The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

I started reading Edith Wharton this summer with Ethan Frome.  Then I read her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  And now, I’ve finished The House of Mirth, which I’ve decided is one of my all time favorite books.  I’ve elevated Wharton into that crowd of writers that I love to study because their real lives are as interesting as their fictional creations.  My major favorites over the years have been Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Clemens, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens.

Wharton will be next when I start reading her biography.  By studying the works of these writers, their lives, and the history of their times, I’ve been able to build a rough mental map of the changes in English and American society.  This 4th dimensional guide chronicles the battles of the sexes from a hazy beginning in 1840 with the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, then with clearer focus using Jane Austen, and after that, with ever sharper focus with Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and others moving forward in time.

I wish I had read Wharton as a teenager, but I’m not sure if I could have understood her then.  So I’ll change that wish.  I wish I could have understood Wharton as a teenager.  In high school all I knew was I wanted a girlfriend, but never entertained the idea of why a girl would want me as a boyfriend.  It was physical craving.  At the time, girls appeared to want boyfriends just as much as us guys wanted them, and we falsely assumed they craved us in the same way.  Of the girls I did get to date, they kept their true desires well hidden from me.  I think few teen males recognized the torture teen girls go through in judging their worthiness, and fewer still understood what girls wanted.  Even the most toady of young men automatically assume a pretty girl will want them.  If I had understood Edith Wharton as a teenager I would have understood why I wasn’t that appealing to the opposite sex in high school even though I wasn’t bad looking, had decent manners, a job and pocket money.  All boys want is a female body to play with, what girls want is illustrated in The House of Mirth.

Edith Wharton writes about communication between men and women, and the nature of women, in such a way that it could have saved me years of miscommunication.  Wharton’s observations on society and sexual politics are so enlightening that I wonder why she isn’t given more credit as an early founder of feminism.

The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart, a woman who wants to capitalize on her beauty, but in the process of various negotiations realizes that closing the deal won’t give her the complete freedom she desires.  Lily’s motives are unclouded by romantic notions.  Marriage is a business arrangement, and a great marriage means high social status.  However, as she reels in each potential groom to the point of getting a good look at them, Lily ends up deciding their price is too high and throws them back.  She is sidetrack from this husband hunting by the charming, but poor, Lawrence Selden, who pollutes her mind with ethical considerations.  She is attracted to Selden but she cannot consider him an appropriate catch for her matrimonial fishing.

What Lily discovers over and over again is women of her time are totally dependent on men.  At the dawn of the twentieth century there were women who could make their own way, but they led miserable lives.  The House of Mirth (1905) makes a great companion novel to Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser, a novel about a young woman moving to the big city to live on her own.  Carrie and Lily even live in New York at the same time for a short overlapping period, but in different social strata.  Jump ahead to The Sun Also Rises (1927) and see how Hemingway presents Lady Brett Ashley, but think of her as Lily Bart recast and sexually liberated, after having evolved through Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence.

The history of the development of the female mind in the twentieth century can be shown through these characters and other fictional women.  Their security and happiness is dependent on men.  Wharton shows through Lily Bart what happens to women when they fail to negotiate a deal with a man.  Wharton holds out hope that men and women can find paths of communication and even understanding, but in the end of each novel there is always failure to communicate.  I like to think The Age of Innocence is graduate work for where Wharton left off with The House of Mirth.

Both books are about men and women trying to decipher the cryptic messages thrown across the gender gap.  Even during moments of honest straight talking, like the scene where Simon Rosedale offers a very practical marriage arrangement, or the one where George Trenor explains what he wants for helping Lily financially, the two sexes can understand each other’s words, but not each others needs and desires.  Wharton seems to imply that men can fulfill women’s fantasies by buying them, or women can manipulate men by outsmarting them, but in either scenario one or both of the sexes must live in a fantasy.

I need to read more Wharton, and to read about her, to understand Wharton’s real position on the battle of the sexes, but I get the feeling that she is gloomy on whether or not either gender can understand the other.  Women often claim men are transparent to them, and believe that men haven’t a clue in understanding women, but I think Wharton goes way beyond disproving that cliché.

These novels suggest that Wharton thinks both sexes are opaque to each other.  Naturally, I assume that Wharton knows the female point of view, but I also feel she has some insight into males.  She goes way past the stereotype that men only have one thing on their mind, and she doesn’t seem corrupted by the philosophy of romance.

Wharton grew up rich, married well, but probably didn’t achieve her own freedom until after her divorce in 1913, a period between these two novels.  I’m hoping that reading more about Wharton’s life will reveal greater depths to her novels.

The Value of Women

Lily Bart is exceptionally beautiful and everyone expects her to marry a very rich man, one that would position her near the peak of society even though her own family has lost its fortune.  Lily dwells among the upper crust, without wealth herself, by the grace of her beauty and knowledge their society.  She makes herself useful to her rich women friends as a social secretary, but beyond the skill of dressing fabulously and being an attraction at parties, Lily is helpless.  Simon Rosedale, a Jew trying to break into high society, wants to marry her because of her connections, but Lily is repulsed by his social climbing and personal manners.  Rosedale even tells Lily that he doesn’t expect her to love him and that his ambition is to have a wife that could lord it over all the other society ladies through access to his wealth.

The more Lily tries to live up to insights inspired by Selden, the harder her life becomes.  I don’t know if this was Wharton’s intention, but The House of Mirth illustrates how women are property, and their value is set by a commodity market of men, with their price rising and lowering depending on the rumors of the day.  Lily’s stock takes a nosedive when she becomes a pawn in a game between a vicious woman friend and that woman’s husband.

What Do Women Want?

I think The House of Mirth makes an excellent sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen set the standard for novels about women looking for a rich husband.  Lily Bart wants her own Mr. Darcy, but Edith Wharton goes deeper into examining the bargain women make when selling themselves into money.  Romantic writers like to suggest its all for love, but really it’s about freedom.  Just another retelling of Cinderella – escape from floor scrubbing.  When do we get a new story where Cinderella gives her step-sisters the finger while shouting over her shoulder, “I’m out of here, I’m going to make my own damn fortune, and buy me my own castle.”  Is it any wonder why Scarlett O’Hara became a towering heroine to women in 1936?

From 1905 to 2008 women make fantastic advancements.  Many, if not most, can live on their own in the developed western world, although often poorly.  Times have changed too, in the marketing of women.  In 1905 a woman is valued as a merger of family assets, for running a house, raising kids, cooking, and having social skills.  Today it seems women are valued for their bodies and sexual talents, at least in common fiction, although that depends on which gender creates the fiction.  Strangely enough, what women want hasn’t changed much since 1905, they still want freedom, protection, and wealth, but what they are advertising for sale has changed.  I wonder if Wharton would be shocked by the blatant sexual bargaining of today?

Wharton never suggests that Lily might study stock investing with George Trenor, so she could make her own riches.  Lily refuses to trade sex and become a well-to-do mistress.  She only considers work when all her other options are gone, and she’s a failure at that.  Wharton could have written a novel about Lily starting a fashionable business and succeeding on her own, but she didn’t.  Happiness always comes down to finding the right man, and Lily, literally worth her weight in gold and diamonds, loses at negotiating because of miscommunications and failures to close deals.

Lily’s beauty is powerful enough to attract armies of average men, with average incomes, but she doesn’t consider lowering her asking price.  She could have easily gotten a reasonable wealthy man, an up-and-comer, but she doesn’t.  I assume Wharton wants us to see the corrupting influence of the idle rich.  At one point Lily is dining with a roomful of society’s best and she realizes they are all twits and not a single Mr. Darcy among them.

I have to wonder if the frantic desire by modern women to be thin and beautiful is just compulsive perfecting of their product.  Is looking great the feminine form of ambition?  It’s surprising that the winners at Miss America pageants aren’t decided by bids, like at art auctions.  Lily Bart could have been married several times but she always takes herself off the block when she learns too much about who is going to buy her.

And I have to wonder what Wharton is telling her lady readers.  Settle before it’s too late?  Don’t be greedy?  Learn a trade?  Wharton had been married twenty years to her wealthy husband by the time this novel came out.  She’d be divorced in another eight.  Edith is no Jane Austen, her eyes were not clouded by thoughts of love.  Lily wasn’t even expecting friendship.  She wanted to be free and rich.  She was an alpha female believing she deserved the alpha male.  So what was Wharton telling us?  I don’t think I’ll know until I read books about her and then reread The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, but here is something to think about now.

As a male I can fantasize about living in the world of The House of Mirth and meeting Lily Bart.  If I was realistic, I’d picture myself middle class, having to work like Lawrence Selden, and I do identify with him and what she says to Lily.  I can easily imagine being very attracted to Lily and wanting her, but if I was having a realistic historical daydream, I’d realize that owning Lily would be like winning a yacht on a bet but not be able to afford a slip in a marina, or afford to hire a crew, or even have the money to take it out on a trip.  Selden lived in a modest apartment and I can’t imagine him marrying Lily and parking her there for a new life after the world traveling and luxury that Lily considered basic needs.  It’s easy to have a sexual fantasy about a beautiful woman, but it’s much harder to create a fantasy that will make her happy too.

Women reading The House of Mirth will learn different lessons than men who read it.  Like men in Wharton novels, I can only guess at what women will think.  Most women are inflicted by the romance gene and I assume many will rationalize marrying Selden.  Most women do not marry rich men, so they settle for the Lawrence Seldens of the world.  There are plenty of women who’d accept boredom and marry Percy for his immense wealth.  And I imagine that there are lots of women who would have jumped at Simon Rosedale’s offer, or even George Trenor’s proposition.  And many women would consider it perfectly fine to exposed Judy for what she was and take her rich husband.  The real question is how many women would find another way out?  One that doesn’t involve men?

I think that’s the difference between now and then.  I’ve often wondered why so many modern women over fifty prefer to live single.  Some of my single women friends joke they would give in and marry again if the man was very rich, but anything less, and a man is too much trouble.  I guess many of my lady friends would be like Lily, and reject those rich guys too.  The difference between 1905 and 2008 is millions of woman can afford to be picky, whereas Lily did not.  That’s what the core of women’s liberation is about – being able to live without a man.

Jim

4 thoughts on “The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

  1. Jim,

    Your thoughts make for a fascinating and very honest read. I think that I’ll have to add “The House of Mirth” to my own 1% list. As an under-50 woman, though, I would have to disagree slightly with your analysis of the core of feminism. Perhaps for my mid-fifties mother and her generation, living without a man (or the ability to do so) enters into the picture more prominently. For me, feminism has been about being able to live more fully as myself, but also as a woman in our culture. In this view, my relationships to the men in my life contributes to my identity and satisfaction with life, but is by no means central to identity formation.

    If you haven’t read it, you may enjoy Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a classic of Women’s Studies lit.

  2. Your post is interesting and provocative. I had a similar reaction when I first read House of Mirth and some of EW’s other works. HofM hit the top of my charts as an all-time favorite, and Wharton became one of my favorite authors to read, and to read about.

    House of Mirth is a book that could be read, re-read, and discussed endlessly. I remember that my first reaction was to feel deeply sorry for Lily as a motherless girl, who was raised without love, without any useful skills, and without any money to support the life she had been groomed for.

    I appreciated the fact that she wouldn’t settle for anyone who could fog a (million dollar) mirror, and that she kept going, doing the best she could, even when she knew that her chances for a “respectable” life were pretty much shot.

    It was very interesting to hear your perspective on the story, and I think you nailed the idea of what women want. You’re right that core of freedom is being able to choose to live without (or with) a husband, rather than being forced into an undesirable relationship for survival.

    Enjoy the rest of Wharton’s works, including her autobiography, A Backward Glance. Excellent!

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