I finished Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth at the Charlotte airport in North Carolina coming back from Dallas on Wednesday. After I turned the final page, I closed the book and glanced around the airport, taking in the countless travelers passing by, rushing from gate to gate, ordering their coffees or tacos and settling down at a table. I mostly took in what they were wearing, how they spoke to one another. Did they wear a lot of expensive jewelry and did they just appear as though they were above it all? Who looked genuine? I thought of the story I just finished and I wondered how much has really changed from Edith Wharton's turn of the century society.
Without a doubt, I'm ashamed to admit that it was my very first time reading this classic author. I did see the film version of the story years ago, starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, and I really enjoyed it. I made a mental note to myself at the time that I needed to pick up the book, and finally, I did.
The House of Mirth is a stunning glimpse into New York society in the 1900s. Edith Wharton has provided us an opportunity to learn what a privileged society was like at this time, what people dressed in, what they wore, and especially the struggle to stay within the upper crust of society's very thin clasp. Lily Bart, young and incredibly beautiful, is at the height of her social acceptance -- she has a steady group of incredibly wealthy friends, and although she has a small allowance given her by her aunt, she spends more than she earns in order to have the very things just out of everyone's reach unless they have money. Respect. Power. Friends. Attention.
Lily really can't be blamed for her shallow side, though. After all, she's been raised and trained by her father and mother to be nothing more than just, well, beautiful. That's it. Lily wasn't taught a single thing to be useful in society, to learn anything about how to be independent in the least. I've often wondered how people during this time survived if they had no real talents or skills, and I certainly learned with this story. Lily Bart's real skill was to be the person you could count on to keep your spouse distracted with her sparkling attention and conversation while you went ahead and had an affair. You could count on Lily to manipulate a conversation or situation to get what she, or you, wanted. She would play the reserved and socially mannered friend, who knows all the right things to say, knows just how to tilt her head, raise her lips a bit more for a brighter smile, or clip her sentences so that she's just keeping an edge of mystery. All to control a man or to be the shining socialite in a party, or to simply be invited to spend the summers escaping the New York City heat by traveling to a place by a lake or in the mountains. But Lily doesn't do these things just to be shifty and control people -- she's truly an innocent, a nice woman who has never had to learn life's tough lessons, and thus doesn't really have anything but this talent of manipulation with her beauty and perfect speech.
To add to this, Lily also has an addiction to money. She supplements her small allowance by gambling during bridge games, losing her money and winning. She gambles and shops more, and she sets herself back quite a bit, to the point that she turns to her best friend's husband, who has much more a head for business to ask him to take her remaining money and make more with it. Little does she know, or expect, that Gus Trenor is actually expecting a favor returned for his "work."
Gossip, confusion, restraint, love, betrayal, debt. Lily is caught up in it all as her friends are confused by rumors and innuendo and she suffers the worst of it. Two potential engagements that could save her from the horrible gossip and the debt, gone. Friends that were there for her, disappear. And a true love who is confused and hurt, holds back. My heart breaks with each page for Lily as she loses everything and she has nothing useful that she can do to pull herself out of the muck of it all.
All of us have felt the fear of not enough money, the sleepless nights with that gnawing despair of bills owed, debt growing. The fear of friends gossiping about a rumor unfounded and fear of the loss of a true love. So many times throughout the story I was on the edge of my seat, rooting for Lily to just speak up! Say the truth! Defend yourself! Tell that former friend to suck it! But, a true lady in New York society doesn't do that. She is restrained. And in the end, she has learned all her lessons and is left with nothing but her own dignity.
Though she kept the even tone of the light intercourse, the question was framed in a way to remind him that his good offices were unsought, and for a moment Selden was checked by it. The situation between them was one which could have been cleared up only by a sudden explosion of feeling, and their whole training and habit of mind were against the chance of such an explosion. (p. 294)
Edith Wharton has truly shared a cautionary tale for high society, young women, and the angst of true friends and true love. What can you gain by being mired in the need and obsession for wealth? Surely freedom comes to do the things you want to do, but doesn't fear come along with it? Fear that one day you might not have freedom? Friends come and go with the amount of money that you have -- who will be there standing with you in the end? Do you then truly have the freedom you fought so hard to attain?
Respect. Power. Friends. Attention. Is it worth it?
I turned the pages quickly and easily. And I loved that Edith Wharton wrote in another time, 100 years ago, and still her words are relevant today. Isn't that the story with all the classics, after all? I was beyond speechless after reading this tragic story of Lily Bart and high society.