Thursday, 17 March 2011

The House of Mirth

Title: The House of Mirth

Author: Edith Wharton

Number of pages: 368

Started: 8 March 2011

Finished: 17 March 2011

Opening words:

SELDEN PAUSED in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart. It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.

Read the whole book here.

Plot summary:

Its heroine, Lily Bart, is beautiful, poor, and unmarried at 29. In her search for a husband with money and position she betrays her own heart and sows the seeds of the tragedy that finally overwhelms her. The House of Mirth is a lucid, disturbing analysis of the stifling limitations imposed upon women of Wharton's generation. Herself born into Old New York Society, Wharton watched as an entirely new set of people living by new codes of conduct entered the metropolitan scene. In telling the story of Lily Bart, who must marry to survive, Wharton recasts the age-old themes of family, marriage, and money in ways that transform the traditional novel of manners into an arresting modern document of cultural anthropology.

What I thought:

The first thing to say about this book is that you need to understand the context of the title. This book is not some whimsical tale, which is not to say that it is some depressing read, but don’t be misled by the title. The title comes from Ecclesiastes – “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”.

That said, in some ways this is quite a light book in places, but it is also the tale of a woman in New York Society that just does not get what it is that she wants out of life and ultimately her lack of judgement is her downfall.

It’s an interesting read, but one that I found a bit laboured in places. However, this is not my first choice of literature so it is not generally the sort of book that I would be automatically drawn to. I found the ending touching and a fitting end to the tale.


Sarah said...

I have The Age of Innocence on the shelf, but I think I will need to be in the right mood to read it.

Although I loved Ethan Frome, which is very brief. The brevity kept the narrative punchy and was a definite strength in that particular book. I wonder if I would enjoy a longer Wharton as much...

Random Reflections said...

Sarah - I have read the Age of Innocence and didn't like it at all. Not my sort of book.

I might give Ethan Frome a go though, particularly if it is short! Maybe I am moving slowly towards finding a bit of appeal in Wharton seeing as I deeply disliked The Age of Innocence and then having read The House of Mirth, didn't find that so abhorrent.