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Book Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Book Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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“...whichever way she looked she saw only a future of servitude to the whims of others, never the possibility of asserting her own eager individuality.”

I picked up The House of Mirth from our library’s book sale last fall, and I started it in January. This classic was one I would pick up every now and then and read a few chapters, but the story line never completely drew me in, so it took me almost 3 months to finish it. I think of all Edith Wharton’s books, The Age of Innocence is her most famous, so at some point, I do want to read that one. I did enjoy The House of Mirth, although it ended not at all how I thought it would. I was expecting more of a Jane Austen experience while reading this, so I was completely caught off guard by the ending. The House of Mirth is a satirical look at New York society right after the turn of the century and focuses on Lily Bart. Lily is unmarried at (gasp!) 29 and has her sights set on several different men to marry. But every time she gets close to a proposal or engagement, drama and hijinks ensue, and she ends up losing out on a potential partner.

When we first meet Lily Bart, she is at the height of her popularity in New York society. She visits with her friend Lawrence Selden, and we both see how attracted they are to one another. However, Selden does not make enough money to support Lily’s lifestyle, plus he is not ready to get married. So Lily determines to make a go of it with Percy Gryce, a quiet but wealthy man. However, when Lily blows off an outing with Gryce to spend time with Selden, Gryce ends up proposing to someone else. Lily is not too concerned about it; she is still extremely popular and quite the catch. As she spends time with Judy Trenor and her husband Gus, Lily feels more at ease with her decisions and knows that someday she’ll marry wealthy. However, all the time that Lily spends with the Trenors gives Gus a different idea. When she asks Gus to invest some money for her, Gus actually uses his own money and expects certain things in return from Lily. When Lily refuses those things, she is cast away from the Trenors and still owes Trenor money.

After the social setback with the Trenors, Lily moves back in with her aunt for a few weeks before she gets an invitation to travel to Europe with the Dorsets. Bertha Dorset and Lily do not really get along, but Bertha wants Lily to come along so she can distract her husband George from Bertha’s extracurricular affairs. But yet again, things go awry, and Lily is left with no social prospects. So she returns to her aunt’s house, but as her aunt is ashamed of Lily’s scandal, she rewrites her will and leaves Lily with only ten thousand dollars. Which coincidentally is just the right amount to pay off Lily’s debts to Gus Trenor. As Lily is forced to seek employment to cover her living expenses, she becomes depressed and begins to take medicine to sleep better. However, when she visits Selden for the last time, he realizes they could be happy together, but before he has a chance to tell her how he feels, SPOILER ALERT, she takes too much of the medicine and overdoses.

I was completely shocked to find The House of Mirth did not end happily like a Jane Austen classic. And maybe I should not have been shocked considering the back of the book says, “It is a comedy of manners that turns into grim tragedy…” I did enjoy The House of Mirth, but I did find the lead-up to the major scandals a bit slow, and as Wharton wrote this in 1904, stories tended to move at a slower pace. However, this classic fell a little flat for me. But I did see that they made a movie in 2000 with Gillian Anderson as Lily and Laura Linney as Bertha. So I will absolutely be watching that. Laura Linney is a national treasure. Overall, I enjoyed The House of Mirth and give it 3.5 stars.

What classics do you love?

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