One of my goals for this summer was to read one of the best American novelists, Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937). I was torn between two of her most famous novels The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), but I was keen on making use of the school’s library during the summer semester. One last hurried visit to the library helped me make the decision, as The House of Mirth was available on the public section and ready to be brought home.
The House of Mirth has been a controversial and shocking novel ever since its publication in 1905. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a young New York socialite who, at 29 and still unmarried, is both admired for her beauty and criticised for her single status. Despite her looks, and her charm, Lily was brought up by a superficial mother who made of Lily’s beauty her supposedly only attribute. After her debut at the age of 18 Lily has had many suitors –one of them an Italian prince – but decided not to settle down. The novel takes place on her 29th year, as she struggles to make sense of her waiting, her present and her future.
Even though the idea of becoming an ostracised spinster at age 29 may seem a joke in 2016, when Wharton first published The House of Mirth she shocked the American public by exposing the dark truth behind young women. Wharton openly questions the validity of marriage as a tool for women to lead a socially respectable life through the eyes of Lily, who sees how the husbands of her friends flirt with her. Not only that, but she also sees her female friends engage in affairs with younger men not so behind closed doors as we may believe in the 21st century. Lily, as an outsider and spectator, questions whether she wishes to follow this path, and why she cannot live alone like her male friends do.
From a feminist point of view The House of Mirth is a subversive novel that stands with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a subversion of traditional and patriarchal narratives. Both Wharton and Chopin created female main characters that offered readers a different take on marriage and motherhood. Throughout the novel we are presented with Lily’s love for life and her need to open her wings and escape the golden cage of marriage and traditional femininity. In her own awakening, Lily ponders on her role and her agency realising she is not free to act upon her wishes with Wharton’s fixation on capitalist femininity as a double-edged sword that compromises beauty and limitations:
“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
“She had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making.”
“I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else.”
In her search for happiness and agency Lily encounters a suitor that could make her happy were it not for the social restrictions and her own upbringing. In the height created by the last days of Victorian morals and manners and the American capitalist system, could a woman brought up to be beautiful forget her upbringing and marry for love? Wharton makes Lily’s search for love as interesting as possible by including money, social status, and traditions into the equation. Far from perpetuating a traditional view on romantic love, Lily ponders practically on who to marry and the reasons to do so, or not.
“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”
The struggle between her own desires, society’s expectations and her social, historical and economic context creates one of the best novels in American literature. Lily Bart is the first attempt by an American female writer to create a strong, subversive woman who wishes to live her life according to her own desires and needs. As a crime fiction reader, I could not but see Lily as a first attempt at creating Amy Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, although this comparison may be far-fetched and highly influenced for my love for Flynn’s novel. In any case, throughout the novel we see how Lily’s attempts fail and life erodes her will and her lively attitude:
“She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips. She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky: she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her.”
In order to keep this review free of spoilers, I will not discuss the ending, although it is not difficult to imagine for feminist readers. To those who have read it, I would love to hear your opinions, and those of you who have not, The House of Mirth is one of the best contemporary novels in the Western tradition. I cannot still understand how Wharton was not included in any of the programmes in my English and American degree. If this were the case with anyone, I would encourage readers and students alike to pick up Wharton’s books on their own as they are a pure joy to read. And if you are not a literature student, this book will change your life as well as it portrays a long-lost time of decadence, over-spending, and the rigid and the still contemporary battle against a system of values that tried to restrict women to their roles as wives and mothers.
This is review #4 for my 20 Books of Summer project