I first read this book back when I was young and hoping to learn from novels what the world was like. Along with Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady, House of Mirth filled me with a horrified apprehension about the possible consequences of a woman's choice.
The scene is New York in the 1890s. Lily Bart, one of the most intriguing characters in all of literature, lives with the aunt who took her in after her mother's death. With only a tiny income of her own, Lily is dependent on her aunt's occasional gifts and on the generosity of her friends, who invite her to house parties, concerts, and dinners. She knows she must marry money if she wants to regain her footing in the affluent world where she and her parents lived before her father's untimely death. The task should be an easy one: Lily is extraordinarily beautiful and possesses all the social graces to attract and hold whomever she chooses. Yet here she is, 29 years old and almost on the shelf.
The problem is the streak of independence that she's had since childhood, the ability (or curse) to view her social world from the outside with a sardonic eye. We watch as she almost lands a wealthy young man, only to lose him at the last moment by sleeping in and missing church, which she had promised to attend with him. Selden, a young man on the fringes of her social life, shares and reinforces her tendency to look down on the amusements and vanities of her wealthy friends.
One member of my book club thought the story read like a Greek tragedy, with Lily brought down by a character flaw. Others thought that what keeps Lily from social success is not a flaw, but rather a personal integrity that puts her society friends to shame for their hypocrisy and narcissism. One of the great strengths of the book is Wharton's biting social commentary and astute assessment of people's motives. For instance, she says of a young couple: “. . . the two had the same prejudices and ideals, and the same quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them. This attribute was common to most of Lily's set: they had a force of negation which eliminated everything beyond their own range of perception.”
Another book club member mentioned that the book is described as a satire, though none of us thought it satirical at all. In our view, the book criticizes a society where wealth combined with the right attitude can purchase status and security, where a woman's options outside of marriage are limited to the penurious existence of a do-gooder, or a subsidiary role providing social advice, or a shady life among the demi-monde.
Lily should be annoying, with her constant scheming and her desire to achieve the life of wealth and privilege that her friends enjoy. Yet I could not help but feel for her, as she sabotages herself every time she stands on the brink of success, falling lower and lower through the shoals of society until the poor working girl she once patronized comes to seem an enviable symbol of happiness.
One scene that particularly affected me comes right at the beginning, when Lily enters Selden's bachelor apartment, with its stacks of books and innocent entertainments. He says, “‘My idea of success . . . is personal freedom.'” Lily wishes that she could have just such an independent existence, where she could arrange her own furniture and choose her own curtains. But of course such a thing is impossible for an unmarried woman. Reading this scene, in my own comfortable study, surrounded by my acres of books, I was profoundly grateful that I live in today's world. With all its flaws, our society at least has given me the freedom that Lily could only dream about.