There are some books written long ago that we still read for good reasons. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is one of them.
Though Wharton wrote it in 1905, it remains resonant in our own time with its extant hierarchal social structures where one percent own half our nation’s wealth, twenty percent live in poverty, and the middle class faces inexorable decline.
And yet it seems an anomaly that Wharton, so deeply endowed with wealth, should prove one of its harshest critics. Free from economic anxiety, she never knew the duress of marginal income and its daily weight in meeting the monthly rent or mortgage, paying rising utility bills, putting food on the table, having just enough to last until the next paycheck; worse, the cyclic loss of employment amid the vicissitudes of a market economy. She crossed the Atlantic some 60 times, moving permanently to France in 1913. Her parents, who had accumulated substantial wealth from real estate investment, provided their two children with every privilege wealth can confer. A debutante, she never lacked for suitors and married rich. Enjoying replete cultural exposure, she spoke French, German, and Italian fluently, became expert in architectural design, and was a knowledgeable gardener. Yet the fact remains, she’s among America’s most insightful literary critics of what we now call the Gilded Age with its plutocracy of concentrated wealth.
Unlike the novel’s protagonist, the snobbish Lily Bart, Wharton is unsparing in bursting the bubble of the wealthy, the often shallowness of their wanton materialism, the competitive rigors of keeping up appearances, its social intrigues, smug superiority and indifference to the working class.
Wharton’s conscience finds its mindset in foil Gerty Farish’s inveterate altruism who, as Lily observes, “likes being good.”
And though she evolves, it comes too late. Adulating the wealthy, “she liked their elegance, their lightness. They were lords of the only world she cared for, and they were ready to admit her to their ranks and let her lord it with them. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.”
Like all tragic figures, Lily’s downfall is self-wrought, knowing the encumbrance of her social aspirations, yet subscribing to its comforts. As Selden, the man she loves, astutely observes, “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
Selden’s observation, which reverberates throughout the narrative, links her with the naturalist school of writers that includes Crane, Zola, and Dreiser. Cosmic indifference infuses our universe and those unable to adapt it destroys, moral exigencies not withstanding. The House of Mirth has no easy fix. It is tragedy writ large.
As for Selden, he may love Lily, but unable to accomodate her quest for opulence and distinction, he cannot reciprocate. Sadly, he comes to believe the gossip he has heard, stifling his giving her the saving love she requires most by story end: “Selden had given her of his best, but he was as incapable as herself of an uncritical return to former states of feeling.”
Lily’s catalyst to insight is working-class Nettie Struther, whom she runs into toward novel end. In a singular act of previous charity, Lily provided money for Netty to access medical treatment, saving her life. Married and a recent mother, she offers that she had not only been ill, but unhappy. Like Gertie, Nettie has found contentment nonetheless, not in material goods, but in the bonds of affection: “It was the first time she had ever come across the results of her spasmodic benevolence, and the surprised sense of human fellowship took the mortal chill from her heart.”
In the novel’s most salient passage, Lily perceives that
all the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance; her first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that evening in Nettie Struther’s kitchen. The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life and build herself a shelter with them seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence….If only life could end now—end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world…The little bottle was at her bed-side, waiting to lay its spell upon her.
Though written in 1905, the novel’s women reflect changing mores and the earliest intrusion of feminism, married women venturing into adultery and divorce and smoking becoming commonplace. Bertha Dorset, Lily’s primary antagonist, has no misgivings about her serial adultery: “The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct; she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference.” Its author, trapped in a 28-year unfulfilling marriage, would venture into a long affair, then divorce, rare for its time.
Contemporary readers may find Wharton’s lugubrious sentences tedious to navigate and, yet, read closely, redolent with observational detail probing human behavior in its myriad particulars not unlike England’s literary master, George Eliot, in Middlemarch.
I’ve long held up Wharton as among America’s foremost women novelists, supreme not only in her acuity observing social behavior, but its motivation. Wharton’s novel emerges as America’s rendition of close friend Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, both Isabel Archer and Lily Bart, not only victims of betrayal and lost freedom, but of themselves. The House of Mirth ultimately epitomizes the conflict between society’s impositions and the quest to live our authentic selves.