“She had been fashioned to adorn and delight”
Having previously read ‘The Age of Innocence’ for an English essay on marriage, I was already acquainted with Wharton’s ability to analysis New York society through sharp and cutting social commentary. ‘House of Mirth’ is probably the more famous of the two novels as it cemented Wharton’s reputation as a writer. However, I don’t wish to compare the works too frequently. If you haven’t read beforehand, be warned that my review will almost certainly contain spoilers.
The novel traces the fall of penniless socialite Lily Bart down the rigid New York hierarchy till her eventual death from an overdose of sleeping draught. But it is not these events in themselves that make the novel so captivating. Rather, it’s the way in which her fall is traced and presented as an almost inevitable downward spiral. Of course, there were plenty of opportunities for Lily to remedy her position but for reasons of honour and conduct she often chooses to decline them. Yet Wharton’s narrative makes the downward spiral seem so unavoidable that the reader cannot truly dislike Lily for her decisions.
For me the characterisation of Lily Bart was the strongest part of the novel. The novel’s other characters are simply not as compelling and they do tend to blur together in their hypocrisy and close mindedness. It really does feel as though it is Lily alone battling against this mass, whose values she hold so dear even though they lead to her destruction. Indeed, her circumstances are very tragically ironic. Lily’s lack of agency makes her more striking because we are put into her closeted life. Each idea and hope she has is rapidly crushed by external circumstance or her internal morals and we are with her through each defeat.
By contrast, Lawrence Selden is much less interesting perhaps because we do not enter his mind as much. I found his rejection of society and rebelliousness less admirable because unlike Lily he has such an option. As a bachelor and a lawyer, he can distance himself from society because he does not need it as acutely as Lily. The love story between Lawrence and Lily was in my opinion, of secondary importance. It never felt likely to come together. Ultimately, it is a story of social ruin not love so their relationship became a plot device to chart that. Selden is almost like the reader as he has a more sympathetic reaction to Lily’s misery.
The distinction between men and women and the elite and ordinary is drawn very distinctly in the novel. Money and gender relations are inextricably linked as Lily presents marriage, as being strategic and calculated. It reminds us of how matrimony is somewhat superficial and based on financial and social gain. Men give women security through marriage but ironically each time Lily receives any money or emotional support from a man it is condemned as scandal. The hypocrisy is infuriating for the modern reader as you begin to feel just as confined as Lily who is punished by her own beauty and kindness which are so valued by New York society.
I know I probably haven’t touched on all the themes presented in the novel but these were the ones that I found most striking. If you want to read about tragedy, social hierarchy and suppression of women ‘House of Mirth’ is definitely right for you. I would love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. Please be free to disagree with me if you adore Lawrence Selden or find Lily Bart to be foolish.