Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: The House of Mirth

About 10 days ago, I finished reading The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton. A classic in American realist fiction, it is considered a "novel of manners," meaning that it has to do more with the upper classes and negotiates issues of inner conflicts between social expectations and personal desires. About an hour ago, I finished watching the film version of the book released in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson. The image above comes from the movie and shows one of the most beautifully filmed scenes, with Anderson strolling in the afternoon sun along the water.

The title comes from the Biblical book of 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." The implication here is that a sober, temperate household gives solace in the long run, whereas wealth and society, although enjoyable, are actually a false face for ignorance and stupidity. (I still wouldn't mind a little mirth...just to experience the misery, of course.) Wharton's novel is about Lily Bart, a socialite raised by her aunt in Gilded Age New York. She is an astounding beauty, and everyone expects her to make a successful (i.e., wealthy) marriage, but despite previous offers of marriage and gestures of love, Lily, now 29-years-old, is at a crux: she needs to marry soon or she never will marry at all. The problem is that she secretly is in love with Lawrence Selden, a lawyer who floats in and out of the upper-class circles, but never fully a part of it. As a result, he's not officially of their world, so he never could make her truly happy in the way she was raised to believe she should be. Readers of my reviews know that I don't like revealing much of a story's plot (I really detest when other people do that), so I won't reveal more of what happens. However, I will provide a few ideas to whet your appetite: gambling debts, secret letters, illicit affairs, potential blackmail, attempted rape, and fashionable Gilded Age houses in New York and Newport, as well as yachting in Monte Carlo. In short, Wharton got it all, and she knew all about it first-hand. She was raised in a wealthy New York family of old money that did everything the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers did from the 1880s to World War I. With all of that action going on, her novel reads almost like a soap opera. Almost. Its realist strain actually keeps it from slipping into melodrama, which is probably one of the reasons why it's such a fantastic book.

Wharton writes witty dialogue, almost like an Oscar Wilde platitude, but with a sharper edge. Her characters have a psychology that helps you understand their actions, even if you cannot identify with them from our perspective in 2009. Upper-class women are meant to marry and, well, that's about it. They're not really seen as being able to do anything else. Another example is in a scene where Lily makes a charitable donation, and she's startled by how good it makes her feel about herself, not to mention that she has helped a poor woman. We forget that social reform for the underprivileged and working classes took a very long time to impact the upper classes. Social Darwinism ran the gamut of society, whereby people believed that the privileged were better and deserved their wealth, whereas the poor were obviously in their lot because they were lazy and did not deserve help. (We'd like to think the world has changed since then.)

From a literary perspective, however, I think I appreciate even more the way Wharton integrates descriptions of settings with the psychologies of her characters. It makes for incredible reading. Here's an example of what I mean (pages 43-44 of my Barnes & Noble paperback edition of the book):

The windows stood open to the sparkling freshness of the September morning, and between the yellow boughs she caught a perspective of hedges and parterres leading by degrees of lessening formality to the free undulations of the park. Her maid had kindled a little fire on the hearth, and it contended cheerfully with the sunlight which slanted across the moss-green carpet and caressed the curved sides of an old marquetry desk. Near the bed stood a table holding her breakfast tray, with its harmonious porcelain and silver, a handful of violets in a slender glass, and the morning paper folded beneath her letters. There was nothing new to Lily in these tokens of a studied luxury; but, though they formed a part of her atmosphere, she never lost her sensitiveness to their charm. Mere display left her with a sense of superior distinction; but she felt an affinity to all the subtler manifestations of wealth.
Clearly Lily Bart likes the good life. From the way Wharton describes the morning sunlight to how Lily appreciates the breakfast tray, we understand Lily's feelings upon waking up that morning, this after her distress the night before in discovering how little money she has left in her purse. Of course all of this makes for a great literary technique, for it only highlights how far the story turns dark and spiral downward.

The character of Simon Rosedale is intriguing from a social perspective. He represents the nouveau riche in New York society, struggling through his money to gain entrance into high society. Of course they all despise him for it, but the more he flashes his money, the more he gets in. What makes him even more intriguing is that he's Jewish, which is really why he's a pariah to everyone, including Lily. Carry Fisher is probably my favorite character. Here is a woman who knows how to work society, jumping from family to family when she knows the waters are getting hotter in one camp and she needs to spend time in another. She is the most forthcoming character in the book, holding little back and speaking her mind with all practical wisdom. I think she knows more about everything than Wharton lets on, which makes her seem more like a puppetmaster to me. As for poor Gerty Farish, she's got a good heart, but she's a marshmallow. I'm convinced she's a lesbian. In fact, I'm almost certain Lawrence Selden has homosexual tendencies as well. He surrounds himself with aesthetic luxury a bit too much for a single man, and he seems ever so reticent about committing to anyone. Well, any woman. Alas, I wish I could say I liked Lawrence, or even Lily, but sometimes I found myself so frustrated by them that I wanted to scream and slap them. Then again, I think my reaction says much about Wharton's power as a novelist.

As for the film version, I'm not going to say very much. The costumes and the settings are spectacular. It's a visual feast for the eye. Gillian Anderson (yes, of The X-Files) works as Lily Bart. She does fit the role perfectly in terms of what defined a beautiful woman at that time. However, I wasn't always convinced by her acting. Actually, I wasn't crazy too much about anyone's acting (Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, and Anthony LaPaglia are also in the movie). For that, I blame the director and writer Terence Davies. I was struck over and over by how much the film seemed like an episodic splicing of scenes from the book. The whole first hour just picked at parts, without ever giving the viewer a real sense of what defined these characters. There was a conscious attempt to follow Wharton's novel closely, but then why do things like merge two characters into one? Why change Lily's presentation in a tableau vivant from a portrait by Reynolds to one by Watteau, when Wharton spent so much time emphasizing Lily's choice of posing as the model in the work by the British artist? It doesn't make any sense. The movie does get better after the first hour, though, so it's worth holding on and watching it. Still, if you're going to make a movie based on a book, in order to be a success it needs to stand on its own as an interpretation with a theme or an idée fixe or something. I'm not convinced the film version does this. (Click here to see a trailer for the film.)

So all in all, the film was all right, but if you're interested in finding out more, than I recommend you skip the movie and read the book. You'll feel rewarded for it. That said, I think it's only fair that I confess that, as much as I enjoyed reading the book, I did not always like it. In fact, when it was over, I wasn't even completely sure I was glad I had read it. I thought about this quite a bit, and I realize now that the best way to describe my feelings is to say that I'm frustrated by the novel, both as a reader and as a writer myself. But I also see now what an amazing book Wharton wrote, because for the past 10 days, the book has stayed in my mind, haunting me at times. I find myself considering my own financial plight as a student trying to live la dolce vita in New York City, wondering about my own future and whether that cappuccino and scone at Dean & DeLuca is worth $6.81. I find myself wondering how our society 103 years after this novel is still struggling to maintain the idea of the high life, especially now when a recession is affecting each of us. How will that turn out? But even more, I keep thinking about Lily Bart, as a character and as a person. You may or may not like her. You may or may not pity her. But you will have to recognize that she has a psychology and a survival instinct that is all her own, and perhaps that is what everyone should hold onto, no matter the consequences of one's decisions in life.


luca said...

Dear Roberto,
I am so glad you enjoyed The House of Mirth, which is among my favourite novels ever. When I read it I was struck by the social meaning of being "29", which was supposed to be a sort of watershed between what was still possible and what had not been. I am not sure I can agree with you as to Selden, but I can assure you that Dean & De Luca are worth the value when you are there with the right person. :)
Yes, the movie is quite disappointing, I know it was shot in Scotland, which is displacing for such a naturalist as I am! There is a marvellous sequence, though: the sunlight reflecting on the seawater, which is a proper "watershed" in itself between the old (new) world and the new (old) world. Splash!

paulran said...

Some fun tidbits: According to Richard Guy Wilson, Harbor Hill (he just published a new monograph on the house) built for Clarence Mackay inspired the country house in the story. And apparently the grand parties at Harbor Hill were the prototype for the East Egg estate in The Great Gatsby.