Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)

The House of Mirth

It took me far over two months to decide whether I wanted to review The House of Mirth or not. For some reasons, I found this book profoundly disturbing.

While reading  The House of Mirth I felt like I was watching a fly getting trapped in a spider’s web. At first, when they notice that they are trapped, they wiggle frantically, hoping to be able to free themselves but, in doing so, entangle themselves even more. Comparing the stunningly beautiful Lily Bart to a fly isn’t doing her any justice, but the way she’s trapped by the society she lives in, and the way in which she tries to free herself, is not much different from the poor fly. I’m still a bit shocked. I knew nothing about The House of Mirth and to find that Lili Bart is just as tragic – maybe even more so – as Effi Briest or Mme Bovary (only without the adultery), came as a huge surprise.

Lily Bart comes from a formerly rich family who has lost everything, Her parents are dead and Lily depends on a rich aunt and her friends. She spends a lot of time at her aunt’s New York home or at the country houses of her friends, on the Hudson. Lily is lucky; she’s stunningly beautiful and people like to adorn their parties and evenings with her. She is also a great conversationalist. Everyone is sure she is going to marry rich but the years go by, Lily is already 29, and she still hasn’t settled.

At the beginning of the novel, she meets the lawyer Lawrence Selden. Lily clearly fancies him but since he’s not rich, she doesn’t think of getting married to him. Accidentally meeting at the train station is surprising for both of them and it triggers something reckless in Lily. She spontaneously decides to follow him home for a cup of tea. Something that would be of no consequences nowadays sets in motion Lily’s downfall and shows how much it costs her at all times to play by the rules. The visit is harmless enough. Lily and Selden chat and speak about mutual acquaintances. The tragedy is set in motion because Lily bumps into someone on her way out and abashedly lies about where she’s been. What follows is a series of bad decisions (on Lily’s side) and shameless exploitation, petty jealousy and revenge (on the society’s side). The story has a lot in common with a Greek tragedy in which the heroes fail inevitably.

As much as some elements of the plot shocked me, I loved this book. The prose is luminous, the descriptions are masterful. I went over many passages repeatedly, before moving forward. The book is written from different points of view, each adding another element, another voice. Selden’s passages are analytical, while Lily’s are far more descriptive and atmospheric.

I found Lily Bart one of the most interesting fictional characters because she’s such a bundle of contradictions and – in many ways – her own worst enemy. At least in the beginning. From a 21st Century perspective one is tempted to condemn her at first. But her upbringing really didn’t equip her for an independent life. She has examples of people around her who are independent, but they are outside of the society whose member Lily wishes to stay. Still, they could inspire her and they do eventually, only by then it’s too late then. What makes Lily endearing, is the way she self-sabotages herself constantly, because these acts of sabotage show that she’s not that corrupted, that she actually despises the society she lives in.

The biggest shock is to see how especially women contribute to Lily’s undoing and how much they relish watching her going down. The House of Mirth is an illustration that – I hate to say this – as long as women actively contribute to undermine, discredit and harm other women – out of jealousy or envy – there will never be true gender equality.

I’ve read The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and Mme de Treymes, three very different books, which are all great, but none of them quite equals The House of Mirth. I’m pretty sure, I will re-read it. Now that I know the story, I’ll be enjoying the writing even more.