GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

* * * * * * *

 

73 thoughts on “GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

    • Yes, I liked her writing too though not as much as in Ethan Frome. There was something in this one that made me feel quite detached – if she couldn’t make someone likeable, then it could have done with a bit more anger… or something…

  1. I think you’ve hit on a really important aspect of holding up a mirror to a given society, FictionFan. The author needs to invite the reader to make some sort of connection with that society (specifically, with the characters). As you say, Wharton was, no doubt, pointing out exactly the flaws that make Lily so unappealing to you. So in that sense, one sees her purpose (if I’m right about that). On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for making the characters interesting and human enough – and appealing in some way – that the reader can, if you will, blame society, rather than blame the character. I don’t know if that muddle makes sense, but I do see your point about your feelings towards Lily and, therefore, the story.

    • Yes, I think you’ve put your finger on it, Margot! I felt most of Lily’s problems were of her own making so didn’t get nearly as angry about the society side as I would have done if I could have seen her as a victim. I know Austen’s heroines also are quite passive on the whole, but that was a century earlier and in stuffy old England. America is the land of opportunity and there were plenty of routes available to Lily to get out of her situation. And if she really couldn’t face the world on her own, she should just have buckled down and married one of the many men who fell for her!! I still feel bad about giggling, though… 😉

  2. What a shame there wasn’t even one character to warm to as I rather like the sound of this novel in general. Lily sounds like a right pain, though – the first thing a lady should forfeit is her reputation! Life is so much more fun after that… 😉

  3. I found that Wharton’s Ethan Frome engaged me much more quickly and effectively — partly the story line, partly the prose style, I suspect. And I’m still trying to like Austen’s Emma as a character; somehow I feel it’s a flaw in me not to forgive her her trespasses and warm up to her. Leave it to Austen to point out my own pettiness.

    • I much preferred Ethan Frome – although none of the characters in it were completely likeable either, there was much more emotion in the writing and I felt no desire to giggle when I reached the tragic ending. In fact, I sobbed buckets – always the sign of an excellent read! 😉 I’ve never taken to Emma, despite my undying love for all things Austen. She’s the only one of Austen’s heroines I can’t love, no matter how hard I try. But then Austen said herself she was setting out to create an unlikeable character, so she achieved her aim!

  4. I love this book – I did find myself quite attached to poor Lily Bart by the end. I felt that Wharton wrote her to have integrity, misplaced though its focus might have been. Just as an aside, as well, Wharton later wrote The Custom of the Country as a sort of an inversion of The House of Mirth, and Undine Spragg is one of the most interesting anti-heroines to ever grace a page. I prefer The House of Mirth, but The Custom of the Country is also worth reading.

    Also, I love chocolate.

    • I felt sorry for her by the end, but somehow it never quite reached the point where I actually liked her much. I agree she had a sort of integrity, but even that seemed to be because she valued herself too highly, based purely on her beauty and social grace. I do think I’d have liked her much better before I turned into a cynical old bat though… 😉 Oh, I’ll look out for The Custom of the Country then – that sounds like fun. She’s an excellent writer and despite my criticisms of poor Lily I did enjoy this one a lot.

      Thanks for popping by and commenting! Haha! Chocolate lovers are always welcome around here!! 😀

    • Haha! You made it!

      I’ve only read a couple of her books – this and Ethan Frome, which I preferred. From those two she doesn’t seem to go much for likeable characters, which is always a problem for me – at least, I don’t have to like them, excatly, but I have to be interested in their fate. In Ethan Frome I was, and in this one I wasn’t…

    • I tried really hard to love her, but just couldn’t! However, I thought Wharton was very insightful into both the characters and the society, although I did wonder if there were really no decent people amongst the elite. Maybe the decent ones didn’t hang around the social scene. I do think I’d have loved Lily more if I’d read the book when I was younger and less cynical…

  5. Last year I had a bit of an Edith Wharton binge, having never read any of her books before. I read “Age Of Innocence”, “House Of Mirth” and “Ethan Frome”. “House Of Mirth” was the one I liked the least. I thought the characters were all pretty ghastly and although I perked up when Lily began her social decline (almost with sadistic glee) much of it I couldn’t warm to and found it hard-going. The book I enjoyed most was “Ethan Frome” which was atypical Wharton in terms of setting and class etc and why did I really enjoy this? – sympathetic lead character…………..
    I’m with you all the way on this one. “House Of Mirth” is well written but ultimately cold – “Ethan Frome” is much bleaker in terms of theme and setting but to me it’s a warmer novel!

    • Ha! I’m glad someone else enjoyed Lily’s sad decline – that makes me feel better about myself! 😉 Yes, I agree – though there was no lightness or humour in Ethan Frome I found myself really involved with the characters, which I never did in this one. I swithered between this and The Age of Innocence for the GAN Quest – I suspect I may have picked the wrong one. Not that I didn’t enjoy this one – but in some ways it was almost like reading a factual book rather than a novel in terms of my response to it.

  6. Brilliant! Absolutely, brilliant! I think you should pull all of your GAN reviews together in a reader’s handbook when you have enough. Yes, she was a product of her time. And yes, it’s difficult to empathize. Here is where we are at the mercy of the writer and her perspective. I don’t think Wharton liked any of these characters and wanted to lay it all out for everyone to see. And if I think about my most recent post, perhaps Wharton failed to find and provide glimpses of Lily’s humanity?

    • Haha! Thank you! At the rate I get through them, expect the handbook to appear round about 2050…

      It almost felt as though Wharton had an axe to grind, plus I really felt that by 1900 in the US, there must have been other options for women with a bit of capital or with people who would have backed her, as they would have at the early stages. Why not open her own shop? Or start a handmade chocolate franchise?? I really found myself constantly wanting to give her careers advice. Yes, you’re right – no humanity, no depth beyond what was required of her to fulfil her role in the plot.

  7. It’s really interesting to read another perspective on this novel. I must admit to loving it (and Lily, in spite of her flaws). Even though I was familiar with the crux of the story from the film, I only got around to reading it last year. Lily doesn’t make life easy for herself that’s for sure. I’m completely with you when it comes to Wharton’s portrayal of society at the time – it’s quite forensic, isn’t it?

    • Lily got my feminist back up, I fear – and that was to do with the time of the book as much as anything else. Had it been set even 50 years earlier I could have accepted that she had no options, but by 1900ish I felt she should have had some opportunities beyond marriage, especially in America. So I got frustrated with her uselessness rather than sympathetic over her plight. I’m so hard-hearted! 😉 But yes, she stripped that society bare, didn’t she? And I liked the way she differentiated all the nuances of the various levels…

  8. Golly, this sounds dreadfully like an afternoon of raking leaves on a windy day (in other words, futile!) I’ve found that, besides being interesting, a book needs to have at least one someone for me to root for (or at least hate). I’ve never read this one, but it doesn’t sound like something I’d particularly enjoy. Thanks for another outstanding review, FF! Time to treat yourself to a chocolate bar as reward for enduring Lily!

    • I must admit I found the first half pretty slow going, but it improved once poor Lily started to self-destruct! Haha! I’m so mean! Yes, I can love or hate the main character, or it’s enough even if I feel involved with the other characters, but if I don’t much care what happens to any of them then it stops feeling like a novel and starts feeling like homework. One jumbo bag of Maltesers should see me back to normal though… 😉

  9. I read this many years ago, when I was on a bit of a Gan Quest of my own, but unfortunately I read it at the same time as Portrait of a Lady and I think it suffered by comparison. Lily is of course, just the sort of useless woman I despise – I so agree with you about the opportunities available to her. If she could have stopped thinking about and admiring herself, she might have been of some benefit to the world she lived in.

    • Yes, I’m afraid that by the age of twenty-nine she should have been able to get over her upbringing and form a few opinions of her own. And if she was really so indoctrinated to do what was expected of her, then why hadn’t she married years ago? It all felt too contrived to fit Wharton’s purpose of ripping the society to shreds.

  10. I’ve never read this one. Age of Innocence was required reading at my school. I was going to ask if you saw the Gillian Anderson House of Mirth, but I read the caption on the photo above. I haven’t seen it. I think I’d have the same reaction as you to Lily.

    • I swithered over this one and The Age of Innocence for the GAN Quest – I’m thinking maybe I picked the wrong one. Did you enjoy ‘Age’? I can’t make up my mind about the movie – Gillian Anderson is a great actress, but the book is so slow I suspect the movie might be incredibly dull… only one way to find out, I suppose!

      • I don’t think Wharton is ever going to fit the criteria that deals with capturing the entire American experience – she is far too narrow in her focus. She lays bare the hypocrisy of old New York with a scalpel, but it isn’t really possible to broaden her application to all of society. Maybe in Summer, actually, which isn’t nearly as insular and isn’t actually focused solely on very upcrust New York society, or even The Custom of the Country which deals with the crass and commercialized aspects of our culture much more broadly than either Age of Innocence or House of the Mirth.

        In fact, thinking about it, I think that one is the one that might qualify under your criteria. Maybe.

        • Yes, I think very few books will meet that last criteria – or will even be trying to. But I’ve kinda widened my quest out now to just look for some great novels who happen to be written by Americans. If I find a Great American Novel that’ll be a bonus! Thanks for the recommendations – I’ve only read Ethan Frome and this one, so it’s good to have an idea of where to head next. I think I’ll try The Custom of the Country next – a bit of a change of focus before tackling The Age of Innocence later! 😀

  11. I’m sorry it didn’t work for you. I do agree with you though that Wharton is a writer with her own agenda and she has pretty much set out to make Lily unlikeable (though very human). In the introduction to my edition it said that Wharton was making a point about the stupidity of romantic illusions because Sheldon really isn’t worth it … I do love the idea of Wharton as a writer who is critiquing romantic novels even as she writes one!

    • It so nearly did! Ha, interesting! And certainly more realistic than if he’d been some kind of plaster saint, I suppose. But in truth, I actually wished he had been worth her passion – then I would have felt more involved in him, even if not in her. But sadly, I didn’t much care what happened to him either – oh, I’m getting so hard-hearted in my old age! I’ll need to read a series of sob-fests to soften myself up again! Never mind, Gone with the Wind should be coming up soon – surely it will make me cry!! 😉

  12. *laughing victorious* Aha! You only like Austen because you read her when you were…younger than 21! Now, I see the ticket.

    I think she should never marry. Fight the customs of the day. Become a baker of bread or a blacksmith. I would’ve done either of those.

    Now, her hat is great.

    • That’s why you must read them now! Another few years and you’ll be as hard-hearted as me!!

      I totally agree! There wasn’t a single man amongst them that appealed – and as you know, I’m not picky! If only Darby had been there… though she wasn’t good enough for him.

      I wish we still wore hats like that…

      • Now, now. I’m not young anymore, see. The time has passed. The ship has sailed. I’m…quite safe now.

        But imagine being with Darby forever! That’d get quite annoying, I think. Especially when his wig falls off.

        *laughing* I can picture you in one.

        • It’s never too late! And anyway boys mature much later than girls – in fact, they usually only mature around 75, so you have some time left…

          *imagines* *smiles* *sighs happily* Darby does not wear a wig!! Unlike the Professor…

          Don’t you think it makes her head look absolutely huge though? One could use her as a battering ram…

          • *laughs* You mean I’m not mature yet? Probably not. Also, I hear my brain is still developing, haha.

            I do wear a wig, from time to time. And it’s itchy. FEF, never wear a wig, kay?

            *laughs* How mean! It’s sorta decorative. Not the nicest get-up I’ve seen.

            • Good noodles! The thought that the Professorial brain might expand even further is a truly frightening thought!! Mature is a horrible thing to be – I’m so glad I’ve always managed to avoid it…

              Well, if you insist – but don’t you think I’ll look silly bald?

              I rather like it – I love these old-fashioned ridiculous hats. They’re so… pointless!

            • Aha! So you’re not matured. I knew this. Very good for you. You’re much better this way, I’m sure. Maturing is the worst.

              I’d look like…Jason Statham!!

              *laughs* Great word for it. Much better than Lizio’s pointless dress.

            • It is! It something that should be left strictly to cheeses!

              Or Cap’n Picard…

              *gasps* Lizio’s dress is not pointless! Good noodles! Think of the scandal of she went out without it! This isn’t Barsoom, you know!

            • No! Yucketh! I have a general rule in life not to eat anything that’s mouldy…

              Ageist! My Cap’n Picard could beat your Jason with one hand tied behind his back!

              *gasps* Darby would have immediately offered her his cloak – such a gentleman!

            • *laughs* Finally a person who doesn’t like blue cheese! *jumps for joy* I would do the fist thingy, but I know you don’t like them.

              Okay, I’ll admit CP is very cool. But…Statham throws knives!!

              *laughing* I’m not so sure. Wickham would’ve.

            • *laughing* The things that make you happy! Don’t you like it either, then? Oh I quite like fist thingies when you do them – I just feel silly doing them myself! I don’t have the biceps for it, I fear…

              Yeah, but Jean-Luc has photon torpedoes… *victorious*

              Wickham was no gentleman! He’d probably have stood beside her and taken a selfie…

            • I know it’s strange… *laughs* Not at all! It’s…gone bad! Who could like that?! Yucketh. Haha, no no. Don’t feel silly at all! It’s much better than handshakes or hugs. The slap is rather good, though.

              Oooo….I’d love to fire one of those… *daydreams like FEF always does*

              *laughing* Of course I wouldn’t do that…

            • But wasn’t it you who mentioned the cheese with live insects in it? That one is lodged in my mind as a nightmare food! Why would anyone eat such a thing?! Handshakes are good! Very… formal…

              Rafa with a photon torpedo! *daydreams too*

              Hmm… *quizzical eyebrow*

  13. I don’ think it is wrong to giggle at the end of a book titled, ‘The House of Mirth,’ clearly you’re supposed to… I’ve been meaning to read this too, but might put it off for a while and watch the movie instead, with a nice block of chocolate!

    • Haha! I was going to title my review ‘When does the mirth bit start?’ but I was afraid the fans might lynch me…

      Seriously, I did enjoy it and would recommend it – unfortunately, I just didn’t love it the way I’d hoped I would. But chocolate helped me through…

  14. It’s been ages since I read this, and my affection for the book may be related to the fact that I read it in one of my last classes in undergrad with some of my favorite people in the world. That being said, I’m a reader that liked the drama and the Wharton’s scalpel-wielding as another commenter pointed out. In contrast, I lose focus when I try to read Henry James. Finally, I don’t remember much about the Gillian Anderson version of the book. I do recommend the Daniel Day Lewis version of The Age of Innoncence, though 🙂

    • I do think that when we read a book can very much affect what we think of it. I thought she did the scalpel-wielding very well, but I just couldn’t get up much emotion for poor Lily – the same problem as I had with Emma. I haven’t read any Henry James, I think, (though The Bostonians rings a tiny bell from long. long ago) but he should be appearing on the GAN list at some point. Ah, thank you – I shall look out for that then – he’s always worth watching!

  15. So, twenty-nine is when your beauty begins to fade, eh? Oh dear…

    I too prefer to read about characters that I like, or at least can sympathize with. I don’t think that’s asking too much from a book!

    • Of course, she lived in the days before wrinkle cream… 😉

      I agree! Sometimes I feel authors forget reading is supposed to be pleasurable! However, I think I must have been being particularly hard-hearted when I read this one, ‘cos lots of people seem to love poor Lily…

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s