The unfailing connection of a classic novel
I have always been a fan of old books. There’s a comfort I find in between the pages of a story written long ago, a sort of escape from my modern-day life.
I’ve grown to relish the familiar surprise of connection that comes when completing a classic. That connection which transcends the particulars of a novel — time, place and people so vastly different from my own — and touches something universal to the human condition.
And that surprise came yet again when I finished “The House of Mirth” (1905) by Edith Wharton. The backdrop is the end of the 19th century in New York City; the characters, a flock of socialites immersed in a life of parties, bridge and European tours on a whim. Lily Bart takes the stage as protagonist and the reader follows her desperate, fervent fight to avoid the social descent inevitable to her rising debts, diminishing funds and growing age.
From a well-born family, Lily is accustomed to a life of elegance and luxury. Her greatest fear in life is instilled by her mother: don’t become poor. Poverty is misery and wealth, the only door to happiness. This fear becomes a reality for Lily when her father loses all his wealth and dies shortly after. Her mother continues to drill poor life lessons into Lily as her approach to hardship is to put on a face — not a happy face despite struggles, but a rich face despite an empty bank account. She teaches Lily that when you have no money, it’s better to pretend that you do.
After her mother’s death, Lily becomes the ward of her straight-laced Aunt Julia and that’s where the novel hones in. Lily is 29 and on a husband-hunt. Her options are rather dismal: either dull, boring men or gross, materialistic ones. But the common denominator is that they are all rich. Lily doesn’t care to marry for love, she only wants to secure a future for herself.
But this pecuniary aim is more complex than your run-of-the-mill gold digger. Yes, Lily enjoys opulence and is determined to not lose a lavish life, but she’s also driven by the desire for safety. There aren’t many options for women outside of marriage; at least, not any that don’t also come with penny-pinching.
At the outset, Lily seems calm and controlled: her ambitions for money are high but attainable.
She is confident in her charm and beauty to achieve what she wants. It’s only when she begins running into a certain Lawrence Selden that the tight plan for her future begins to wrinkle. A lawyer nestled in a class below hers, Lawrence is just as aware as Lily is that he would never be a marital prospect for her due to his lower means. And because neither hold any such expectations, their relationship unfolds as a bright light of sincerity in Lily’s world of social games and ulterior motives.
As their friendship and conversations deepen, Lily’s former tunnel-visioned pursuit of a rich husband begins to grow circular. Is that really what she wants? What’s her other option: a pauper husband? No, she needs money. But is it worth it without love? And she’s set on a hamster wheel.
Life doesn’t get any easier. Lily finds herself in a great deal of debt and seeks help from her friend’s husband, Gus Trenor. This backfires in very unexpected ways for her (which I don’t want to spoil) and the repercussions set the trajectory for many other problems she must overcome. Like the well-trained daughter she is, Lily draws upon her mother’s life lessons and she plays pretend. She continues gambling in bridge, eating at the finest restaurants, and doing her best to keep up with the Jones’ by being at every elite party in a new, handmade dress.
Gossip, scandals, affairs and drama continue to plague poor Lily on her quest for a wealthy spouse, making it seem more and more impossible. Throwing in an anxiety-inducing amount of debt doesn’t help either. I’ll let you find out for yourself whether Lily’s hunt is successful but I will warn the reader to not get tricked by Wharton’s initial light-hearted tone. It’s a satirical cover for a much deeper and richer message than simply a haphazard love pursuit.
This story is a beautiful analysis of a woman struggling to find happiness in a world where society’s constraints and rules have already outlined the paths she must go down. The obstacles Lily faces open up questions in her and in the reader of what one ought to desire, how to get it and how we let expectations set on us by society and by ourselves prevent us from having a meaningful life.
A good book takes you beyond your everyday life and “The House of Mirth” certainly does that.
Wharton’s descriptive style of writing plunges you in a society very unlike our own. But more than the respite of getting outside of your own life bubble, this novel gives a comfort of knowing that we’re not all that different from the men and women who lived before us. And that to me is the mark of a great book.