Reading Buddies Discussion: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

by Erin on April 13, 2012

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Welcome, Reading Buddies! Just a reminder: the June poll is up. Make sure you vote for your pick! Also, as announced last week, in May we’ll be reading Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.

The House of Mirth is the third novel by Edith Wharton that I’ve read, and I think so far I’m enjoying it most. I’m listening to the audiobook version read by Anna Fields, and while I do think I’m missing the subtler points of writing and character development and such that I’d catch in print, overall the audio is working out just fine. At this point, I’m about halfway through.

My version includes an intro that I found rather fascinating. Wharton, it turns out, was a pretty interesting person. Did you know she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, which she received in 1921 for The Age of Innocence? Or that she was a friend of Henry James, who urged her to turn her literary talents toward New York?

Some other interesting facts, from the intro to my edition and from Wikipedia:

  • Wharton was born in 1862 in New York City and died in 1937 of a stroke.
  • Some say the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” referred to her father’s family.
  • She ended up divorcing her husband, Edward Robbins Wharton, after 23 years of marriage. After the divorce she moved permanently to France.
  • In addition to being an author, Wharton was a garden and interior designer.
  • Published in 1905, The House of Mirth was Wharton’s first novel to focus on old New York.
  • The original title for The House of Mirth was A Moment’s Ornament (taken from one of Wordsworth’s poems), and Wharton’s working title was The Year of the Rose. The House of Mirth refers to Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

Lily Bart, the novel’s central character, is one of the few people in the novel I find I really like. Actually, my feelings toward her are rather complicated: I like her spunk, am annoyed by her helplessness, and feel uncomfortable for her as she tries to work out the best path through the society of the wealthy. I admire that she tries to fend for herself, since she does not have a mother, for instance, to arrange a marriage for her, but I get frustrated when social norms and her own instilled beliefs get in her way. She can be so coy and flighty that I feel like I should be fed up with her, yet compared to the women around her — meek and resentful, cold and calculating, uptight and scandalized — she is rather endearing. She is like a single bright spot, floundering helplessly in a sea of uncaring and superficial souls.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (cover)The other character I find myself drawn to, of course, is Lawrence Selden. Like Lily with her female compatriots, Selden stands out in sharp relief to the timid Gryce, the overbearing Trenor, and the stuffy, annoying Dorset. I don’t know where the story is going, exactly, but I have a feeling Lily and Selden will be forever missing one another.

I think it’s apparent in Wharton’s writing that she both knows the ins and outs of New York high society intimately and that she does not look upon that society favorably. The things with which Lily feels compelled to occupy her time, the problems with which she concerns herself, the tug-of-war between what she subconsciously wants and what she must outwardly appear to desire create an inner turmoil within Lily that does not reflect well on the society that creates it. There is, for instance, the day Selden turns up at Bellomont: by interrupting Selden and Bertha and then spending the day with the former instead of meeting Percy Gryce, Lily has managed to undo the future she’d been (admittedly half-heartedly) working toward. The consequences are irrevocably fixed before Lily even discovers what she’s done.

Finally, there is the matter of Gus Trenor. I feel so bad for Lily, who is clearly in over her naive little head when it comes to him. I’ve only just gotten to the altercation in the Trenor home between Gus and Lily, so I don’t know how that will play out. He strikes me as the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, circling round and round and slowly closing in on his young prey. And yet at the same time, he’s sort of just a big dumb lout. I marvel at Wharton’s ability to craft these impossibly complex characters.

That’s all for me for today. Over to you: how are you liking The House of Mirth so far?

Care to share?

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18 comments
Katie @ Doing Dewey
Katie @ Doing Dewey

I just started reading yesterday and I've been waiting until I passed the half way point to read this post for fear of spoilers :) Now, about four chapters into the second half, I'm slowly starting to like Lily, but her indecision about what she wants has been driving me a little crazy up until now. I appreciate that some part of her wants to marry for love, but she messes up her chances for marrying for love or money by her indecisiveness!

I like the writing style, now that I've gotten used to it, and I really enjoy reading about the time period. It reminds me most of Austen, although that's probably because that's one of the few other book I've read that are so focused on marriage and the customs of society. Anyway, I'm going to go read some more and I'll check back in when I'm done to see what you thought at the end :)

Alita
Alita

I'm nearing the end of the novel, and ugh! poor Lily! Like you, my feelings for her are very complicated. She's so self absorbed, but that's all she's known. And I do lover her observations of society and the fact she's well aware of its ridiculousness.

And am I ever getting annoyed with Selden. Stop slinking away when things get uncomfortable! Yeesh.

I'm hoping to finish in the next couple days - really curious to see how Lily's story wraps up.

carolinareads
carolinareads

I'm not so far into the novel as you are but I'm loving it already though I don't love the main character so much, I prefer Selden.

I completely agree with you when you say that Wharton really did know the ins and outs of the New York society. I wouldn’t like to live in. Everyone needs to be so calculating to maintain their status, their no space for impulse.

Lisa
Lisa

I haven't read any Wharton in a while and I am, once again, surprised by how much I'm enjoying her writing. I have thought of Wharton as rather wordy but now that I'm reading Bleak House at the same time, Wharton feels positively Hemingwayesque! There is a crispness to her writing and her characters are so well developed! I think Lily would have been an entirely different character if her father had ever put his foot down with her mother. She's been raised to have these notions about her place which make it impossible for her to make her way once the money is gone. It certainly causes a problem for her with Trenor because she doesn't seem to understand that he's not as easily read.

Ronnica
Ronnica

This is one of my all-time favorite classics! I won't say more than that, because I don't want to spoil it.

Buried In Print
Buried In Print

I've yet to make it through this novel of hers, but I did recently mend my struggling relationship with her novels, so there's hope yet!

zibilee
zibilee

This is one of my favorite classics, and I am so glad that you are getting the chance to read it and experience it! You are right, Lily Bart is a really great character.

Stephanie
Stephanie

I love Edith Wharton. The Age of Innocence is my favorite of hers, although I enjoyed this one as well!

Erin
Erin

I know, right? It's like she's split between wanting to assure a path for herself and wanting to follow her whims. And in her society, you just can't do that. I haven't read enough Austen to compare (only one), but I think I can see the connection. Both Austen and Wharton are super skilled with words too, right? Definitely let me know what you think when you get to the end. Looking forward to your reaction!

Erin
Erin

I'm probably three quarters done now. I'm losing my temper with everyone! Though you're right, Lily really has no knowledge of an alternate way of being. I'm curious to see where the story is going.

Erin
Erin

I'm glad you're loving it so far! I'm loving Lily a little less as I progress, so it'll be interesting to see where we stand at the end. And I am so with you about not wanting to live in a society like Lily's. That's exactly it -- everything is carefully planned to maintain appearances. No one can live moment to moment or show even the hint of a side of themselves that might bring social disapproval.

Erin
Erin

"Crispness" is such a good word! My earlier experiences with Wharton came at a time when I actively avoided classics unless forced, but now that I've gotten more comfortable with them I can totally see what you mean. Compared to some of those other authors, Wharton's writing is so clean. That's a good point re: Lily's father. I get exasperated with Lily, but at the same time I know it's not really her fault...!

Erin
Erin

Thanks for the spoiler warning! I'll have to visit once I'm done. I'm about 2/3 of the way through now. So happy to hear you loved it!

Erin
Erin

Thanks for being reticent :-) Come back in 2 weeks, when I post about the rest of the book, and discuss! I'm happy to hear it's one of your favorites, though. Another vote of confidence is always good!

Erin
Erin

Well, I'm happy to hear the relationship has been mended, at least. I can't pass judgment on this one yet, really, but I'm hopeful.

Erin
Erin

I'm glad, too! I've been meaning to read more by Edith Wharton. Happy to hear you love it so much!

Erin
Erin

I need to revisit The Age of Innocence sometime. I read it for school, which pretty much guaranteed I'd (a) not remember much, and (b) not really enjoy it! After this positive experience with The House of Mirth (so far, at least...), I'll definitely have to give Innocence another go.