I read the House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence almost at the same time, and while The Age of Innocence is the better book -the title is less euphonic, mind- House of Mirth has meant something to me. I've declared in another review my undying love for fools, whatever their size or shape. Lily is one of gigantic proportions. That, given the title, is hardly a surprise, 'cause:
"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth
My opinion is that the guy who wrote that part of the Bible put his foot (or at the very least his goose quill) in his mouth because that sentence is a bit of euphonic nonsense, but I guess he liked to put hearts in places:
"The heart of fools is in their mouth:
but the mouth of the wise is in their heart."
If Lily's heart is in her mouth, it's not because of too much talking, but man does she chew
through her fall from the highs of money and beauty to the slums of respiratory depression. I'm going with that as a causa mortis because it's prettier than "choking in her own vomit". She dies because benzodiazepines were yet to be invented. They used to get hung on chloral... She should just have smoked weed.
I disagree with two important parts of Lily’s characterisation: I don't see her either as a tragic figure or as a selfish one.
I can tell tragic when I see it: it’s Gerty. Tragedy = unavoidable misery, it’s the greek sense of inescapable fate, whatever you do, you’re fucked - their gods were such bitches
. Gerty can never get a choice; nothing much will happen to her at all, ever. See Pascal: hell lies in boredom. Bad luck and bad choices are interesting, hence, not tragic.
Of course, there’s a case to be made in favour of Lily’s destiny being set in stone, but it requires, in order to be interesting, that we disregard parts of the novel to see it only as a mildly feminist critique of the upper New York society. And it is; Wharton is angry at a class that only offer parasitic lifestyles to women. But the feminist critique is the only way to have her doomed from the start; if not, what would be the point of the book? An ode to Bad Luck? Instead of that, we get a very clever portrayal not only of a social class, but also of the psychology of a woman who has to stand alone and fight, mainly against her own nature.
Yes, Lily is a purely decorative object, yes, she is wholly dependant on others to survive... but it’s ultimately not what makes her doom. She dies the way she does because she is a short-distance athlete. The same way she says to Selden “ perhaps I might have resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have pulled me down”, this woman can’t play chess: it takes too long. That’s why she fails with the Americana-guy; that’s why she can’t climb back, that’s why it means so much that she doesn’t use the letters- that would have been right up her alley; she could have pulled it off.
Even her death... she could have been a Nana. She would have lost herself. She dies and saves the last her self-respect; that’s a pretty heroic failure, and a very human one. Of course, it’s bad luck that Selden comes to his realisation the moment she’s dead, but, you know, shit happens. The thing is, she’s never been as worthy of love as in the moment when she dies. He can't be blamed for not having loved her before.
The question begs the answer: if Selden had come the night before, would they have had a happier ending? Or would she have ruined him, sickened him? As a mather of fact, Wharton goes out of her way to say that they would have been happy. In the last scene of the book, when she visits Nettie, it is said: “it is so easy for a woman to become what the man she loves believes her to be!” I think that the moment Wharton believes in that transformation, she would have given it to Lily and Selden too. It wasn't hopeless from the start.
Lily’s selfishness and entitlement, and the snobbism of the privileged, seem to make a deep impression on readers. Is she really so very selfish? It’s the only life she knows. She has nobody to stand up for; there’s noone in the world she loves, or owes anything to, and certainly not her friends except for Gerty. And Gerties are certainly worthy of love, sound of mind, admirable in every respect, but god are they boring to hang out with.
So she can’t make friends with low-class people, has a physical repulsion to shabbiness, and sees no attraction in the life of a manual worker. A review I've seen on this site (while very interesting) suggests that the reader feels personaly insulted by all three. I think she’s missing the point, because she’s essentially talking about being strong and therefore worthy of more respect that the one Lily shows, but she focuses on strength for the family, and that’s precisely what Lily can't have. Does she want me to feel sorry for Lily? I will. Will I think her weak? No.
Regarding shabbiness and manual work, I can never blame her for that. I don’t want to be a workshop worker either. Please believe it’s not particularly a dislike for effort. Of course, her taste for luxury doesn’t call for sympathy; but this is a woman alone. She needs to love something, and what she loves is beauty. It’s her only asset and the base of her self-esteem. The only qualitiy she knows she has is taste.
The bad: Wharton repeats the same concepts with different formulae over and over again. She does, in fact, write the words “poured out the wretchedness of his soul”. She dwells in melodrama. She tortures me with Gerty (could she have at least a fault, so I don’t feel so bad about her?). Some characters -Trenor- are utterly unappealing.
In the end, I know what I love in House of Mirth: Lily goes through her day, she’s planning ahead, she’s trying hard, she’s laughing at unfunny quips and smoothing rough situations and she’s bored. But sometimes, an impulse breaks through all that and wrecks her routine; she knows who she is and who she could be, she gets a glimpse of a life that is not stopped, in which the clock ticks evenly, and suddenly her intentions mean something else or nothing. And then she goes on a picnic. It’s the effect Selden has; he’s distracting.
I’m fascinated by the rays of light that break through routine. I think that’s why all her impulses bring her lower: it’s to prove Selden wrong when he’s unable to separate her intentions from her impulses. Even when she’s telling him she loves him, he thinks she’s planning. She’s not.
There’s a tremendous beauty in impulses, specially when they’re doomed and therefore are pure. That last plunge, when she goes up to see him just because she’s in his street. What she doesn’t do through courage, she’ll do through the power of a rush. It quickened my pulse too.