PROCEED WITH CAUTION—MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
The night after I finished reading The House of Mirth I woke up several times and remembered with a pang that Lily Bart, the main character, had died. Though the woman was but a figment of Edith Wharton’s imagination, still I cried for her. I honestly cannot remember when a novel has affected me quite so deeply, but The House of Mirth packs a wallop, especially when you consider it was written in 1905, over 100 years ago; except for surface details and social mannerisms it could have been written today. To this I can attest: Lily Bart—c’est moi! I make this claim as a woman who, like Lily, began adult life from the privileged place of the upper middle-class, clueless about the machinations of money, unprepared for a journey of downward mobility that slammed me against the wall more times than I care to count. Like Lily I knew nothing about money—how to get it, how not to spend it, and the consequences of this ignorance. Unlike Lily, however, my social milieu provided plenty of information on chemical accessories, thus saving me from her method of self-annihilation.
Lily Bart is a great beauty (here she and I again part company) born and bred to be ornamental—she lights up the rooms of the rich and decorates the great halls of art and culture whenever she graces them with her presence. Lily understands this role, as well as her obligations as an object of beauty, and in return she expects to be taken care of in the style to which she is accustomed. Not only has Lily never been taught self-sufficiency, she received no intimation that she might have to learn. With this calamity never even imagined, Lily drifts through high society, pleasing others and beautifying her surroundings. Until she doesn’t—and therein lies a tale.
A series of almost trivial events are set in motion that cause Lily’s wealthy friends to snub her, until eventually she’s cast out of their gilded circles. These so-called friends treat her abominably: a woman alone is particularly vulnerable to becoming the scapegoat in other people’s dramas. Thus, a manipulative “friend” sets her up as wrongdoer to deflect blame from the actual culprit in her marital strife, i.e., herself. Rumors about Lily’s alleged part in this melodrama spread
before she can defend herself. Real disaster hits when her aunt, believing the rumors, disinherits her and with exquisitely bad timing dies almost immediately afterwards, leaving Lily with barely enough income to survive, much less enjoy her usual high lifestyle. And yet, when Lily comes into possession of some incriminating letters that could be used to restore her good name, she inexplicably rejects the opportunity to save herself. While this gives her integrity, I found her reluctance to sink so low frustrating under the circumstances. Lily was so badly treated, and the people around her so despicable, I thought she had every right to bring them down by any means necessary.
It occurred to me that perhaps Wharton meant for the reader to see Lily as a spoiled brat deserving of her tribulations–but if this is what Wharton intended, she failed, at least with this reader. I rooted for Lily from beginning to end, and wished she would dump New York society into the Hudson River. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, I strongly identified with Lily as a single woman living by her wits alone.
Unfortunately she doesn’t dump high society; they dump her, and Lily’s circumstances continue the downward spiral, until she’s living “the boarding-house life” of single working women at the turn of the 20th century in New York. Alone, poor and lonely, she meets the challenge with a valiant attempt at honest labor in the milliners’ trade. With an instinct for charming design, Lily has always thought herself adept at hat trimming —but she soon discovers there’s more drudgery in millinery work than she ever imagined. The hats Lily produces are devastatingly inferior to those done by the ordinary girls working next to her. Failing dismally at a simple trade makes Lily even more despondent, and as each pathway systematically closes off to her, the reader senses we’re heading towards a very bad, sad ending.
The House of Mirth contains many elements of any contemporary woman’s story, and could have been written in 1780 or 1968 or 2013. This serves to remind us that the unfair disadvantages of women’s lives have been operational since Day One and continue to the present. The economic system we in the U.S. live by forces women into marriage whether we want it or not. The patriarchy is organized in such a way that what women can do in life is limited by its unwritten rules and regulations. No matter which segment of society a woman travels among—the rich, the unconventional, the artistic, the poor—all are governed by an invisible machine that benefits men and oppresses women.
In Lily Bart’s existence Edith Wharton—herself a member of the upper crust—captured the lives of millions of women, not only of her own time but throughout history. And material deprivation isn’t even the worst of it. Writes Wharton:
She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution…It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years.
This is only the second Wharton novel I’ve read (the first was The Age of Innocence). Unlike Jane Austen with her little pile of eight novels, Edith Wharton wrote 31. Lucky lucky me!