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Living Up To Society's Expectations
on October 15, 2009
"The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton is her second long novel, and was published on October 14th of 1905. Her first long novel, "The Valley of Decision", was a sweeping historical fiction, which was perhaps a bit too ambitious for her first attempt. This novel suffers none of the flaws of her first effort, and the reader is pulled into the story by its heroine, Lily Bart. She is an interesting character, who is struggling to maintain her position in society. She is flawed, to be sure, but at the same time the reader wants to find out what is going to happen to her.
The story starts with Lily already in difficulty. She is living off of a small inheritance and the sporadic gifts of her strict Aunt Julia. She is also getting older, though still very beautiful and able to attract men, she is always looking for signs of age in the mirror. From the time she was young, she was brought up in affluence, and when her father was ruined financially, it had devastating effect on her mother, and on a then young Lily. She cannot bear the thought of a life without luxury though, and so she is set on marrying only if the man has money. At the same time, those men who do have money do not fill her emotional needs. The man whom she loves, Lawrence Seldon, cannot satisfy her financial needs, and yet she deliberately throws away the opportunities she has to set herself up financially for life.
An interesting aspect of Lily's character is the way she becomes morally stronger each time her position becomes a bit weaker. One suspects the Lily from early in the story would handle the challenges she faces later in the book much differently. She has opportunities to recover her position, but she will not behave in the manner necessary to accomplish it, to her credit. Her relationships with other people also become more real, and less based on superficial subject matter and conversation. This inverse relationship between morality and societal position appears in many of the other characters as well.
I found this to easily be her best novel, short or long, up to this point in her career. Her short fiction had been her stronger work prior to this, but "The House of Mirth" changes that as it is the first long work from Wharton which delivers on the promise that she showed with many of her short fiction works. I am rounding this one up to five stars.