I don’t care for American Literature, never have. Yes, that is an odd statement to begin with, considering that The House of Mirth is a very American novel, but it’s true and knowing that is important to understanding anything I say about it. American lit has never been my thing, but I keep trying to like it. After all, I am American and maybe one day I’ll find something which I truly feel is fantastic.
The House of Mirth is about a New York socialite, Lily, at the turn of the century who has the upbringing and the grace to carry herself well through society, but not the money. She becomes something of a social parasite living off her friends and relatives who are glad to have her, her social skills and her pretty face around. The story follows her path through this society. At first she does fairly well and her “friends” expect great things from her because they all assume she will marry for money and continue on in their society in the role of a married woman. Yet Lily, though she knows the rules, cannot seem to abide by them herself and her refusal to subjugate herself to society eventually leads to a downward spiral in her social status, helped along on the way by some of her “best friends”.
I spent the majority of the novel thinking “stupid woman”, which is really still true. Lily lives in and abides by all of society’s rules of restraint and moral order, playing along in order to keep her social status, but refuses to use the tools the same society gives her to help herself along. It’s something like one boxer having gloves while the other is using bare fists with knuckle rings, even though both opponents have the same equipment available to them. Lily lets herself be kicked and punched, but refuses to do the same in return. This might be her subconscious wish to be able to live outside of society while still enjoying the benefits of a luxurious life. Her greatest failing is, perhaps, that she cannot reconcile herself to living without the luxury yet also cannot pay the price for enjoying it.
The first two-thirds of the novel annoyed me to no end. Then it got better. A lot better. Not that my opinion of Lily changed much, but the sorrows she undergoes and the lessons she learns, although too late, are touching. The end itself show how sharp the contrast between the class levels really is, on all levels; monetarily, emotionally, and morally – morals and monetary status not always correlating as one would expect.
My final opinion? It is a good novel. It’s not good enough to make me a huge fan of Wharton, but this particular book throws up a lot of food for thought and it would be interesting to discuss since there are many ways in which it could be interpreted. I doubt I’ll ever read it again, but I might brave more of Wharton’s works another time, despite my general dislike of American Lit – in which since it’s a victory for Wharton.