sarah

The House of Mirth (Scribner Classics)

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton The transformation of Lily Bart from a slightly careless but ambitious beauty into a helplessly unlucky woman fighting for her morality kept me engrossed. At the beginning of the novel, Lily is keenly focused on her goal of having as much of the things that please her as she wants. Because her own family is relatively poor, she depends on her wealthy Society friends to support her by inviting her to stay with them at their houses in exchange for her charm. Even so, she spends too much of her own money on her clothing and on card games with her friends, and although money shouldn't be a problem for her because she has all the skill and beauty she needs to land a wealthy husband, she thwarts until almost all of her prospective husbands drop away and her debt becomes too real for her to go on ignoring it. Then, through a series of poor choices, she imperils her standing in high society.Lily's self-frustrating choices are the central puzzle of the novel. Although she experiences bad luck, she still had the opportunity and the skill to secure her future with a wealthy man and live her life contentedly, yet she seems to choose not to. And later when she was accused of impropriety, she has the means to overcome that obstacle and clear her name, and again she seems to choose not to. With her social deftness, she should not only have handled these situations easily, she should have anticipated them. Why didn't she see that the money from Gus Trenor was false? Why didn't she heed warnings about Bertha Dorset before she got caught in Bertha's treachery? Carrie Fisher, who is in a social position similar to Lily's, is certainly able to see the darker motivations of others and also to think up clever but morally dubious schemes of her own. I think it's more than personal pride or stubbornness that forces Lily to steer herself into trouble and keeps her from saving herself time and time again: I think that, having been taught to equate luxury with morality, she does not want to believe the truth about the people she aspires so strongly to be with. She wants to be have money herself, and she wants to achieve these goals using her wit and charm, not by breaking up a marriage or through blackmail.The Lawrence Selden character is the perfect complement to Lily Bart. He is too middle-class to be taken seriously as a husband for Lily Bart (at least at the beginning of the novel), he is too detached to become emotionally invested in her drama, and yet he profoundly influences her life. Early on, he half-jokingly questions her ambition to be well married, and marvels that she should really be completely happy just by being materially comfortable. Although she asserts that yes, she is certain that money will make her happy, it turns out that she can't bring herself to commit to that belief. The security of her future requires her to be locked inside the highest social circle, but emotionally she prefers to be on the outside, insecure perhaps but free like Lawrence. I think that as she realizes she does not have the character to resign herself to being the wife of a rich man she does not love, Lily comes to envy Lawrence. Had she been born male instead of female, she might have been able to live a life of freedom like his.I wondered if, had Lily not met Lawrence and had her marital ambitions challenged by him, she would have made different decisions. Without his outsider's view of her haunting her, would she have been able to attain her goals? Would she have stayed unexamined and therefore perfectly contented with luxury?Whatever has changed her, it turns out that Lily would not be happy to be a comfortably-kept wife. She does not want to be Simon Rosedale's social-climbing trophy, or the lawfully-wedded object of Gus Trenor's uncontrollable lust. But she also can't break free and become a New Woman -- she is neither brave nor resourceful enough, and she is no radical.None of the books I have read in the last year or so has affected me much emotionally, but this book moved me more than I expected it to. I guess that after coming to admire Lily as a character, despite her utter uselessness, I was still not ready to have her face her fate.