Book Chat: The House of Mirth


So my girlfriend is going to graduate school, which means there is a whole fun curriculum of books she is reading that I can read and pretend that I am going to graduate school too! Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is the first of these books, and it is kind of great.

Essentially The House of Mirth is a book about a dystopia such as one might read about in We, 1984, or Brave New World, a hellish world in which women have no power or agency, in which merely to be accused is to be tried, judged, and convicted in a swift, crippling blow, in which vast amounts of ingenuity must be expended in order to attach oneself to an available bachelor without one having one’s own ability to earn money directly in the profane world of business, in which the simple attempt to like invest money in the stock market in order to earn enough to pay off gambling debts one is kind of forced to accrue must be done through the auspices of men who expect sex as their reward. Basically it is a horrible story about a grim alternate reality in which women have no power, except that it’s just New York in the early 1900s.

Despite being kind of wicked smart, effective, and judicious within her circumstances, Lily Bart does not have either the courage to leave behind her society and class altogether or to like dutifully marry horrible men for the sake of their money, thus she dies in poverty. What bothers me a lot is how Wharton seems to join in condemning Lily, mostly through the alternately adoring and contemptuous eyes of Selden, the cool independent New York dude who does not mind living in a boarding house and having only moderate means, because it is more important to him to be True To Himself than it is to join all those rich jerks in their corrupt, evil social world. And Selden just can’t understand why Lily is such a jerk, why she wants to hang out with those rich jerks so much, when she could be her REAL ACTUAL SELF . . . with him! He is one of the good ones! She could be SO HAPPY!

Yet Lily can’t go off and be happy with Selden because she has to survive in a world where she’s just like definitively not free. Why should she want to be happy with Selden, even? At the end of Part I, Selden is all “I <3 you Lily wait for me to call on you,” but Lily is in the process of getting KINDA ALMOST RAPED by a friend of the family. He sees her coming out of this guy’s house in the dead of night, after being ACTUALLY SEXUALLY ASSAULTED, and is like “How terrible, LILY IS A REAL WHORE,” and storms away. And Edith Wharton kinda sides with him, one gets the impression. Appearances are everything!

I think The House of Mirth is pretty worth reading for a lot of reasons–the “tableaux vivants” scene is great and I want to have a tableaux vivants party at earliest opportunity, for example–but the author’s relationship with her main character is, um, problematic. But the character is great, and the depiction of her Totally Awful World is frankly scary. (The class stuff in the book is kind of odious–everyone is Really Really rich–but it’s interesting to see how much the author takes it as a given that no one actually deserves this wealth, or believes they deserve it. The American Dream is like in no way a part of this plot.) Fortunately I guess my characters are here to provide you all with the only truly correct, definitive interpretation of Lily Bart, through which you can better enjoy not only The House of Mirth, but perhaps all American literature ever.