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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The House Of Mirth

Classic :           The House Of Mirth
Author :           Edith Wharton
Genre :             Fiction Satire Tragedy
Publishers  :     Bantam Classics
My Rating :     4.5/5

Edith Wharton wrote 'The House Of Mirth' as her fourth novel. Though it was written as a novel of manners, it is considered as a book of Naturalism in Literature. First published in 1905 , it was an instant success and is relevant even today, explaining why is it in the list of 100 Best Books Of All Times. Moving and poignant, satirical and insightful , romantic and tragic... it's a masterpiece. A Classic forever.
Plot
The book opens with an impulsive visit of the  heroine Lily Bart to the bachelor quarters of Lawrence Selden, a young man with whom Lily feels at ease. As Selden do not have a fortune Lily opts for a rich Millionaire Percy Gryce . But when Gryce is about to propose her, (due to another chance meeting with  the intellectual Selden) she snubs Gryce . At other occasions Lily works hard with perfection and traps desirably rich men even a prince but, invarably at the last moment she'd feel scornfully tired of the fake and superficial life around her and let the opportunity pass. Going down the social ladder, she innocently accepts money from Gus Trenor thinking it as an investment return while Gus was loaning her with lousy intentions. Bertha Dorset discards her publicly by falsely blaming her for adultery with George, Bertha's husband, in order to cast off attentions from her own disreputable affair.
All this reduces Lily's social reputation to ashes resulting in her Aunt Peniston disinheriting her and leaving her penniless. Her two friends, Gerty Farish and Carry are the only two left to care for her and advise her to marry soon. Depressed, disheartened by Selden's apparent apathy and struggling to make ends meet, she pays her inheritance to Gus Trenor as her debt payment and accidentally (?) takes overdose of chloral. Next morning Selden feels a surge of confidence about his feelings for Lily and goes to her apartment to propose but the beautiful and much desired Lily has been wilted.


ANALYSIS
As good as only a classic can be , the book is a heart wrenching story of Lily Bart and her doomed affair with Selden and life.
Lily's longing was to find  love with money which is still as hard to find as it was in her times.
While Percy, the Italian prince, Rosedale all were flowing with riches and social prestige, she was scornful of the men themselves as they were just a piece of decorative bloom in the social garden. She wished for that moral fiber, that substance in which even she was lacking and that was the reason she was inexplicably drawn towards Selden.
Selden is at the fringes of the story, like a ghost, invisible but present nonetheless. It's his  presence at the mental and emotional horizon of Lily which always made 'marriage into riches' a shallow and suffocating thought for her. Her conversations with Selden were moral guide to her frivolous and ephemeral life .

Selden once thought -
"That BEYOND! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus's task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda's chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden"


Lily started off as a delicate, whimsical, imprudent, ambitious, naive`, vulnerable, calculative, lazy and shallow girl but evolved into an intelligent, honest, generous and a very strong and spontaneous person. Her plight strikes a chord with modern readers as despite being so 'sought after' in the New York Gilded Age Society , she was still alone and 'above' its tides.

 She was always  enamoured by the aesthetic sense and comforts and was very sensitive towards beauty in its all forms ...from the shape of a leaf to the sparkle of a ruby and from the gleam of old furniture to the wave of the 'violets in a slender glass'

Intelligent - "Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievements"
and quick to get to the point - "....that after struggling to get them , I probably shan't like them? .......what a miserable future you forsee for me!" she saw the truth in these word!



image source
Rosedale  was described as the plump, rosy shrewd person of Jewish origin who was seriously courting Lily from chapter one till the last but, as Lily descended the social ladder, he ascended it and shrewdly put a condition in marrying  her. Despite being a shrewd business minded prosaic person, he got my sympathy as someone who was honest in his transactions with Lily and was genuinely concerned for her unlike GusJudy Trenor  or even Selden! 
It was ONLY Rosedale who found Lily incapable of the crime society had credited her for when even Selden was a apprehensive.

Writing Style

Wharton has dissected  the social upholstery baring it in its worst glory, with each fibre losing its sheen to the darkness of moral shame and each twist of relationships  twine fraying under the burden of deceit and pretense. The society is  emotionally bankrupt on the verge of ethical decline.
Wharton has wrote with lucidity and the intricate development among characters left me awestruck! With such a wide palette of characters not a single is unfinished, fake or overwhelming. She has so easily achieved  the feat of  weaving the narration with real life and emotions. Her words are shining like jewels in the sea of conflicting emotions, radiating luminescence on each wave of conflict, on each dilemma of passion.
Her language is picturesque in less words and have enough of satire and wit -
" Mr. and Mrs. Wetherall's circle was so large that God was included in their visiting- list."

The Theme


The theme of classicism, disparity, lack of ethics and intellect in the uber class and its effect on the lesser blessed is what makes the Book.People, like whom Lily wanted to be ,were clearly way down her on a moral and intelligence scale.The show ,glamour and status in which such people took false pride comes from vulgar money and ostentatious ancestral wealth which made them the high and mighty of social order in Lily's and everybody else's eyes but their life is a bejewelled husk . A person who carves for the seed and the fruits can not survive on the chaff. But what for those who want the best of both worlds? 

 People like Selden and Lily, are able to perceive the hollowness and aimlessness of a such animal existence; yet they clung  to it in their different ways  -  Selden in agreeing upon the societal image of Lily and not confronting her  regarding his doubts thus,following the general tide of societal buzz and Lily afraid of poverty and hardships not standing for herself, her image and in not honing the intellectual capabilities she had in her and lacking the zeal to work/learn and get release from being dependent. So , in the end both loses something dear to them because of not realising their basic instincts. Both could have adjusted a little , work a little more and could have gained both -- the heart's desire and physical comforts

A young worthy life thwarted brutally from blooming and another lost in dejection and perhaps guilt forever(That's why 4.5/5)


RELEVENCE
The book is relevant as the classicism, disparity, lack of ethics and intellect in the uber class is still the same. The aspiring wannabes are the same.
 The moral meter of the high and mighty is out of order even today and the only education most of the youngsters are getting is 'how to be well known socially , see our names in print/ screen and own an island before dying'. But Lilies of today need not die as they are professionally qualified and independent. This is the one option she never had-- the option of choosing  the marriage time, the groom and if one should marry at all. Today she could have taken her own time in waiting for Mr. Right or walking out of the Mr. Wrongs.That is,the independence of education and job.

Unfortunately Lily had no such choice. She was in the book symbolically bad in playing cards and used to lose every hand. Similarly, in life she was unlucky in not being able to stay above the poverty and shabbiness she so despised.

THE TITLE
 The title of the book has been taken from Ecclesiastes 7:4 : 

'The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth'
So Lily was the fool to keep her heart a house of mirth and  Selden with "....... a stoic's carelessness of material things and Epicurean's pleasure in them..." was the wise man though still he lost all in his dilemma.





5 comments:

  1. Great review, Kokila. Yes the modern women, unlike Lily, have more choices

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    Replies
    1. Well said, Kiran! Thank you for the visit and surviving this unedited long read, dear! :)

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  2. Very nicely reviewed Kokila! The story-line even proves its worth in current scenario. People still run after material contentment and often lose real mirth when it comes to choose.
    I've not read the book, but after reading your review, I feel the urge. :)

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  3. This detailed and perfectly structured, scholarly review reminds me of one of my favorite professors in the University..
    Very well done, makes me feel like reading the book on one hand but connotes on the other that this is it!!

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  4. Thanks for the book review Kokila !! I will surely mark this book in my reading list!!

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Your views and thoughts make this blog work ...Thanks a lot. :)

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