It was indeed miserable to be poor, to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still--it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept up like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of her years.
You might call The House of Mirth a riches-to-rags story. Its heroine, Lily Bart, is in the generally dreadful position of having friends who have more money than she does. Her beauty and her connections go a long way of installing her in the high society of 19th century New York City, but it is an awfully expensive place to stay, with its new dresses, high-stakes bridge games, and Mediterranean cruises. Lily's problems will go away if she can marry rich, but neither stupid or venal enough to pursue the meager pool of men that surround her:
She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce--the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice--but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must be follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.
The first half of The House of Mirth is in this savage vein by which Wharton exhibits a great affinity for Jane Austen. Her skewering of high society can be quite funny:
The Wetheralls always went to church. They belonged to the vast group of human automata who go through life without neglecting to perform a single one of the gestures executed by the surrounding puppets. It is true that the Bellomont puppets did not go to church, but others equally important did--and Mr. and Mrs. Wetherall's circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list.
Of course, it is impossible to imagine Austen calling anyone "the vast group of human automata." These quips nearly drop out entirely in the book's second half, where they would be unbearably vicious, as Lily's star descends and she approaches destitution. Ironically, it is her beauty that does her in: She accepts a stock "tip" from a friend, Gus Trenor, and collects and spends nine thousand dollars before realizing that the money she is given is not the dividends of her investment at all, but a gift from Trenor, who expects to collect his repayment in a "pound of flesh." The scene where Trenor lures her alone to his house so that he might confront her about her debt is one of the most horrifying scenes I have ever read, as it always seems a moment away from becoming a sexual assault.
Lily is not shallow enough to pay Trenor this way, but too shallow to reject the desire for society that led her to such a predicament. Caught between these two worlds, she wastes away, loses her inheritance, becomes a social pariah. She is in love with a man named Lawrence Selden, but he has cultivated what Lily cannot, an aloofness from society, and this becomes a barrier between them. She seems constantly to be on the verge of denouncing these misbegotten wants:
"Some women are strong enough to be good by themselves, but I needed the help of your belief in me. Perhaps I might have resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have pulled me down. And then I remembered--I remembered your saying that such a life could never satisfy me; and I was ashamed to admit to myself that it could. This is what you did for me; that is what I wanted to thank you for. I wanted to tell you that I have always remembered, and that I have tried--tried hard--"
...But the moment never comes, or comes too late. Lily has tried hard enough, but Selden has not tried. That is his secret; he knows the task is impossible for the good and the free. Lily's ultimate ruin is the result of her trying to live in both Selden's world and in society, which is beyond any mortal creature, and the final catastrophe presages the horrible end of Ethan Frome (Carlton, Brent), though it lacks that novel's tidy sense of inevitability. Nor does it resonate as strongly as the final tragedy of The Age of Innocence, which is less "sound and fury" and more "quiet desperation."
Still, The House of Mirth is powerfully tragic. As with The Age of Innocence, it remains worth reading today, not least because there is no shortage of Lily Barts in the 21st Century. Like Lily, we remain aware of the shallowness of the game of wealth, yet we play it anyway because we don't like the thought of losing. The House of Mirth reminds us why it is that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle.
Books and Movies
The Mookse and the Gripes