Thursday, January 08, 2009

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


That's how I felt when I reached the end of this book.

I read more than one Wharton title in 2008, and had this book in progress as the new year began. Most of it I listened to at Librivox, but I read the last five chapters myself. Edith Wharton is one of those 20th century authors I've neglected for years, but lately I've reached a point from which I suddenly "get" this literature, which is very much a precursor of the post-modern literature of our own time. (I've read more of that than the earlier 20th century literature, and perhaps that is why I can understand it better now.)

The reader for the book is top-notch, but I found myself dreading each chapter. I felt as if I were watching an accident that I could foresee, but not prevent. Lily Bart is the butterfly-creature of American Victorian Society, in New York. She was raised in luxury and comfort, and despite the loss of both her parents and their fortune, she cannot reconcile herself to any other kind of life. After all, she merely has to marry a wealthy a man, and with her beauty and charm, she has no trouble attracting the attention of eligible suitors.

But somewhere underneath it all, Lily Bart has finer feelings and better principles--undefined, undeveloped, and too fragile to set her feet on another path--strong enough only to always keep her back from finalizing the action she has determined to take. So, suitor after suitor slips away, until Lily approaches her 30th year--a single "girl" still, finding it harder and harder to play her self-chosen role.

It was actually painful to watch Lily lose the things she thought she cared for, while gaining nothing of value in their place, until it was too late for either. The ending of the story was not what I anticipated, but although it was not what I feared for her, it was tragic.

I would be interested to read and learn more about Edith Wharton, as I really know nothing at all about her personal life. What perversity of soul would make an author name a book like this "The House of Mirth?"

But, lest I finish with a wrong impression, I must say that the writing is beautiful--achingly compelling and wistful. I was never able to despise Lily, even when she despised herself. I do intend to read more by this author, although not, perhaps, right away.


If, and only if, you have read the book, you might find this article interesting. It explains a recent letter that came to light, which may have had a bearing on explaining the ambiguous ending of the book. I also discovered that there is a connection between Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss, another author I admire and have read recently.


At 2:02 PM , Blogger Mama Squirrel said...

"I felt as if I were watching an accident that I could foresee, but not prevent." Oh, you got that one so right--that's exactly how I felt when I read Ethan Frome, and then that was--literally--the ending. One of my first English courses at university was on this era of literature, but it's definitely not my favourite for fun reading--even Howard's End, which I really love but which has that same kind of impending-slide-to-disaster thing happening.

At 3:29 PM , Blogger Chris said...

I read this last year for the 2nd time. Lily has such terrible timing and bad decision making.

I just read Ethan Frome and hear that it's the most autobiographical of all her work.

Right now I'm reading The Age of Innocence. It's quite enjoyable.

At 4:33 PM , Blogger Laura said...

I read The House of Mirth several years ago and agree completely with your excellent review. However, I did have an idea of what the book would be like because I recognized the reference in the title. It's from Ecclesiastes 7:3-4 which reads,"Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."

At 6:33 PM , Blogger hopeinbrazil said...

Terrific review. Ethan Frome left me cold so I haven't given Wharton another chance. Maybe someday...

At 6:41 PM , Blogger Krakovianka said...

Well, I found a 500-page biography of Edith Wharton at the library, so I think I'll read that before attempting more of her literature--but I will read more.

I could not read and enjoy this kind of literature when I was younger--it speaks to me now for the first time.

Laura, *thank you* for the reference. I am chagrined--Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite OT books to read, and yet I did not catch the reference. In that context, the title makes perfect, perfect sense. "The heart of fools is in the house of mirth"--just reading it gives me the same terrible ache that the book did.

At 11:25 PM , Blogger Meg89 said...

What a great review! I'm going to have to look into reading this one!

At 11:41 PM , Blogger Framed said...

I didn't Care for The House of Mirth because of the sad ending and the inevitable slide towards that ending. I did enjoy Glimpses of the Moon by Wharton. Much better ending.

At 4:16 PM , Blogger Mama Squirrel said...

Dewey's Treehouse has awarded you a Lovely Blog award!

At 10:44 PM , Blogger Jeanne said...

"I found myself dreading each chapter. I felt as if I were watching an accident that I could foresee, but not prevent."

It is funny to read that. It is exactly how I feel when I read "The Mayor of Casterbridge". You can see all of his errors and his lack of communication skills, and just want to give him a stern talking to.

This is a great review!!

At 10:34 PM , Blogger A Woman of Letters said...

I haven't read any of Wharton's fiction, but enjoyed her autobiography (which, from other things I have read, may be rather sanitized).


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