized for wanting to have money? It's such a refreshing change.

Definitely making its way to the top of my TBR list!

Melissa Vizcarra said...

You have to read this book Caro! I'm pretty sure you are going to love it!