Edith Wharton will always be my favorite author. That being said, I am rather ashamed it took me so long to read her first and most acclaimed novel, The House of Mirth. Part of me was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the high standards the world of classic literature has given it. Now that I’ve actually read it, I can assure myself and everyone else that there was no disappointment to be had.
Joy and laugher are lacking in this book, which is perhaps shocking to those who do not know Wharton and did not pick up on the irony of the title. Mrs. Wharton has a knack for throwing her characters into a harsh and judgmental landscape, and it is no different for Lily Bart, the protagonist of the novel.
Though without money herself, Lily plays a leading role in 1900s New York high society, essentially existing off the sumptuous charity of friends. Her mother, long since gone, raised her to abhor dinginess and poverty, and since she is not rich, has made it her goal in life to capture a rich husband. In trying to attain this goal, she ends up sacrificing her beliefs, morals, and reputation; in the end, she has nothing to show for her life except debt.
The saddest part about Lily’s steady decline into deprivation is that she had a chance at true love but squandered it. Lily has a hold on Lawrence Selden’s heart from the very beginning of the novel; his love, in a sense, becomes the antagonist, because her life’s purpose is to snare a wealthy husband but the man who loves her and whom she loves is not rich. “The only way I can help you is by loving you,” Selden tells Lily in an early fit of passion. Though she finds herself on many occasions craving his love, she turns from it again and again – but not because she is cruel or selfish. She is fastened in a vicious cycle that she cannot escape from, one of ritual, social mores, and maintaining reputation.
Lily and her chance at happiness are always circling but never meeting. Cruel circumstance and haughty breeding have doomed her, and in the end this ruins not only Lily herself, but the few who love her as well.
The House of Mirth is a great book to curl up with and enjoy in these harsh winter months, and though it is not a happy read it comes highly recommended. It is the kind of story that you simply cannot let go of for a while.
I have tried hard – but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds out that one only fits into one hole? One must go back to it or be thrown out into the rubbish heap – and you don’t know what it’s like in the rubbish heap!