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Update on "The House of Mirth"

August 24, 2010

For those of you who have had the pleasure of reading Edith Wharton’s wonderful The House of Mirth before, you probably understand why I am totally horrified by the backstabbing and double standards of old New York. This book is like watching a car crash: you don’t want to keep reading, but you can’t put the book down.

Lily Bart has got to be one of the most tragic of heroines in 20th century literature. She is caught between two worlds: the world of the rich and carefree, which is the world she was raised to be part of, and the world of the less-rich and less-carefree, which she disdains as “dingy” even though she secretly envies her cousin Gerty’s independence. It is an age where a woman’s marriage determines who she will be and what she will have, and one almost never marries for love. She knows that marrying well will end her money troubles and society’s whispers, but even though she has offers she still cannot bring herself to marry someone just for money. Nor will she marry someone who doesn’t have money, because she cares so much for luxury and things that are beautiful and would hate someone who could not give them to her.

The only society Lily has ever been a part of is full of morally bankrupt individuals who scorn real friendship and admire only wealth and pleasure-seeking. Married women and divorced women with money are able to do what they like, but Lily, who is unmarried and not wealthy, is subject to the severe scrutiny of her peers for every move she makes. Double standards run high in Lily’s circle. Her friends know she is not wealthy, yet she is expected to gamble at the same stakes they play at. She cannot be seen going into Selden’s apartment without scandal, but her married friends conduct affairs that are barely concealed from their spouses and are well-known throughout society. It’s just wrong!

I would not have lasted ten days in this time period. Women were not encouraged to be unique or let their true personalities shine through. Everyone ‘conformed’ or were cut by society, which was the kiss of death back then, and no one could ever say what they really thought. Spending time in the company of people as fake, vacuous and two-faced as Lily’s ‘friends’ are described would have sapped my will to live. She had no one to turn to except Selden and Gerty. I cannot imagine a more lonely existence than Lily must have had, and Wharton does such a great job of garnering the reader’s sympathy for Lily. I want to jump into this book and beat everyone that has been mean to her.

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