Saturday, 9 July 2011

Book #59 The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House Of Mirth

The House Of Mirth published in 1905 tells the story of Lily Bart a young woman in society. Though young, Lily is not getting younger and must make a good match soon. Unlike other novels of this type, The House Of Mirth charts not the romances and eventual happy nuptials of Lily but her failures and social decline.

I have had some conversations with my friend Matt over my inability to like novels which feature anti-heroes rather than heroes. Is whether we like our heroes important? Does it mar the story if we do not? Even if the story offers us a glimpse behind the curtains of a different world to our experience as all novels seek to do? The House Of Mirth certainly does this being as it covers the lives of New York Society at the turn of the twentieth century. Is the fact that our characters are thoroughly vile somewhat the point? The House Of Mirth is something of a polemic against those that inhabit that society or better yet an exposure of them. My sympathies ought to have been with Lily Bart, a woman whose father was ruined and is now dead remains in those social circles out of respect for her breeding and almost out of charity. But, she's an anti-heroine, she looks imperiously down her nose at everything, from her aunt and the surroundings she has shared with her to the homes of others. Equally too, she is snobbish in society, dismissing Simon Rosedale, the man who shows most care for her as nothing but a Jew and considers herself quite above Selden's impoverished spinster cousin, again, the friend who shows her most loyalty. Even without the likes of Simon and Gerty, Lily truly ranks herself as much above the rest of her company, though discomforted when unable to match them financially.

So Lily Bart is difficult to like but so too is her circle, Bertha Dorset and Carry Fisher and Judy Trenor. On the one hand these people have these wonderful parties and social lives and are all of course so very attached to one another, and yet beneath the veneer would and do destroy each other without hesitation lest they be destroyed. The men, though seeing the deplorable behaviour of their wives do little or nothing to stand up to it, protecting their good names through terrible injustice. They are ineffectual and spineless, but will seek to take advantage of Lily's vulnerability as and when they can.

Because the book is so depressing, it gave me cause to wonder why on earth it was called The House Of Mirth. A bit of googling reveals it to come from Ecclesiastes: the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The point being of course is that these women and their husbands by extension are obsessed with money and jewels, and dresses and having money to gamble at bridge and who is marrying whom and who is the leader of "their set", the most popular hostess. In short, they are obsessed with frivolities and are insidious, vapid, fools.

It is difficult to feel for Lily for although she wishes more than anything to be part of that set, she throws away multiple opportunities to get what she wants, and later, to get back what she has lost. And so too, comes across as terribly foolish and ultimately irritating. Because I couldn't like anyone in the story I found it difficult to enjoy the book and trudged through it almost begrudgingly. It's possible I would have abandoned it were it not for the rule that I must finish books on this challenge. From a critical perspective, this novel is probably very interesting a damning indictment of the perilous position of well-bred young women without husbands and of "polite society" of the era. Alternatively, the message seems to say, if you are a woman of no fortune marry no matter how you feel, marry a boring Percy Gryce or someone you find contemptible like Simon Rosedale or find yourself like poor Lily Bart. A warning to strike fear in the hearts of young debutantes to conform to such a world. I doubt Wharton meant the latter but in a way that's the effect. A warped "moral tale".

That said for a book essentially short, I found it an utter nightmare to read, it took me a long time; mainly because I hated the characters so badly and found the whole thing just distasteful. It does have an interesting "point" to make, but I prefer "points" that are made artfully with subtlety, so as they come to you in the midst of your absorption in the story, rather than novels that seem to solely exist in order to make such "points".

I find it difficult to know how to rate this book because I am aware of my own bias against unlikeable leads. I also found it incredibly boring for the first two thirds as I despised their company as characters. Despite this, is it a good portrait of a type of society? Yes. Is it making an interesting point? Yes. But did I enjoy it? No. So how do I rate it then? Probably for enjoyment 3/10 and for merit 7/10. However, having such a complicated reaction to a novel says something for it. Lily Bart, on the other hand, remains completely insufferable.

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