Fabian's Reviews > The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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May 16, 2012

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Read from May 16 to 22, 2012

“The House of Mirth” just might be to “The Age of Innocence” what “Tom Sawyer” is to “Huck Finn”: that is, only a stepping-stone towards further greatness (although why I used that Twain analogy is a mystery even to me—I find that brand of American Lit a wee bit overrated). “Age of Innocence” is stupendous—utterly amazing. On the other hand, “The House of Mirth” describes the downward spiral of one, Miss Lily Bart, misunderstood by her social “set,” her particular New York niche. Her story is a tragedy as deep as Jude (the Obscure)’s—her plight is melancholic & devastating—New York has always been a perfect place in which to achieve some sort of victimhood. Another attribute: the story is severely over-written. I say attribute because that is precisely Mrs. Wharton’s style: you read beautiful sentences, many, to realize that all she really wanted to portray was a character sitting down on his ass, or she tries to show particular psyches without the more-modern, less-roundabout, most efficient manner of, say, Virginia Woolf (alas, if Mrs. Wharton had continued to write well into the 30s we may have seen a different, more radical literary style).

The novel is trapped between novelty (modernity) and antiquity (a European America). Sure, this is an amazing study of turn-of-the-century American society, invaluable, one which seems as foreign as it seems familiar; I was not as impressed with this one as her Pulitzer darling (man, I LOVE "Age of Innocence"!), where the mood is less frigid & less tragic, but the theme pretty much stays the same: mainly, that society is very unforgiving, that “half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any.”
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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard Kramer Fabian -- this is a brilliant discussion of this. I tend to lean a little bit more favorably in its direction as I saw, at about the same time I was reading it, the film directed by Terence Davies, starring a very surprising Gillian Anderson, without question one of the best adaptations of a great or great-enough novel I've ever seen.

My favorite Wharton is THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY, where she writes about someone (with the fabulous name Undine Spragg) she really despises. It brings out what I think of as Wharton's fundamental nastiness, which is a different quality than snobbism, which she also, of course had. And it also reveals, by negative example, what mattered to her, what qualities she admired.

Interesting to think of who she'd have turned into under the mantle of modernism. Would she have changed at all? I like to think she would have.

And there's also an image of her I love; she would write in bed, hurling sheets of densely covered monogrammed stationary onto the floor like paper airplanes. The maids would gather it up, put it in order, and deliver it all to her secretary for typing. Now, that's rich.

Fabian Hey, thanks a lot. I really need to catch up with more stuff by her--I can still remember just how amazing I thought "Age of Innocence" was at the time. And the film with Gillian Anderson.

Trish So far, I've read Wharton's Age of Innocence, House of Mirth and Ethan Frome and I must say that as much as I ADORE Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome did invoke stronger, more vivid emotions out of me (despite it being much shorter). If you want to read another piece by Wharton with as much skill and talent as Innocence, I'd definitely give Ethan Frome a try.

Fabian Yeah, Ive read Frome! I also give it 5 stars, for sure. It is less sprawling and the tragedy is too marked. I love how Age's plot takes years upon years to unravel to its central tragedy.

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