The novel's swift-moving plot is a blessing and a curse -- immensely readable but at times stretching belief. The core of the novel -- a quirky and coThe novel's swift-moving plot is a blessing and a curse -- immensely readable but at times stretching belief. The core of the novel -- a quirky and colorful family of landed gentry and their neighbors -- keeps the reader engaged. In a clever device of storytelling, a strong "behind-the-page" voice makes the narrator as much the protagonist as the "true" protagonist, her cousin. Much is to be admired in the novel's observational humor concerning, and sly criticism of, among other things: gender norms; rural English society; politics; and the mood in England and Europe leading up to and during World War II....more
Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton's stunning first novel, is introduced to the reader as a young woman traveling within high society. WhileLily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton's stunning first novel, is introduced to the reader as a young woman traveling within high society. While her blood and wealth may place her on the fringe of that society, her "pale" beauty (as it is continuously characterized throughout the novel) elevates her within its ranks. Lily is marriage material. And within Manhattan's high society at the turn of the century, women are meant to marry; and in order to marry women are meant to maintain a reputation of "pale" innocence (indeed, they must).
Lily hesitates to question these two fundamental rules that bind her, save on rare occasion in conversation with Lawrence Selden, the man it seems she would marry if the choice were hers, and who stands far enough outside Lily's circle to critique that circle from an apparent distance. Selden, however, presents Lily with several problems. First, Selden himself is hardly able to separate himself from the rules of Manhattan society, even if he so desired to or so imagined the independence of his perspective. Second, Selden serves as preacher, counselor, and sounding post to Lily with respect to the pitfalls of high society, but while Selden's efforts to take high society off its pedestal strike a chord with Lily, and indeed echo many of her own thoughts, Selden never presents Lily with a viable alternative to the only circle (and the only set of rules) she knows.
The final problem that first emerges from the relationship between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden is the crux of the novel and the launching point for several shrewd insights Wharton compellingly places within the American cultural dialog, as extant within the novel. Lily couldn't marry Selden if the choice were hers. (And, perhaps ironically, she likely would not, in any case, as Selden lacks the most essential thing men in high society bring to a marriage -- money.)
Like any fully painted character in a great work of fiction, Lily Bart is a woman of substantial intellectual and emotional force. Indeed, given the degree the reader is aware of the goings on inside Lily Bart's head, it can be surprising to step back and remember the novel's narrated in the third person.
Lily, viewed in isolation, is more than situated to grab control of her life if that control were hers to grab. But because she does not live in isolation, control is not hers. Her will is usurped at almost every turn by the societal forces around her; which among other things make her will all but moot. While an argument could be made that Lily has a knack for making choices that reflect upon her poorly, she is defined nonetheless, and far more, by the perceptions of those around her than by any sense of self she seeks to, or by happenstance does, affirmatively present to the world. And in light of the rules that constrain her, her reputation -- never in her hands -- spirals downward as the novel progresses, most often, again, via external rather than internal forces. Absent her reputation intact, that Lily is meant to marry becomes meaningless. Her purpose and place within Manhattan's high society slip from her hands as, trying at least to retain her dignity, she chooses not to act on her own behalf when the opportunities are before her and otherwise, and perhaps always, lacks the choice to act on her own behalf as a byproduct of her social milieu.
The House of Mirth is remarkably tragic. At times, it feels as though too much is going wrong for Lily Bart a little too often. But the totality of the narrative, and Wharton's prose, combat what may be the novel's single shortcoming. Wharton's novel surfaces from many contexts. Two are telling, or at least were to me upon reading The House of Mirth. First, Lily Bart retains her outer beauty throughout the greater part of the novel, despite her internal struggle to maintain a grip in the face of near free fall. Her inner world, as she feels it, and as others perceive it, becomes dark as her "pale" beauty persists. Sadly, her inner life is all but wholly divorced from her outer reality. Thus, in Lily Bart's unfortunate transformation within the novel the saliency of maintaining superficial appearances is brought to the thematic forefront. A theme present in both The House of Mirth and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray -- cast differently, but not without similarities. Second, The House of Mirth shines a bright light of reality upon Transcendentalism. At minimum, Wharton illustrates that self-determination and self-reliance are one thing when you're living in a cabin in the woods, growing beans, and contemplating existence during solitary sojourns around Walden Pond, but quite another in the company of others -- particularly a circle of others fixated upon a set of mores or, more strictly, rules. Reaching further, perhaps, Wharton exposes a stark line between the wherewithal of men and women in American society to "go Thoreau". In other words, The House of Mirth may temper Transcendentalism by portraying the profound influence of the company one keeps on reaching into oneself and, beneath that, the harsh reality of being a woman within that company.
The House of Mirth is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century....more
In short: If you are a left-leaning lawyer, do not bother with this book. But if you are an educated non-lawyer, seriously consider reading it.
TheIn short: If you are a left-leaning lawyer, do not bother with this book. But if you are an educated non-lawyer, seriously consider reading it.
There is much to praise in No Equal Justice, which chronicles the legal landscape of American criminal justice one topic at a time -- searches and seizures, right to counsel, the death penalty, etc. -- and details how policy, and especially law, that purports to be racially neutral is in effect racially unequal and, concomitantly, unfair to the poorest Americans. To left-leaning lawyers, like this reviewer, Professor Cole is preaching to the choir as he tells the tale of criminal justice law from the Warren Court to the present. If he offered more to such a reader -- and left-leaning lawyers are most certainly the typical readers of this book -- than reaffirmation of the reader's belief that numerous criminal justice cases have been wrongly decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent decades, he might present something new. But, to its typical readers, No Equal Justice does not offer something new. While Professor Cole is compelling in telling a tale of legal history and portraying the social costs of shifts in the law, his last chapter -- "Remedies" -- proffers nothing but fluff. Granted, I do not know how to remedy the problems Professor Cole discusses -- the problems of inequality in the American criminal justice system. But I am also not a law professor at a top law school purporting to feed the reader possible solutions. In the end, Professor Cole leaves readers of my ilk where they were in law school. Feeling that cases A-Z were wrongly decided. And sketching time machines in their case notes, hoping for the power to leap back years and change outcomes.
What is unfortunate about what is good in Professor Cole's book is that, for educated non-lawyers, what is good here is likely eye-opening. And for such readers what Professor Cole provides -- a core understanding of the problems he addresses from a legal perspective -- is significantly informative. Professor Cole demystifies seminal cases that have had a profound impact on the American criminal justice system, largely in a manner educated non-lawyers will get. Still, even to these readers, Professor Cole simply presents another lens through which to view the problems that weigh down upon the American criminal justice system and select classes of American citizens. Nothing in the way of remotely concrete solutions. Laudable, but incomplete. And perhaps not accomplishing even this much, unless the book is brought to the attention of a broader readership....more