First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. Lily Bart, beautiful, witty, and sophisticated, is accepted by “old money” and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears 30, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her life in the luxury she has come to expect. While many have sought her, something—fastidiousness or integrity—prevents her from making a “suitable” match.
Love? Or money? You’ve read this story approximately 3,472 times before. But I encourage you to read it again.
Lily Bart, a Manhattan socialite at the beginning of the 20th century, must choose between love and money. It’s a seemingly tired plot, though truly it is not. Because nowadays the question is not love or money? The question is both please? in extra large quantities if possible? Somehow in the past hundred years, love and money have been concatenated. Simply consider recent trends: the greatest romance of the 2000s was that of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, a romance that convinced many women to fight for it all—a man that can both capture your heart and wallpaper his 20,000 square foot mansion with dollar bills. Love is money; money is love.
But for Lily Bart, that is not so. It is a choice, a crucial choice, and not as easy as any romantic would make you believe. The most interesting part of the love/money dichotomy has always been what these choices represent. Love is not just throbbing hearts and flushed cheeks; love is morality and goodness. And money is not just an estate on Long Island, a mansion in Newport, an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and a yacht harbored at Monte Carlo; money is corruption and superficiality.
So Lily is actually choosing who she wants to be. And for her, that’s incredible. The fact that this impulse to consider love in a marriage still remains is impressive since her parents tried to beat it from her brain with silk dresses and fifteen course luncheons galore. But Lily is a deeply frustrating character. Wharton thwarts her at every turn; whenever it seems that she might recover, that she might make a good decision, she is thrown back to the wolves, that is, the shallow and noxious New York socialites. Her struggle for love, faith, and freedom figures heavily on fascinating gender dynamics. As a woman, her choices are already constrained, but she admirably works as hard as she can against the opposing forces. She’s heroic but far from a hero.
Lily is brilliantly characterized, which is no surprise since Wharton’s greatest strengths seem to be characterization and writing. Her writing is dense, every word placed so carefully in order to complicate these characters (For instance, this description of a tertiary character: …Young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles and later, in a delightful dispatch of depressed youth, Ned Silverton was probably smoking the cigarette of young despair in his bedroom.) It’s hilariously pithy, especially about money: “I know there’s one thing vulgar about money, and that’s the thinking about it; and my wife would never have to demean herself in that way.” Wharton’s words require some sifting through, but they are beautiful.
Depending on interpretation, The House of Mirth answers, somewhat answers, and doesn’t answer the question of love or money. It’s romantic while being completely unromantic. If you read it, do tell me what you think of the ending. I still can’t decide what I think about it.