“The Whole Tragedy of Her Life”: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

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In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again.

The House of Mirth reminded me again and again of other novels. In Lily Bart I saw Gwendolen Harleth, proud and sure in her beauty and her certain good fortune until she learns she cannot in fact control her own fate; I saw Isabel Archer, similarly proud and sure and beautiful, then caught in traps set by people more subtle and more corrupt than she is; perhaps because I just read Vanity Fair, I also saw Becky Sharp, motherless, nearly friendless, determined to invest the capital of her wiles and charms where she will get the best return at the least risk. Lawrence Selden plays an off-center Deronda to Lily’s conscience, which like Gwendolen’s is capable of a saving (but paradoxically destructive) clarity about moral hazards and compromises; Mr. Rosedale is Sir Pitt without the peerage, or Grandcourt without the malice.

I don’t mean that The House of Mirth is derivative, only that these books all present us with variations on a theme: what is a young woman of high spirits to do in a world that limits her options so severely and judges her equally harshly for trying to make something of herself and for failing in the attempt? “It was a hateful fate,” reflects Lily, contemplating marriage with a rich man who will “do her the honour of boring her for life” — “but how escape from it? What choice had she?” Brought up to see marriage as their only means of survival (and perhaps of happiness), equipped to do little more than charm but convinced at first of the sufficiency of this necessary skill, all of these women learn hard lessons about their real lack of social, economic, and even personal power. Their novels are all, as a result, deeply depressing and openly condemnatory — not, ultimately, about their heroines (with the possible exception of Becky), but about the hypocrisy and vapidity of the worlds they portray. Lily “could not hold herself much to blame” for her failures to find a productive alternative to the role she has been raised to fill:

Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbird’s breast?

“It was the life she had been made for,” she concludes:

every dawning tendency in her had been carefully directed toward it, all her interests and activities had been taught to centre around it. She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.

penguinportraitIt’s an image that is specific to Lily’s situation and history, but it’s also the familiar refrain of women seeing the myth of their influence, and the perfection of their weakness, exposed as lies that serve everyone but them. It’s not just Becky shamelessly marketing herself, but Amelia, trying to scrape together enough money to keep her son at home, and Gwendolen presenting herself to Klesmer in the vain belief that she can be a great singer just by wishing it so, and Isabel imagining she has not just the freedom but the wisdom to choose her future.

For all the similarities, what’s so interesting is how differently the story plays out in each case, not just in the plot but in the whole mood the authors establish, which becomes part of the moral vision they present. Wharton is the only one who takes us all the way to tragedy: she is the only one who risks despair, rather than offering remedies, which is perhaps a sign of her modernity. Even James leaves Isabel standing, and at least by the end of the novel she has become more knowing, which in James’s universe may be the equivalent of grace (to be saved is to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost). Lily and Selden have a final encounter that is very much in the spirit of Eliot’s moments of redemptive fellowship, and Lily’s meeting with Nettie Struther and her baby offers her (and thus us) a vision that transcends the relentless downward spiral of her life:

In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with the visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties — it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by  mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving.

Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily.

In Eliot’s fiction that wider perspective is precisely what draws a suffering protagonist out of her own misery and into sympathy with the larger world. But though Lily’s “surprised sense of human fellowship took the mortal chill from her heart,” it does not help her but only fills her with a deeper horror at the isolation and futility of her own lonely existence. Perversely, the “height of her last moment” with Selden and the unexpected glimpse of something sweeter become moments too precious to survive: “If only life could end now — end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world!”

mirth2Lily’s life does end on a “tragic yet sweet” note: tragic because she is hopeless and, she believes, loveless; sweet because she spares herself (or is spared — Wharton carefully avoids the specificity of suicide) the further — perhaps even worse — compromises she sees in her future, and also because at least in death she is loved for herself, not just for the market value of her beauty. I don’t think Wharton means to leave us in despair, despite Lily’s catastrophic decline: Selden’s belated arrival is one sign that something better is at least imaginable. As he thinks, kneeling by her death bed, “at least … if the moment had been fated to pass from them before they could seize it, he saw now that, for both, it had been saved whole out of the ruin of their lives.” That such a moment is even possible is a slim but real victory for optimism. That its promise is unfulfilled leaves us with the dissatisfaction that we also feel finishing Daniel Deronda and The Portrait of a Lady. Surely something better should be possible for these remarkable women: what a waste their worlds have made of them!

I read The Age of Innocence a few years ago but retained little specific impression of Wharton’s style, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I began The House of Mirth — something, I feared, closer to Henry James than to George Eliot. But while Wharton is nearly as minute in her attention as James, her prose is much more direct and energetic. She rarely reaches for the kind of broad philosophical perspective George Eliot always offers, but at times (and particularly in the bit I’ve quoted above about the “mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving”) she sounded a lot like Eliot, so much that I wondered if for her as for James, Daniel Deronda was a specific influence. Though the books are very different in structure and scale, Wharton also shares Eliot’s ruthlessness about the moral consequences of our actions, and her compassion for someone who has tried to be better and failed. Lily would have suffered much less (as would Gwendolen) if she were less self-aware and better insulated against her own conscience. The milieu in which Wharton’s characters move is as compressed in its own way as any of Austen’s country towns, and the social interactions have the same intensity of implication. In a way, I felt I was getting the best of all these worlds: a crisper, brisker narrative but one that is at least as incisive and certainly as pathetic as any of the others.

2 Comments to “The Whole Tragedy of Her Life”: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

  1. February 14, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Your treatise makes me want to revisit The House of Mirth–I tried it once but didn’t finish because I knew it ended unhappily. But now I think I will try it again. I am intrigued by Edith Wharton.

  2. Ali's Gravatar Ali
    February 16, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this favorable review of The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors! I have read The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country, and have enjoyed them all. She often portrays women in a negative light, but that does not bother me. I think I enjoy her work more than Austen’s because I think she focuses on the nuances of social situations and portrays the good and bad of the individuals in her novels. I want to reread The Age of Innocence because I read it several years ago.

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