For a long time, I struggled with what I felt was a problem in Wharton’s style in The House of Mirth. Like Henry James, I think the novel is better written than composed. Because he and I really do belong in the same breath, I had better explain
Four classes of tropes are at work in The House of Mirth.
One class of tropes is associated with the exteriority of things. These images include glitter, flash, shade, sign, token, tinge, taint, tone, texture, and so on. Wharton frequently deploys them when she’s describing the bright shiny colors of the social kaleidoscope as it jumbles into new and refreshing patterns.
A second class of words and metaphors is associated with the vast structure of artifice, words like innuendo, dissimulation, indication, wile, and—my personal favorite—touch. It’s a tantalizing hybrid trope, as in a touch of warmth to the face (exteriority) or a literal touch, say, a squeeze of the arm, to cleverly get someone’s attention (artifice). This class of words is often used by Wharton to describe the masterful ease with which Lily manipulates herself so as to better manipulate others and gain favor with them.
A third class of tropes is associated with the marketplace, with Wall Street and commercial transactions: cost, debt, obligation, money, price, and, yes, even chance or mischance, because well-hedged bets often lose big.
Lastly, a fourth class of images is associated with the machinery of society: gears, cogs, pistons, wheels, and so on. These are exclusively used by Wharton to depict the cold pitiless mechanical workings of
So we have four classes of tropes. For brevity, I call them Exteriority, Artifice, Transaction, and Machinery.
Challenge is, Wharton’s tropes often overlap and interpenetrate in ways that require semantic nimbleness. Here’s a representative passage, which focuses on Lily’s role in distracting George Dorset from his wife’s bold infidelities:
She had been perfectly aware from the outset that her part in the affair was … to distract Dorset’s attention from his wife… It was the price she had chosen to pay for three months of luxury and freedom from care.
Lily’s a part or component (Machinery) of a larger mechanism with an ulterior purpose. Her role is to influence (Artifice) Dorset without his knowledge. And she pays a price (Transaction) for the benefits of a three month reprieve from financial worry. One of the finer aspects of Wharton’s prose is the fantastic ease with which she mixes different tropes without causing readerly indigestion.
Still, a problem lurks in Wharton’s style and composition. When you step back from the interlocking events of the story, and from individual passages and set pieces, and study the larger currents of meaning that ripple over the surface of things, any talented Mr. H. James will notice that some of Wharton’s overlapping tropes work at cross purposes, resulting in a conceptual/semantic muddle.
For instance, society is variously described under the aspect of Artifice or Machinery. Lily’s social ambition is advanced by dissimulation and innuendo, by scheme and skill, in a word, by the art of courtship and feminine grace. Artifice, then, is the realm of spontaneity and freedom, where plastic surfaces, like faces, clothing, laughter, and conversation, are artfully adapted to achieve intended effects. But this conception of society is at odds with Wharton’s other conception, namely, her view of it as a great civic machine.
Under the aspect of Machinery, she presents a world of cold mechanical necessity, where social rites and rituals click like gears and cogs in a system of inevitability. But you simply cannot, even if you’re one of the world’s most talented writers, simultaneously focus your narrative lens on agency, spontaneity, and creativity, on the one hand, and physical necessity and impersonality, on the other. You can’t have your Artifice and eat your Machinery, too.
They go clunk.