Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Saturday, August 1, 2009
The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
It seems like a bad idea to write a book about thoroughly unlikable people and make it boring until the last fifty pages. Well, it isn't the best strategy but the end of The House of Mirth is so redemptive that Edith Wharton manages to salvage a classic out of a social book of manners. Lily Bart is the socialite who is always the belle of the ball. She isn't rich, but she is cultured, mannered, desirable, and beautiful. She is nearing thirty, but retains her youthful charm and is still useful to the movers and shakers of turn of the century New York. Herein lies Lily's dilemma. She wants, needs, to keep her place in the circle of the rich. She wants to exceed the wealth of those around her. She has a few chances to make this leap, but she sabotages them for two reasons. First, she is in love with Larry Seldon, a relatively poor lawyer of middling means who lampoons high society and the desire for riches. Lily can't bring herself to commit to a life of upper middle class drudgery so she turns him down. This relationship ruins her chances with the uber rich Percy Gryce. Second, Lily always thinks there will be another man around the corner because of her manifold charms. She gets over Percy, she screws up a chance with a European prince. Well, these chances run out.
The problems start when she gets in debt to the douchey Gus Treanor. She thinks he's investing some cash for her, he thinks he's cutting checks to her for some extramarital hanky panky. This scandalous relationship with no scandal starts Lily into a string of messy relationships that, through machinations of a richer, more devious woman, gets her booted from her beloved society. Finally, things get interesting. It is during Lily's torturous fall from grace that we get to see more than the "It Girl" persona that we got before. Her decisions are more complicated, and they tell us more about what she truly values. She becomes a drug addict, fails to support herself at a hat shop, moves to increasingly seedy lodgings, and finally comes to a moment of decision.
Lily has love letters from the devious married woman who screwed her over, Berth Dorsett. Lily could use them for blackmail, which she has justified to herself, problem is the letters are to her love, Larry Seldon. At her most desperate moment she returns to Seldon, intent on extorting the cash needed to pay off her debt to Treanor and reestablish her in more favorable circles. After a heart to heart she chucks the letters into the fire and leaves, believing a reboot of her relationship with Seldon is impossible and perhaps undesirable. On her way home through Manhattan she bumps into Nettie, a girl she helped get healthy years ago by paying for her trip out west. Nettie idolizes Lily and lets her rest in her apartment and hold her baby. This act seems to ground Lily and make her happy for the first time in months.
When she returns to her crappy boarding house she gets a long awaited inheritance check for $10K. She debates whether to keep the money and remain under the cloud debt or to pay everything off and live in poverty, her nightmare. She cuts checks to her debtors and goes to bed. Although exhausted her mind races and she can't make it stop. She takes a big shot of her sleeping drug and drifts away, her last thought about a word that would make everything right between her and Seldon.
The next morning Seldon heads over to Lily's, ready to reconcile after the change he saw in her the night before. When he arrives he finds a crowd and Lily dead. As Seldon and his cousin Gerty sit in the room with Lily's body they examine the remnants of her life. He finds that she chose to pay off her debts and realizes that she was much more than a money hunter. As he embraces her he thinks of the word that would make everything alright between them.
Rating 6.5/10: I was really bored at many points in the novel. I didn't like the characters or Wharton's writing. When Lily was finally forced to confront her future things really turned around.
PS Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart? Casting director must have been high.