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For patient, meticulous readers
on March 25, 2013
I was almost ready to stop reading this book when I reached its halfway point. I found little of substance in the trivial and pretentious frivolities represented by Wharton’s collection of turn of the century New York socialites. The heroine, Lily Bart, seemed as shallow as the rest of them. The only glimmer of sensibility was represented by the lawyer Lawrence Selden, a bachelor with a free spirit and more than a modicum of conscience and sensibility. I found Wharton’s erudite vocabulary and quaint turns of phrase annoying and her descriptions excessive with unnecessary details. However, knowing this book was one of Wharton’s most acclaimed, I was determined to finish. It was worth it.
The second half of the book went deeper into the manipulative nature of many of the relationships between Lily and her friends and the insecurities being played out. Lily is like a lamb among the wolves. Her naiveté causes her to stumble more than once, subverting her two objectives in life: being a prime confidant and participant in the activities of upper crust society, and eventually being successful in finding an affluent husband to cement her social position, providing her with the means to indulge her expensive tastes. Having grown up in an upper class environment, Lily continues to make all her judgments based on her prejudiced habituations. Her extraordinary beauty allows her to be worshipped and pampered. Gradually, in the second half of the book, the reader witnesses how Lily’s world falls apart, as she becomes victim to the schemes of an adulterous wife; the sexual innuendo and financial complicity of a married man; and the spiteful spirit of her dying aunt (who has been her guardian since her childhood). These result in her expulsion from her usual circle of friends, her introduction to a penurious existence and her increasing desperation in finding a husband. By the time the end of the book has come to an emotional we have met the real Lily and her profound despair.
On the whole I must admit that The House of Mirth deserves the accolades but it is only for patient, meticulous readers, lovers of the English language. It was first published in 1905, at the beginning of Wharton’s writing career. She was a participant in the American high society, the nouveau riche, that she describes. Her novel provides quite an accurate picture of the idle rich and the plight of women who lacked financial means of support. I did find it rather odd that the subjects of politics, religion, black culture and immigrant influences (especially the Irish and Jewish) were completely absent from the book. The book is therefore a poor representation of describing New York City society for that tumultuous time period. Its narrative exclusively represents a very small slice of life in a complex multifaceted fabric of humanity.