Eric's Reviews > The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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's review
Jan 24, 08

it was ok
bookshelves: peteredout

I completely soured on this by the end of Book I and start of Book II. I really don't want to finish it, but I might when in a better mood. The melodrama of Gus Trenor's attempt on Lily's virtue and of Lily's flight to Gerty really disgusted me; that's not the Wharton I like, the lofty and relentless social anatomist of The Age of Innocence. It was horrible to see Wharton's cool, classic prose break down into the exclamation marks and fervid dashes of a Gothic romance. In addition to the mawkish melodrama, I was put off by the clumsiness of her handling of the characters other than Lily (always exquisite), a clumsiness that became impossible to ignore during the maladroit muddle of the Monte Carlo scenes: Wharton sets us in a nest of intrigue and drama populated by badly drawn, barely formed subsidiary characters. After George Dorset broke down in front of Lily ("poured forth his wretchedness," as Wharton puts it, ridiculously) I just didn't care anymore. Strengths of The Age of Innocence include the solidity and definition of its secondary characters, and the subtle weave of subplots--think of Jules Beaufort, or Stillerton Jackson, or the van der Luydens, people whose appearance and situation are swiftly and economically evoked into convincing life on the margins of the Newland-Ellen-May triangle. With a few exceptions (Percy Gryce, Mrs. Penniston) Wharton in The House of Mirth shows no such power. Lily is a vividly colored central figure, but the rest of the picture is just sketched-in.
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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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message 1: by Laura (new)

Laura It's better than The Age of Innocence and darker too. I loved it.

Eric Her descriptions in Mirth have more bite. I particularly like the contemptuous sketches of Percy Gryce and Gus Trenor. Apparently The Custom of the Country is even more bilious; can't wait.

Jodi Lu wow i can't disagree more. the writing was excellent at many points but i think the age of innocence is wayyyy better. i found that lily bart was just not at all a sympathetic character: you just want sweet little gerty farish to stab her with a letter opener or something at every bitchy turn.

message 4: by Eric (last edited Jan 07, 2008 02:29PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric I find Lily very sympathetic. I sympathize with her bitchiness and vanity. The indirect discourse is my favorite thing about the book.

Jodi Lu ha, you are saying you are bitchy and vain as well? seriously though, L never does one redemptive thing and everyone incessantly kowtows to her b/c she's just so striking and frivolous and meagerly calculating? i was confused the whole book, waiting. some things that she does out of pride are incidentally admirable, like paying off debts and not being an outright slut when entreated, i suppose. eric, i hope you also pay off debts and are not an outright slut!! =) i really didn't even realize she was intentionally wrought as some martyr. but maybe i'm letting my own personal, murky frustration with cocky trustfunders seep into this.

message 6: by Eric (last edited Jan 08, 2008 10:03AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric I'm quite bitchy and vain. I would say I'm tardy about paying back debts--though not totally delinquent--and I do sleep around a lot, which I guess makes me an "outright slut."

But back to Lily. I'm only halfway through, so I can't pronounce on the book as a whole, but taking your word for the outcome, I would say that martyrdom doesn't require initial "goodness" to be touching. A character doesn't need to be utterly free of pettiness or spite in order to earn my sympathy for her bad end. I don't believe in redemption as anything more than a narrative conceit; only characters in books redeem, themselves or others, whereas most real people just do what they do, dully, until they die.

Being "striking and frivolous and meagerly calculating" is more than sufficient to secure the deference of others.

Jodi Lu HA! now, if that was true i wouldn't be single!! (::making my most "striking" face:: =) ) but thanks for the fun chat; maybe your opinions will shift. i'm not saying she needs to be some perfect heroin to evoke my commiseration; i'm just saying there's absolutely nothing about her personality that stirs me to anything but contempt: she's an adopted nyc rich girl who is insatiable despite her privileged life. that doesn't make or break the book for me at all--i like the book lots, that's a whole different matter!!--it's just a bonus when i'm into the characters of course and i feel like this was so much melodrama for such an annoying person. i like that in age of innocence and ethan frome, the lovers are so childish and impotent and awkward. it's just a preference. clearly lily bart is all these things as well, but it's so cold and proud that i'm not endeared. plus she's not a lover in any sense. plus that three times, actually, for all those suitors of hers.

message 8: by Laura (new)

Laura One can feel sympathy and not share the same sin. Also, sometimes the characters inaction drives things forward like actions can. What is not done can also be moral or immoral.

The House of Mirth is mostly a critique of a society that creates women like Lily and then leaves them no recourse when funds/"the right friends"/proper marriage all evaporate. Eventually she is abandoned by the supposedly noble do-gooders and her fellow sinners, all whom live in far more hypocrisy than she.

She's far from perfect, in fact as you mention she's a bitch. But literature is supposed to confront you with imperfect, amoral creatures who who make mistakes and fail as often as it presents morally just heroes.

Lily is really a very good girl(and yet she is punished because she choses not to cheat!) she tries to please everyone: Selden, society, her debtors. She trips up. This is understandable because she is woman who has been raised in the expectations of New York society. It is impossible for her to gain any true independence. She cannot work and still keep the pleasures she loves. She must enter the glided cage of marriage or be working class and denied her former life of status. There is no formidable grandmother in this story to give her monetary independence. No sickeningly sweet and socially blessed cousin May to gently prick Lily in the right direction.

It's a pity you dislike her so much. You probably hate Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus and other such tragic figures. I would venture to guess with impunity, my dear puritanical Jodi Lu, that you don't support charity for stupid people who make bad decisions. Indeed, sympathy and charity must be reserved only for the very deserving sinners or poor.

Lily is a reflection of a part of humanity(our own humanity). That's why she makes us angry and uncomfortable. She reveals the parts of ourselves we hide.

Jodi Lu wow, i think you are first misunderstanding, then grossly extrapolating, while all the while patronizing...but what else are we here for--yay!! laura, i have no absolute aversion to general miscreants, liars, addicts, thieves, unfortunate souls, fat people, adulterers, smelly and non-smelly pariahs or any other "tragic figures" per se, in literature or in life. you'd see (albeit i like to think wholly incidental) evidence of this in many of my other reviews as well as in my intimate circle of 3-D pals. as far as "sharing the same sin" as lily bart, i wouldn't call her a sinner at all (i don't know that i can imagine ever having called anyone that) but if you are implying that i only identify with people who have similar vices to myself, that's just silly and untrue, though i have no video footage at hand. also, i'm not sure when/if i said inaction was a negligible consideration in character assessment. as far as "moral and immoral," this is the wrong site for that stuff and has no bearing on my opinions of this book, or on much of anything for me, actually. i'm ONLY saying i don't like lily bart as a character in this book, in the way she is framed within the story. i'm saying that the book seems to be crafted around a character whose fate i'd be more concerned with and, as an often-patient reader, i just tire of her situation and way at times, certainly not b/c i hate people who don't share the same trials as myself, but b/c i don't like feeling a glaring disconnect between my personal focus in a novel and the one i feel the writer has intended for me. on a more basic level, i think i just disagree with you on the nature of the character. i don't see lily as particularly victimized by much of anything. i believe she dismisses more people than she is dismissed by and i don't think she is incapable of independence either: she has much power and many options. i believe i opened this can of worms with my earlier use of the word "redemptive." to clarify, i didn't mean redemptive in some sort of objective religious/moral way, i more accurately meant that she doesn't REDEEM herself as a dynamic-enough character in this specific role for ME to care what happens (or doesn't) to her. i didn't want her to go to church for being a bitch; i only wished she'd been a little more interesting to follow. again, i love edith wharton and i really liked this book. i'd like to direct you to the positive review i gave it myself, which re-states some of this. but for the record, i don't cower from lily bart b/c there's a little bit of lily bart festering in my own callous soul. really i just think wharton can and does do much better. with characters.

message 10: by Laura (new)

Laura Sorry. I was a bit patronizing.
As far as admiring/empathizing/liking Miss Lily Bart we will have to disagree. I think she's a marvelous character.

What do you think of Emma Bovary?

Jodi Lu i didn't read madam bovary.

Dianna Keep in mind that this was Wharton's first novel...right?

message 13: by Alan (new)

Alan I never finished this one.

message 14: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Ha! I wondered if I was seeing things, but you nailed it

message 15: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa ... When you used the word ridiculous for some of her descriptions. You also called them Gothic. I saw it, too! It would shock me! Some really trite sentences that I thought sounded like something a novice would write. Enjoyed the review...

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