Book Chat: The House of Mirth

Book Chat: The House of Mirth
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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.


5 thoughts on “Book Chat: The House of Mirth

  1. I hadn’t heard of this book but the plot made me realize that I had watched the 2000 movie starring Gillian Anderson. There was something about it that I didn’t quite get, but YOUR plot description perspective puts all the pieces into place.

    Haven’t read any Victorian or Edwardian literature for a long time, after I read half way through Jude the Obscure, got distracted and found I couldn’t pick it up again….will have to give Wharton a try.

    1. I had a similar experience with Jude the Obscure, only it was, um, after fifteen pages. A friend recommended it to me as basically “Good Will Hunting” in horrible provincial England, which still keeps it on my list of “books to one day read” even though I probably never will.

      What’s weird about Wharton is that she’s not really Victorian/Edwardian — she just uses those techniques to describe a totally different social world, i.e. fancypants turn-of-century New York, in which class borders are much more porous than I think they ever were in England? So it has this really different, crazy quality to it–somehow I just couldn’t imagine the plot happening in a British novel. (Also, there is a lot of stuff about adultery, which was specifically disallowed from British novels on moral grounds, except I guess in the case of Jude the Obscure.) High recommendation because of this are French late eighteenth/early nineteenth century novels! They have the same kind of really grim rationalistic eye on everything and this real awareness of Money and Power as forces rather than as concepts–i.e., things you can be “for” or “against” in this really broad late twentieth century way–but there is also a lot of sex that is not found in British novels. Key recommendations: The Red and the Black (Stendhal), Lost Illusions (Balzac). Balzac also wrote a crazy novel about a trans woman MAYBE HAUNTED BY SPIRITS called SARRASINE that I’ve sadly never been able to get through because it’s, um, kind of boring, despite the premise. But there is all kinds of fun stuff in French literature of the period that everyone should enjoy!

  2. Have you read any other Hardy novels? Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Ubervilles are well worth reading. Mayor of Casterbridge was a bit dry.
    Thanks for the recommendations, the only french literature I’ve read is some Victor Hugo and Jules Verne (apparently most are poorly translated in English, no wonder I found his books so difficult).

    1. I hear good things re: Tess but haven’t read it! I’ll check it out.

      The only Victor Hugo I’ve read is TOILERS OF THE SEA, which is actually kinda great, and features a battle with a giant DEVIL-FISH (read: squid) and other such fun. For some reason, also, it didn’t occur to me until exactly this moment that Jules Verne was French. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me! I’ve never actually read any Jules Verne books, also, lamely. :( Which are good/should I now?

  3. I haven’t read any Jules Verne since I was a teenager, his science fiction and adventure books; 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Mysterious Island, Around the World in 80 days.

    If you can, try to find recent translations instead of the old ones (which are heavily reprinted because copyright has expired).
    English translations of Verne are often poor, unfortunately I cannot read French or German well enough to compare.

    Michael Strogoff is considered one of his best, but I haven’t read it.

    I always preferred HG Wells to Verne, but I wonder how much more I would enjoy Verne if I could of read one of these newer translations.

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