Thursday, July 31, 2008

Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth"

It's hard to feel much sympathy for, or identification with, Lily Bart. Moving among the nouveau riches of New York City, she aspires to marry someone wealthy. In her better moments, she wishes to transmute the money into something finer in life, to create beauty. But, more often, she wants the money in order to lead a life of ease, to escape from her horror of shabbiness. Unfortunately, Lily seems to own the knack of sabotaging her own well-laid marital schemes. Her eventual friend Mrs. Fisher describes her well, in terms which explain Wharton's project in this novel. "Sometimes," Mrs. Fisher says, "I think it's just flightiness--and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for. And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study."

Lily's difficulty in deciding should give rich tragic material, but the novel seems undecided whether to be a tragedy or a satire, and so its view of Lily is wavering, and its judgment uncertain. It's never clear to Lily, and to the reader, what the alternative to the vanities of society is, besides some abstract ideals of beauty and taste. Her limitation appears to be not only her society's, but also, damagingly, the novel's own.

The novel tries to embody the alternative in the person of Selden. However, this romantic hero, despite his learning and taste, is a limited creation. For someone praised for his ironic detachment from materialistic and frivolous society, he spends a lot of time, in the novel, in that society. We don't see him in any other contexts, not in his legal profession, not in some like-minded company, with the exception of genuine but dull Gerty Farish. His attitude towards the social circle of the Van Osburghs, the Trenors, and the Dorsets is, at best, ambivalent.

"I don't underrate the decorative side of life. It seems to me the sense of splendour has justified itself by what it has produced. The worst of it is that so much human nature is used up in the process. If we're all the raw stuff of the cosmic effects, one would rather be the fire that tempers a sword than the fish that dyes a purple cloak. And a society like ours wastes such good material in producing its little patch of purple! Look at a boy like Ned Silverton--he's really too good to be used to refurbish anybody's social shabbiness. There's a lad just setting out to discover the universe. Isn't it a pity he should end by finding it in Mrs. Fisher's drawing room?"

As a critique of that society, surely Selden's judgment is overly forgiving and near-sighted. Despite its use of manufacturing and economic terms (produced, used up, process, raw stuff, wastes, good material), it does not see the actual workers who temper the sword or dye the cloak. Its sympathy lies, instead, with a silly, sentimental upper-class boy like Ned Silverton, whose worst possible fate is ending up in a well-appointed drawing room. And despite its talk of fire and sword, the man himself is not particularly energetic nor active in pursing his goals in life; what those goals may be we are not told, but we are told who his favorite author is.

His limitation shows up again in his view of Lily. A marvelous scene in the novel is the tableau vivants put up as part of a lavish entertainment. Lily appears in the last tableau, as Reynolds's "Mrs Lloyd," a choice which shows off her natural beauty, and her natural taste.

The noble buouyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.

The passage is not intended to be satirical, but serious. But how can we take seriously Selden's judgment that the artistically arranged Lily is the real Lily Bart, that, enmeshed in the expenditure of the tableau vivants, she is "divested of the trivialities of her little world"? More subtly, how can Selden, the perceptive man, not suspect that beauty has its evil aspect as well as its good?

The limitation of the romantic hero, and thus of the alternative offered to Lily Bart, marks the limit of the novel's moral vision. Another marker is the depiction of the Jewish social climber, Rosedale. Much of his unflattering depiction may be laid at the door of the society to which he is so eager to gain entrance. But some of it shades too easily, too indistinguishably, into the narrative voice, and leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.


Eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eshuneutics said...

Nicely put, the conclusion. I have just been re-reading H.D.'s "Her", who is sometimed paralleled to Wharton. But there is something the same in the novel. Hermione's lover is based on the aesthetic Ezra P and one question that arises is: How could he be sure that the perfect Hermione was the real natural Her, the Her who communes with trees and nature.
Ah, perfection is a deadly thing.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I suspect most artists locate the real in the ideal, and, in that respect, are Platonists. Some see the dangers in that view, many others don't. My remarks on Wharton may make me out to be a dialectical materialist, but I think, given my own sentimentality, my complaint is really that she is not sufficiently dialectical, rather than not sufficiently materialist (i.e. Marxist). I will add H.D.'s "Her" to my reading list. I should find time to go back to her poetry again.

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