Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The House of Woe

"A sad tale's best for winter."


Sometimes I buy Library of America editions just to prod myself into reading someone I wouldn't usually seek out, and so it turned out with Edith Wharton. American prose fiction roughly between Twain and Faulkner has never been a favorite, and I can't abide Wharton's literary stablemate Henry James apart from his short stories (which limit his gratuitous and vague prolixity, something I might be said to know something about), but I decided to undertake The House of Mirth (I remember enjoying Ethan Frome in High School and The Age of Innocence when I read it some years ago).

It's not a prepossessing title (has "mirth" ever been in regular use, even in 1905?), and I find Wharton's style to be fastidious at best and precious at worst. And her metier, like James's, seemed to be writing about the superrich gallivanting around on permanent vacation; these characters had either to generate some drama or die of a cosseted boredom. But Mirth turned out to be worth it, largely of course thanks to protagonist Lily Bart.

Bart is intelligent, sensitive, and, we are repeatedly told, beautiful, but her tragic flaws appear to include a certain vagueness and passivity in her character, and an inability to go after or even fully recognize what she wants; she seems to float through the book, buffeted by her own occasional impulses and beckoned by rewards that finally provoke only distaste. She craves luxury and admiration, yet cannot enjoy them with a compliant conscience; she also craves respect (from herself and, for some reason, from the aloof and censorious Lawrence Selden), yet is unwilling to take the road not taken that might lead there. As she drifts and dreams, riches, esteem, and dignity all end up eluding her. As Wharton writes in this grimly diagnostic passage:

And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life. Her parents too had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts. She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood--whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties--it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving. Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily.

It occurs to me that what are now often spoken of as the sins of our time--self-indulgence, superficiality, triviality, rootlessness, relativism--have always been among us, but mainly in the persons of the rich. Our contemporary ills may be primarily those of prosperity: too much free time, too many diversions, and too much latitude for self-creation--or self-destruction. This manifests itself in bodies as well--Wharton repeatedly notes (and not in a good way) the corpulence of the rich, never quite concealed beneath the finery.

The book is also an interesting reminder that the problems of prescribed psychotropics long antedate benzodiazepines in the 1960's. Lily overdoses on what is described as "chloral," and I assume that means chloral hydrate, which is a very old hypnotic drug (synthesized in 1832), but one that we were still prescribing when I was a resident a dozen years ago. Misery and self-medication go back a long way, unfortunately.

Overall I commend The House of Mirth as a fitting midwinter read. Something to put aside for the next ice storm (results may vary, use as directed, and do not combine with Jude the Obscure--or chloral hydrate).


Retriever said...

Excellent review. Particularly the point about how vices formerly confined to the rich are now ours.
The passivity you describe is such a huge part of Age of Innocence as well. Maybe they were all on drugs more than they let on...

D. G. Myers said...


Next try The Custom of the Country. A devastating and on-target portrait of a narcissist. Wharton is even canny enough to use the word for her.