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The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

2010/08/20

Lately I’ve been trying to pick up some classic literature amongst my stacks of the latest young adult fiction, books mentioned on NPR and in the NY Times, and general pleasure reading. As a librarian candidate, I am sometimes embarrassed to admit how many classic books there are which I have still not yet read, but am actively trying to remedy that!

In this Edith Wharton novel (I’ve been on a Wharton kick recently), the heroine is Lily Bart, raised in the fast paced New York society, but living on very limited funds — both her mother and father have passed away, leaving her to rely on wealthier relatives for a living. Wharton paints an intriguing picture of a woman who is desperately trying to keep up with her peers in all things fashionable: clothes, jewelry, gambling — “For a long time [Lily] had refused to play bridge. She knew she could not afford it, and she was afraid of acquiring so expensive a taste.” Gambling becomes Lily’s drug of choice, and before long, she has sought out unconventional ways of funding this habit, including becoming indebted to Gus Trenor, a businessman and investor of sorts. But at twenty-nine, Lily is feeling the pressure, both financially and socially, to settle down, preferably with someone who can provide freedom from the monetary obligations which have been stacking up around her.

In one conversation with her friend, Lawrence Selden, Lily muses, “There are men who don’t like me — one can tell that at a glance. And there are others who are afraid of me; they think I want to marry them… but I don’t think you dislike me — and you can’t possibly think I want to marry you… there are men enough to say pleasant things to me and that what I want is a friend who won’t be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them.” It’s funny how this is still so true of man-woman friendships today: the flirting, the confusion, the mixed signals, the endless discussions with friends afterward of “what did he mean by that” and “what does she really want”.

Later, in another conversation, Selden addresses the overwhelming focus of society on the fashionable and decorative: “I don’t underrate the decorative side of life. It seems to me the sense of splendour has justified itself by what it has produced. The worst of it is that so much human nature is used up in the process. If we’re all the raw stuff of the cosmic effects, one would rather be the fire that tempers a sword than the fish that dyes a purple cloak. And a society like ours wastes such good material in producing its little patch of purple!” In our modern society which idolizes wealth and beauty, materialism and fleeting pleasures, such an argument seems a little ridiculous, but is it really? How much time, money, and materials have you spent on your “little patch of purple” in recent days? Weeks? Years?

Although Lily is flighty, materialistic, and often selfish, she is also constrained and condemned by the society which she tries valiantly to maintain and cultivate. The friendship which she finds in Gerty Farish, a spinster whom she initially scorns as poor and miserable, becomes very dear to her, despite Gerty’s own initial reactions to Lily.
This was not an easy read, but I think it is my favourite thus far of the Wharton novels I have read.

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