Set in New York in the 1890s, The House of Mirth traces the downfall of beautiful socialite, Miss Lily Bart. Lily is charming, and widely admired by society, but her poverty has led her to carve out a demeaning existence as companion to her elderly aunt and decorative feminine adornment to the parties of her wealthy friends of the New York social elite. At the age of twenty nine, Lily decides that it’s time to secure her future by making a marriage of convenience that will provide the luxury and social status she’s been conditioned to expect from life, but when something in her nature leads her to sabotage her chances of landing a rich husband, a downward spiral of misfortune is precipitated which Lily is poorly equipped to combat.
In addition to being a critique of consumerism and social convention, The House of Mirth can now be read as an extended analysis of the oppressive nature of the sexual double-bind. If Lily marries a wealthy man, she faces a life of sexual misery, enduring the constant companionship of someone she dislikes. If she marries Lawrence Seldon – the man she does love, but who happens to be relatively poor – she faces a life of genteel poverty, which you feel she would accept if only Sheldon would declare himself and commit to her, something he persistently refuses to do until it’s too late. If she attempts to gain financial independence, she risks her reputation and once her reputation is tarnished, she loses her chance of marriage anyway. As Marilyn Frye might put it, Lily’s situation is a classic example of oppression, it is a situation in which her options are reduced to very few and all of them expose her to penalty, censure or deprivation. Wharton shows how all her attempts at agency lead gradually to her doom, not because she does anything morally wrong, but because she is a relatively poor, unmarried woman, whose future is dependent on the will of others.
This is a painful novel, but Wharton writes so beautifully that it’s an easy read. The descriptions of Lily and Seldon’s relationship in particular are a wonderful representation of sexual attraction: “She was very near hating him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his clothes — she was conscious that even these trivial things were inwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness came upon her, and turmoil of her spirit ceased”. Wharton is brilliant at writing about frustrated desire.
If I have any problems with the novel it’s with Wharton’s anti-Semitism. The representation of Lilly’s Jewish suitor, Simon Rosedale, is really offensive – an anti-Semitic stereotype, greasy and grasping – though at the end the character gets away from Wharton a little and becomes one of Lily’s slightly better friends. This is not saying much, but there seems to be a spark of decency in Rosedale which is absent from almost everyone else. Still, it reminds you just how ubiquitous anti-Semitism was in the early twentieth century.
Also, I found Lily’s slow fall in the last third of the novel just a little too long-drawn out as if Wharton really wanted to prolong the agony beyond what was strictly necessary.
Overall, I found The House of Mirth brilliant and devastating, on a par with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which addresses similar themes in relation to a working-class woman.
Still, if you can’t stomach reading it, the film adaptation with Gillian Anderson is also very good.