After years of AP English and college lit courses, I pretty much eschewed reading “classic” literature for all of my 20s. Like vegetables or exercise, it just seemed too good for me to possibly be enjoyable. However, since it’s been almost a decade since I last had a reading assignment and smart books no longer have the tinge of “homework,” I’ve started exploring classics that have fallen into my reading blind spots. Today I’ll highlight one of my favorite recent discoveries by the fabulous Edith Wharton.
House of Mirth is set in Gilded Age NYC. Just shy of 30, socialite Lily Bart is in desperate need of a wealthy husband so she can maintain her privileged existence. While Lily enjoys the finer things in life and socializes almost entirely with New York’s old money elite, she has little actual money. She is well born and beautiful, but Lily is also an orphan whose parents lost all of their wealth before their passing. Lily lives under the charity of her wealthy but distant aunt and she has no income except for a small allowance and the wardrobe needed to procure a husband. Lily relies on her good looks and wealthy friends to maintain her costly lifestyle. However, as she ages, her status as an unmarried woman with no wealth threatens to derail her social standing.
Unfortunately for Lily, most of her suitors are less than ideal in one way or another. Percy Gryce is a prudish bore. Sim Rosedale is new money and a bit of a creep. And her would-be soulmate, Lawrence Selden, has to work for a living and lacks the proper finances to maintain her expensive tastes. Also, Lily finds keeping up with the appearance of a rich lifestyle increasing cost prohibitive. In desperation, she turns to her best friend’s husband, Gus Trenor, for financial assistance. She accepts ten grand from Mr. Trenor under false pretenses and, unsurprisingly, he has less than pure intentions of how she can pay him back. Gossip and rumor threaten Lily’s reputation and she finds herself increasingly cast off by her supposed friends.
On the surface, Lily seems like a difficult character to sympathize with- she’s beyond gorgeous, shallow, and lives a life of endless parties. All she has to do is marry some rich guy and all her troubles are over. However, Lily is in a precarious position- her entire social status and livelihood is dependent on the whims of other. Even though she enjoys a lavish lifestyle, she still feels conflicted by the amorality of upper class society and its excesses. She refuses to engage in blackmail, even to save her own falsely tarnished reputation, or to marry someone she doesn’t love. Lily’s poor decisions are largely spurred by her naïve idealism and her love for Selden.
Speaking of Selden, he’s a lukewarm love interest at best. Lily likes him better than any other man and the two clearly love and care for each other. But Selden’s admiration for Lily is somewhat predicated on her not being interested in having him as a husband. Anytime she might want more from him than his friendship, he self-sabotages by suddenly becoming distant (even leaving the country!). It might be easy to blame Lily’s gold digger aspirations for overlooking a happy, yet modest life with Selden; but he’s too remote and self-protecting to really offer her a viable alternative.
Written by another author, The House of Mirth could easily have become a romantic tale of redemption. Instead, it’s a tragic tale of a woman marginalized at the hands of an uncaring and self-motivated society. Lily is ostracized by her friends and faces increasingly dire economic straits, not because of her actions, but because of gossip about her reputation. Even though the strict social rules governing an unmarried woman’s reputation have relaxed since Lily’s day (thank goodness!), her dilemma is still relevant. She must choose between societal norms she disagrees with and her own personal moral compass.