Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is going to stay with me for a while. You just don’t see pure tragedy like the story of Lily Bart anymore. Some time in the last few decades, tragedy has been diluted to mean depressingly sad, it seems. But Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, comes to her sad end* because of flaws in her character as much as by her circumstances.
As book starts to get going, it would be easy to mistake the book for another Austen-esque quests for marriage. When we meet her, Lily Bart is 29 and considered almost on the shelf for a woman who has never been married before. She has no fortune of her own, and lives on the goodwill of her aunt and friends. She is beautiful and very well-liked in her circle. But after a friend (who fancies her) tricks her into taking money from him in the guise of dividends from investing her money, Lily keep finding herself in socially unacceptable situations with her friends husbands. One of those so-called friends uses the rumors that start to swirl around Lily as a chance to start wrecking revenge for a past slight. Eventually, Lily finds herself shunned and cut out of her aunt’s will. Things quickly go from bad, to worse, to impossible.
I kept expecting Lily, who the narrator and other characters praise for her ability to turn situations to her advantage, to find a way out of her difficulties, to return to society in triumph. But every time she had a chance to do so, it involved playing dirty and Lily just couldn’t bring herself to do it. While she sinks into poverty, there are some things–like blackmail and loveless marriage–that she won’t stoop to. And, of course, the one man who appears to genuinely loves her won’t sacrifice his place in society to do so. Thus, tragedy.
As I made my way through The House of Mirth, I was amazed at how innuendo and rumor could effectively destroy a person. Reputation is important even now, but not to the extent that it was in Lily’s day. It was amazing that Lily could let herself get caught up in situations where she was effectively distracting one woman’s husband while that woman conducted an affair or visiting a man alone in his house around midnight. After all, she’d spent over a decade playing by her society’s rules. She was strangely oblivious to how bad things would look from outside her own perspective. I wanted to take her aside and try to wake her up to what was happening around her.
I wonder if the original audience of this book knew to expect a tragedy or if they, like me, kept waiting for a white knight or a self realization that would turn everything around. Would that audience have known that there was no going back once a girl had been associated with ruin?
* The House of Mirth was published in 1905, so no calling spoilers.