The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You’re a young woman living in the big city. You go to social events, despite some introverted qualms, partly to get some social currency and mostly to meet your charming, lovely friends. You like shopping for new clothes, even if you can’t afford them, because they’re pretty (and your peers expect you to). You like this one boy that you really aren’t supposed to like. What could be more human that?
To me, the saddest thing about Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is that, reading it a century after it was written, I could still deeply understand the seemingly shallow yet nuanced societal flaws the novel depicts.
Spoiler alert: You are Lily Bart, the protagonist, and you’re desperately trying to stay financially afloat in New York as the stock markets begin to jump around a little too wildly and the allowance your aunt gives you drains a little too fast. The House of Mirth charts your path after you turn 29 and realizes that the only socially acceptable solution to your financial problems is finding a husband. However, you are attracted to a penniless lawyer rather than the wealthy stock market brokers and other gentlemen who could actually support you in a stable, if boring, future.
The novel’s premise isn’t what makes it relatable, of course; times have changed, and marriage is no longer a woman’s end goal in life. Yet, as Lily sets about her wearying task of finding a rich and dull suitor, she grapples with a subtle snowballing of rumors, backstabbing fair-weather friends, and misunderstanding after misunderstanding that threatens her good name and prospect—and that kind of awkwardness is understandable to the reader.
The consequences Lily faces are bizarrely large in their scope and a consequence of the stricter times she lives in, but what she goes through is ultimately universal. Everyone knows the pain of a lost friendship or the disorienting feeling of having said just the wrong thing to shut down a conversation without knowing.
Wharton’s writing is at its most poetic when writing dialogue, which is just a slew of verbal irony: in an era of glitz and affected lifestyles, no character means what they say. Each conversation challenged me with its subtext. In one powerfully-executed scene, Lily realizes that one character whom she’d previously looked down upon no longer needs her help nor will help her.
With one passionate speech and sparse language, Wharton depicts Lily’s conflicting feelings of shock, regret, acceptance, and sense of dignity. That’s one scene of many that frustrates me with its sadness but stuns me with its simplicity. If you’re looking for a somber but thought-provoking and relatable read, this is the novel for you. —Review by Trisha I. ’24
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