The House Of Mirth / Edith Wharton

Published in 1905, The House of Mirth depicts America at the turn of the Twentieth Century and its awkward blending of the previous century with the new. On the roads, one finds both carriages and motorcars.  Both candles and electricity light houses.  The newly rich are beginning to push their way into high society, a world still bound by the strict rules of past tradition.  Wharton concentrates on New York in the Gilded Age, taking the reader inside the salons and country estates of the social elite.  A part of this world is Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman whose sole purpose seemingly is to find a husband who can insure her status as a member of the upper class.  Her greatest desire is to continue to live a comfortable life with accustomed luxuries. But Lily possesses an inner voice of rebellion that prevents her from simply marrying someone for money. This results in her rejecting numerous marriage proposals, even though her financial situation is dire and she is living far beyond her means.  This classic tragedy traces her slow spiral into debt and dishonor. The social elite shown here are self-absorbed, and capable of viciously turning on each other for perceived slights.  The women especially come off looking mean spirited, as they jostle for position in the narrow confines of high society. Wharton does a marvelous job of capturing the shallowness of this elite class and shows that beneath the glitter of opulence, a dog-eat-dog world exists. Lily too is self-serving, frivolous, and certainly vain about her beauty.  But while she has many of the same qualities as the other women in her social circle, she refuses to sell her soul or betray friends merely to maintain a desired lifestyle. Throughout the novel, Lily makes decisions at critical junctions that ensure her continued descent from a place of privilege.  There are countless instances along the way where she could easily reverse her fortunes and yet is unable to betray an inner core of goodness.  The world Wharton presents here is a hostile one and highly regimented.  She is a master novelist and there is not a wasted word in the novel.  The House of Mirth does not make for comfortable reading, but it proves impossible to put down.

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