The House of Mirth

Friday, December 2, 2011

The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton

This turn-of-the-century novel tells the story of Lily Bart, a beautiful woman caught between what her heart wants and she thinks she should want. When Lily is orphaned as a young woman, an aunt provides for her, leaving her cared for, but never wealthy. At age 29, Lily is still hoping to marry well, despite her financial problems. Yet every time she seems close to making a match, something causes her to withdraw a bit from her pursuit.

I’ve read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome and with each books I was impressed with the writing and restrained portrayals of the characters, but never more so than with this book. For me, The House of Mirth made me love Wharton, instead of just appreciating her.

Wharton finds the most eloquent way to say things, but still manages to keep it simple and not overly-flowery. It’s not like Dickens, who I do love in a different way, but the man was wordy! She’s not writing to fit more words in each paragraph, instead it feels like things have been pared down until what’s left is only what is necessary to tell the compelling story.

I read it slowly, savoring each line instead of barreling ahead. I didn’t want to miss anything and I found myself highlighting so many lines that I connected to. It felt like she had chosen each word so carefully and so in turn I wanted to make sure I gave each word its due as I read it.

Lily Bart is a character so caught up in trying to attain what society tells her is the perfect life, that she completely denies her true feelings. She ignores what makes her happy and focuses all of her intelligence and planning into finding a wealthy husband of the right social standing. At a young age, her mother taught her that this was what was important in life and Lily never quite let go of that mindset.

Lily has been raised to believe she needs a life of riches to be happy, but when she’s put in a position where those things might not be available to her anymore she doesn’t know what to do. She’s desperate and believes that her only choice is to sacrifice the life she thinks she loves or her happiness. It’s Madame Bovary without the selfish abandon in decision making.

This is the quote that sums it all up for me…
“…sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.” –Mrs. Fisher

The scenes between Lily and her friend Seldon are electric. They are sprinkled throughout the book and so each time you stumble upon one it breathes new life into the story, just as it does in Lily’s own life. Their chemistry radiates off the page. There are so many men who want Lily and yet Seldon is the only one that makes her feel alive. She refuses to acknowledge even to herself, that she feels anything for him.

“She knew herself by heart too, and was sick of the old story. There were moments when she longed blindly for anything different, anything strange, remote and untried; but the utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting.”

The few moments when she is truly happy are tucked away in her memory. She never allows herself to dwell on those moments of joy. Instead she focuses on whatever problem is at hand, financial or social. She believes her problems don’t exist if she escapes to another setting, so she’s constantly trying to run away from them. The transition that she goes through from the beginning of the novel to the end is startling. She’s so carefree and hopefully at the start. Her playful nature begins to drain away as her circumstances become direr.

I loved the fact that despite having no idea how to achieve happiness in her life, she’s not helpless. She plans and schemes, often at her own expense, to solve her problems. She doesn’t wait around for someone to fix everything. She doesn’t make excuses for herself or allow herself to wallow in self-pity. She accepts the consequences of her actions, even if they sometimes seem unfair and I respect that. She’s proactive in her life and when she runs out of options, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive.

I loved the character of Lily and the story grew on me as I read it. By the end I didn’t want to put it down and I know I’ll be returning to it in the future.

“What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.”

“It had always seemed to Seldon that experience offered a great deal besides the sentimental adventure, yet he could vividly conceive of a love which should broaden and deepen till it became the central fact of life.”


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds like one I need to read for the Back to Classics challenge which I plan to join. Nice concise review Melissa.

Jillian said...

I have never read this one! I think I really should start catching up on the classics... I feel like there's so many more left to be read that I haven't even heard of yet!

Sandy Nawrot said...

These types of books have always intimidated me, and I know that is just silly. It sounds totally charming.

Anne said...

I read The Age of Innocence and The Buccanears by Wharton and loved them both. After reading your review I am going to have to read this one soon, it sounds great!

Trisha said...

I loved Ethan Frome and thought Age of Innocence was good, so I should definitely give this one a shot.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Great review! I absolutely loved The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome, but I'm still hesitant about reading The House of Mirth. I have a feeling it's going to break my heart. Looking forward to the scenes between Lily and Selden, though. :)

Cat said...

Lovely review and glad to read you enjoyed it so much as I have it on list for a classics challenge next year. I've only read The Age of Innocence which I liked very much.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Diane - It'd be perfect for a classics challenge.

Jillian - Consider how many books we both love, you should definitely start checking out more classics. I think there are some that you'd love!

Sandy - I don't know why, but I was intimidated by this one too. It's not that big, but it's got such a great reputation.

Anne - I haven't read The Buccanears yet, but I want to.

Trisha - You should, it's wonderful!

Darlyn - I went into it with really high expectations, but it didn't disappoint.

Cat - I liked it even more than Age of Innocence, but it's similar.

BookQuoter said...

Loved this book, even if it made me so sad.

Allie said...

“She knew herself by heart too, and was sick of the old story. There were moments when she longed blindly for anything different, anything strange, remote and untried; but the utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting.”

That is one of my favorite quotes from the novel.

I am SO GLAD that you liked this! It makes me happy to know that you saw a lot of the same beauty that I did. I think Wharton does such a superb job of portraying Lily as being trapped in the middle of a lot of outside pressures. And the end? ACK! love it.


TBM said...

I loved Ethan Frome but I haven't read any of her other works. After reading this review, I think I will. Thanks!

*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

Oh, my goodness. Now I can't wait to read this. Allie keeps telling me I should! I have only read Wharton's short stories so far and have The Age of Innocence waiting on my bookshelf for 2012. :-)

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

Read Age of Innocence, but only saw House of Mirth on TV. I know I'd be in for a literary treat, but somehow always shy away from the feeling of walls closing in I know I'll get with Wharton.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I read this for the first time last year and it is one of my favorite books. I loved everything about it, and Wharton's writing style is extremely easy to read. It's not like the "typical" stuffy classics that are a bit convoluted and abstract (or just too dang wordy). Wharton writes wonderfully and her books are timeless. So glad you enjoyed this as well!

Ana S. said...

I absolutely need to make time for this next year. It sounds like a book I'd really, really love.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

BookQuoter - Sometimes a book is so good it's worth being sad over.

Allie - Oh my gosh, the end! I very specifically didn't talk about it in my review, because I didn't want to ruin it for anyone. I was so glad I went into it not knowing what was going to happen and that made it even better.

TBM - Ethan is a dark one too, but this one is so much deeper.

Jillian - It's a must for 2012, I think you'll love it.

Alex - "the feeling of walls closing in" I know exactly what you mean. I still loved it, but it does make you feel that way.

Natalie - I was surprised by how easy to read it was. I was expecting a much stiffer tone, but it was just lovely.
I know I'll re-read it.

Nymeth - It's just beautiful.