Monday, December 16, 2019

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

There have been a lot of wonderful posts about The House of Mirth (thank you, Cleo, Fanda, Marian, --that I know of!) as well as discussion at Cleo's site. Reading the novel and the discussion got me to wonder about tragedy, so that's going to be my organizing principle...

I had always planned on reading it as a tragedy; I put it on my list for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge as this year's tragedy, and I knew (without knowing much about it) it didn't end well. And it doesn't. But is it tragedy? I say yes, but I do think it's a bit tricky and unexpected in that regard.

Lily Bart, our tragic heroine, doesn't always make good choices; often she can't seem to decide what it is she wants; and sometimes she makes outright poor choices. Now if bad things happen to a person who makes bad choices, does that count as tragedy? Or is it simply just desserts?

Think about some of the classics of tragedy: when we first meet Oedipus, he's determined to find out what's causing the plague in Thebes, no matter the cost, no matter who's the guilty party. (Plagues generally had a guilty party back then, not a guilty bacterium.) It's his determination--a good quality--and his history that bring about his downfall. Or Pentheus, of The Bacchae, who declares that running around, naked and drunk, on a hillside at night is not a good thing. Reasonable, right? Well, no, as it turns out.

Also these men are significant figures--both kings--and most tragedies concern themselves with significant figures. Even women in classical tragedies are princesses or queens: such as Antigone or Phaedra.

But Hamlet is largely a tragedy of someone who can't make up his mind: if he'd just gone off and killed his stepfather at the start--that stepfather who was guilty of murder--wouldn't everything have turned out much better for him? But he can't make up his mind to do it. And Lily Bart can't make up her mind whom to marry, but she really needs to marry somebody.

OK, a quick plot summary: (skip if you prefer not to know.)

**Plot summary**

Lily Bart is in her late 20s at the start of the novel, and when we first see her she's considering marrying Percy Gryce. She's orphaned and is dependent financially on the dubious kindness of relations. She goes to visit her old friend, Lawrence Selden, whom she pumps for a few salient facts about Americana, Percy Gryce's hobby. She and Selden have a somewhat flirtatious conversation so we know there's something more than friendship there. As she's leaving Selden's bachelor apartment (a no no!) she's seen by Simon Rosedale, a rising Jewish businessman.

But when she meets Percy Gryce at a friend's country estate, she sabotages her chances to marry him by associating with Selden and ignoring Gryce. (She doesn't go to church! The horror!) She gambles, out of boredom, and ends up owing money, word of which gets back to Gryce. She blows her chance by not concentrating.

After her gambling debts and other expenses she needs money, which she accepts from Guy Trenor, a wealthy married man. Ostensibly this is coming out of investments he makes for her, which Trenor is able to put into a 'sure thing,' but we suspect he's just giving her the money.

In subsequent conversations with Lawrence Selden, we learn he might marry her, but his freedom is important to him and he wants to know that she's willing to live on what he makes--he's a lawyer, and presumably middle class, but certainly not rich--and she pushes him off. She can't commit to a life, as she sees it, of impoverishment.

She discovers Guy Trenor wants more than just a handshake in return for the 'investments' he made for her. She also discovers that everyone else assumes that the idea of 'investment' is just a fig-leaf covering up that he's giving her money. She decides she has to pay him back.

Rosedale proposes marriage. He's certainly rich enough, and in some ways he seems a pretty kindly man. Lily sees him with children, and he's good with them. But she can't get past her feeling that he's outside her circle, that he's crude. But she's feeling particularly pinched by the money she needs to return to Trenor, and so she almost says yes, but can't decide to.

At just this moment, her friend, and I use that word advisedly, Bertha Dorset invites Lily to go sailing in the Mediterranean. Bertha is bringing along both her husband George and her lover Ned. Lily is there as a distraction, though she may not entirely recognize this. In a shocking scene, when things are at their worst between the Dorsets, Bertha, to cover up her own sins, effectively accuses Lily of having an affair with her husband. Society buys Bertha's version, and Lily is ostracized.

The Dorset marriage is clearly on the rocks, and friends suggest Lily could snag George. George is drawn to Lily, and he's wealthy, but he's also a bit pathetic, and can Lily really marry the divorced husband of her 'friend'? (Though Bertha is no friend to her.) She can't make up her mind to do it.

Rosedale is still willing to marry her, but now she would need to silence Bertha Dorset because Rosedale is determined to break into society. She has the means, letters suitable for blackmailing Bertha, but does she have the will? No, it would seem.

There were two other possibilities than marriage presented for Lily, though Lily certainly sees her life as leading to marriage. Her cousin Gertie Farish lives modestly on a small inheritance and spends her time in good works. Lily fleetingly helps Gertie with this, but I wasn't convinced this was more than a momentary pleasure for Lily, that it was something she really wanted. In any case the inheritance she might have expected was lost when her aunt got (partially incorrect) word of Lily's bad behavior.

Also Lily could work, and she does a bit at the end, but really has no skills; she wasn't raised to it. She can manage a little light decorative sewing, but when it comes to toiling in a sweatshop, she can't keep up.

She realizes she's falling out of life, and has bad dreams, and takes chloral hydrate to sleep. A pharmacist warns her it's easy to accidentally overdose, and did know it was going to end badly, didn't you?

**End of plot summary**

So Lily has four marriage possibilities within the frame of the novel, and it's implied there were others earlier. Percy? Boring and a prude. Lawrence? Insufficiently rich and too committed to his own freedom. George? Pathetic, a divorcé, and you should never marry somebody on the rebound. Simon? A social outsider too stuck on breaking in. All are flawed, though maybe not impossibly, but she can't commit to either of her non-marrying prospects--working or a quiet poverty--either.

So is it a tragedy? Well, what are our characteristics? She's not a queen or a princess. But her great beauty gives her significance sufficient for tragedy. When she's run off to Gertie's apartment in despair and falls asleep there, we see Gerty's thoughts in looking on her: "To look on that prone loveliness was to see in it a natural force, to recognize that love and power belong to such as Lily,..." (Book I, Chapter 14.) This comes partly from Gerty's own despair, but it is also the general feeling about Lily. Rosedale says something similar: (Book II, Chapter 11)
Lily continued to meet his expostulations with a smile. 'I don't know why I should regard myself as an exception--' she began. 
'Because you are; that's why;...'
There is something special about Lily. And so, when something bad happens to her, it's at least potentially tragic.

Lily's great beauty gives her fate the necessary magnitude, I'd say. What then of her own actions? Are they simply self-destructive? Well, as I mentioned, Hamlet's is also a tragedy of somebody who can't make up his mind. Hamlet's doubts are more intellectual--he needs proof, definitive proof, in order to act--while Lily's are moral, born partly, it's true, out of a certain fastidiousness. But twice she makes a definite moral choice (to pay back Trenor, and to finally burn Bertha's letters) and both are admirable; both also materially hasten her decline. She doesn't dither quite as much as Hamlet. She hasn't got Oedipus' or Antigone's stubborn determination, but when she has a good choice to make, she can make it and does, even if those choices bring her closer to the end.

And what other choices did she really have? We discussed whom she should have married, but really were any of them satisfactory? For myself I felt Selden was the best of the lot, but Lily made the decision not to marry Selden because she knew herself and knew she could not live on his income; that was admirable in its way; Undine Spragg made the opposite choice vis-a-vis Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country, and that was the destruction of Marvell. Moreover, Selden all too readily jumps to the wrong conclusion about Lily when he sees her with Trenor; how well did he really know Lily as a person? Or was she just a thing (albeit a thing of beauty) to him?

The other marriage choices seem even more doubtful. Rosedale seemed possible for a bit, but his insistence that Lily use Bertha's letters to silence Bertha made him considerably less sympathetic to me.

Could she have become like Gertie Farish? That seems the most admirable path, but Gertie was pining for Selden, and doesn't seem completely happy herself.

Lily's exasperating: but tragic heroes can be exasperating; Ismene tells her sister Antigone as much in Sophocles' play. The real question is, given who she was, could she have done something different? Are the choices she made the only right and possible ones? I think Wharton has constructed this cleverly so that we do feel a sort of tragic horror as Lily's options are compressed from few to none, and that those choices she does make, when she does realize what's happening, are both right and also deadly.

Anyhoo, in the end I talked myself into this. But sometimes I just wanted to take Lily and shake her and say, Look, you're being stupid! What happens to you is no tragedy! But in the end I really did feel the pity and the horror.


Thanks to Cleo for organizing the readalong. It's been great fun reading everyone's posts.

This was on my Classics Club list, and is the tragic novel I'd always been planning for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge. Even if at moments I doubted it's tragic-ness.

And I wasn't expecting this, but the big scene--in some ways the novel's most important moment--when Bertha Dorset subtly accuses Lily of sleeping with her husband--takes place in Monaco, which means it's a Monaco novel for the European Reading Challenge hosted by Gilion. If you'd asked me would Monaco be on my list for two years running, I'd have laughed. But first there was Rebecca. And now The House of Mirth. Rich people hang out in Monaco, I guess.  I may have to read a biography of Grace Kelly next year just to keep up the streak.


  1. a fine, definitive analysis, especially the connection with Hamlet... i read this with Cleo also, but obviously not with the rigor that you did... great post!

    1. Thanks!

      I've been enjoying your comments on Cleo's website along the way.

    2. if you have an occasional idle moment:

    3. Is it I had spotted that. If so, you should be adding to it!

    4. Or is it that is about to appear? It seems to be a reserved name. If that's it, I'm looking forward to it!

  2. Great question! Is it tragedy or just dessert? I haven't finished, yet, but I still cannot answer this. (I have a feeling I never will. I'm just as torn.)

    Lily is a frustrating character, and her circumstances are just as frustrating. But thank God this perplexity is wrapped in Wharton's beautiful composition. Right?

    1. I know! I should have said something about how great Wharton's prose is, but it was long enough already!

      But do finish it, even though!

  3. I have really enjoyed reading all the commentary on Cleo’s blog. I read this book maybe 10 years ago. Your analysis is wonderful to read. I think Lily’s inability to settle for less is her fatal flaw and agree she is a tragic figure. The fact that readers can discuss and ponder the question of Lily’s responsibility for her fate vs that of the society she was born into is what makes the book a classic. You can read and re-read it and come up with a different answer or argument every time.

    1. Yes, it is a book for discussion and one without right answers. If literature is news that stays news, this is definitely a classic example.