Set in New York in the 1890s, the House of Mirth is an unflinching look at the ruthless exile of the doomed Lily Bart. Lily is an amazingly pretty and charming socialite. Because she has a taste for the finer things in life, but no means of attaining them, she plans to marry well. “I’m horribly poor—and very expensive,” she says. To this end, Lily, a master of grace and artifice, curries favor with the Fifth Avenue elite to attain wealth and power, comfort and ease. The House of Mirth displays Wharton’s incomparable gift for blending tone and subject matter, as well as her incisive yet sympathetic understanding of human nature and, in particular, the failure of imagination that often lies at the root of spiritual wreckage.
Name that tone
At times Wharton is wickedly satirical and belly-laugh funny, as she is here, describing Lily’s quest to marry Percy Gryce:
She must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.
But the real magic of Wharton’s tone is her dazzling ability to combine narrative objectivity with a real sense of feeling for Lily’s anguish. Because Wharton treats her characters with sympathetic detachment, we readers observe, like spectators enthralled, the vast social machinery and suffer Lily’s desperation and horror as her prospects are slowly threshed to nothing. Throughout The House of Mirth, Wharton’s prose sparkles with the “cold precision of a winter dawn,” to borrow one of her images.
A testament to Wharton’s storytelling ability is her deft handling of Lily’s hopeful but ultimately fragile psyche. Wharton presents a self that contains many contradictory thoughts and feelings. Lily Bart is a deeply confused yet entirely human person, more human, in fact, than any character I can readily think of in literature, which goes a long way in explaining the grandeur of the novel. A bewildering complex of hope and fear, pride and shame, conscience and indignation, Lily self-consciously manipulates others’ egoism and vanity to advance her own position in society. She loves to be seen and heard, and thrills at the joy and pleasure she gives others by being a charming object of art.
Of course, when you live by appearances, you run the risk of dying by them, too. So when a manufactured scandal tarnishes her reputation, Lily is “unsphered in a void of social non-existence.” To her horror, she discovers a self without substance. She has no pieties or traditions to fall back on, no intimacy with nature to strengthen her, and precious few friendships to guide her. Worst of all, Lily lacks imagination. The devastating truth of Lily’s private life is that she is unable, not unwilling, but simply unable to reconceputalize her life along new lines. “The utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting.” Without the foundation of her usual life to support her, Lily loses footing, and we watch a slow-motion slide through nervous exhaustion to a kind of spiritual evacuation so complete that it doesn’t really matter whether she dies by accident or suicide. She was already long gone.