The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

houseofmirthI finished Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth a few days ago, but I still don’t feel like I’m ready to write a review. I have such mixed feelings, and I don’t think I have fully sorted them out yet. On the one hand, I am in the afterglow of some wonderful prose, but on the other hand, I have to secretly admit that there were parts of the book that bored me.

The book starts out innocently enough: Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart run into each other at Grand Central Station in New York City. Lily is on her way from one country house to the next, and she asks Selden to spend some time with her until her next train leaves the city. There is some attraction between them, but even though they sometimes meet socially, they know that they could never act on their attraction because their lifestyles don’t match. Lily has been brought up with the ideal to look beautiful and marry a rich man, and Selden is a lawyer with just enough independence to look critically at high society.

“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. […] He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her.”

Selden takes Lily to his apartment to have tea, and she uses their conversation to gain knowledge that will help her impress Percy Gryce, a rich bachelor she knows to be at the upcoming house party. Yet this little meeting will have lasting effects. It does not go unobserved that Lily has visited the rooms of a bachelor—an indiscretion that will take on greater meaning as she starts to fall from high society’s favor. It also awakens a sense in her that there might be more to life than money:

“She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.”

After Lily allows herself one day of respite from Gryce’s boredom, things go downhill for her. She finds herself in the conundrum of having to live an expensive lifestyle to keep up with her so-called friends without being able to afford it and it becomes harder and harder for her to keep up. She acquires gambling debts, borrows money from friends, and is ultimately unjustly accused of having an affair with a married man.

Unfortunately, as Lily’s chances to find a rich husband—a savior—dwindled, so did the wit I so much enjoy in Wharton’s writing. In addition, I went back and forth between liking and pitying Lily and being bored by her; she was such an odd mixture of inability and unwillingness to see herself both in and out of the rich society she so desperately wants to belong to.

“Moral complications existed for her only in the environment that had produced them; she did not mean to slight or ignore them, but they lost their reality when they changed their background.”

The pace and the story picked up again in last 75 pages or so, and I found myself almost regretting that I have no immediate reason to write a paper on the interesting contrast between beauty and ugliness that runs throughout the book. That would definitely be an interesting aspect to explore.

All in all, I didn’t find this book nearly as good as The Age of Innocence, but I am still looking forward to my next Wharton novel. Which one should it be? The Custom of the Country? Summer? The Reef? Any recommendations?

 

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12 comments

  1. That’s a very interesting point about the dynamic between beauty and ugliness that runs through the book as this novel does seem to focus on the theme of competing tensions. We can see it the different aspects of Lily’s character, how she wavers between Percy Gryce and Selden, how at times she wants to have her cake and eat it.

    I love the quotes you’ve picked for your review.

  2. The House of Mirth is one of my favourite novels, so I’m a bit sad you didn’t love it. I like The Buccaneers, Wharton’s last book. She died before she could finish it but it was published in 1938, nevertheless. There is another version with an ending that someone else wrote, which upset quite a few Wharton fans. The Age of Innocence has the most perfect ending – it’s just brilliant. 🙂

  3. Great review! I was often bored too and I wondered if the fact that the story was originally serialised means that the pacing of the novel is a bit off. I’m still enjoying my Wharton journey though, Age of Innocence will be next!

  4. I found The Age of Innocence better as well, but I think it’s because of the characters – the unfulfilled love story appealed to me more than Lily’s problems. I think Lily’s behaviour was a definition of society at the time, it all seemed like a whimsical game where the winners were the rich (and the ones who could keep their scandalous behaviour from the public eye).

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