Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton *****

In line with William Dean Howells's account of Silas Lapham, Wharton's story tells of a young lady who is ruined by doing right. There is a slight difference, however. Lapham seemed a man of mostly indubitable strength of character with occasional lapses; Lily Bart, of The House of Mirth, is a woman of seemingly weak character who transcends herself through the efforts of a friend and through the ties of love.

Lily Bart has been reared to prize money and to live with and among those who have it. Denied her rightful prize, she has something to trade to obtain what she deserves: good looks. From the start of the book to its end, she sets out to marry a rich man who will make her life as full as it has been promised to be. But in that process, she discovers--sort of--that happiness doesn't consist in the riches one has but in the kind of person one is. I say "sort of" because she seems conflicted about this right up until the very last few pages. Were the story to continue, to be able to continue, one wonders whether Bart would renounce her ideas of happiness in feeling and return to happiness in riches. She seems very closed in by her upbringing and the values that she was reared with.

But I guess that's sort of the point. At one place in the novel, Lily Bart discovers that, raised to be rich, she really has no value as anything but a showpiece. At first, she detests work; later, she comes to see that she can't even do it.

Who Wharton wrote this book for is something I've been wondering. Certainly, the same forces of fate work on Bart to create its miserable end as one might find in many a novel of the period. But Wharton's bitter swipes at the immorality of the upper class would wipe away any sympathy among that set. This leaves the lower classes--or more likely the middle classes, able to have some time to read--as the audience, those able to be swayed by the author's argument that money ain't everything. But isn't it? If money doesn't bring happiness to Lily Bart, it certainly makes life more tolerable, and its lack draws her demise. Sure, she can take a certain comfort in family life, but I'm tempted to see this as a seemingly easy answer meant to squash down the rabble rousers wishing to move forcefully into the higher echelons of American society. Be content, Wharton says. But why?

Or why not? Is not America in part about striving toward being better off? Does not that itself make the American dream a bit of an delusion.

Download the book to read for yourself here or to listen to it here.

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