Rating: 3 out of 5
I posted my review of the first half of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, so today I'll offer my thoughts on Book Two.
Book One left off with Lily Bart slipping down the social ladder due to her increasing debt and failed attempts of nabbing a husband. Book Two begins with a cruise around the Mediterranean, where Lily joins the Dorsets and Ned Silverton. This is all the master plan of Bertha Dorset, who wishes for Lily to keep her husband George distracted while she pursues Ned.
When Bertha humiliates Lily by kicking her abruptly off the yacht for allegedly having an affair with George, Lily's reputation is ruined. Her ego becomes even more bruised when her aunt dies, leaving her a fraction of what she originally was to inherit. Facing a life of poverty, Lily desperately seeks salvation by assimilating into a new social circle and revisiting suitors she previously snubbed.
Eventually, Lily finds herself cast aside into the working class, suffering from financial trouble and emotional turmoil. Her attitude that she was more superior to less beautiful women and less promising men backfires as people of lower rank surpass her, gaining prosperity and happiness where she could not. And although the ending is ambiguous, the reader learns that Lily's fate is as much due to her own follies as the elite's oppressive and alienating conventions.
Unlike other female protagonists created by Austen or Chopin, Lily is characterized as a woman who realizes much too late the consequences of believing that she could always do better and marry richer. When your motive is not directed by personal happiness, tragedy is bound to ensue, and Wharton paints that harsh reality. The House of Mirth is obviously titled ironically, because it's not some fairy tale where a knight rides in to rescue the damsel in distress.
Rather, it's an apt depiction of social Darwinism, where only the most handsome, charming, wealthy, and powerful individuals survive. For females of the human species, according to authors of this time period, marriage is the key to successful social mobility--another way of looking at cultural "evolution," one might say.
There's so much more to this story in regards to themes, motifs, and symbols, so I recommend it to someone who is a fan of the "fallen woman" genre. However, for those who are new to experiencing these types of classics, I believe that The Age of Innocence, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights portray the battle between love and money just as well, but also offer a more emotionally investing read because of their characters.
I'll be making a nice transition into next year, since my first novel in 2013 will be a modern adaptation of The House of Mirth, called Gilded Age by Claire McMillan. How will Wharton's tale play out over 100 years later? I'll have to read and see!
Lily: "That's unjust, I think, because, as I understand it, one of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it."
Selden: "You might as well say that the only way not to think about air is to have enough to breathe. That is true enough in a sense; but your lungs are thinking about the air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people--they may not be thinking of money, but they're breathing it all the while; take them into another element and see how they squirm and gasp!"