My wife and I sat down to catch a movie on the big screen the other day. I’ve been disconnected from pop culture while in Berlin. This means that I have no idea what movies are coming out, what is anticipated, what is being remade. And so I was as shocked to see that they’re modernizing Mean Girls as my wife was offended that the movie’s tagline was, “not your mom’s Mean Girls.” Come on, 2004 was only… ok you know what let’s not do that math.
Anyways, I don’t know if Edith Wharton would have considered herself a feminist, but I do know that the feminist canon has more than a few stories critiquing the tendency of patriarchy to turn women against each other. The House of Mirth is one of these stories. The novel follows Lily Bart (Lily for purity, Bart for boldness) and her tragic fall from the upper echelons of society. She’s 29 and beautiful but unmarried and with only sporadic income from her aunt. Lily looks to get married to cement her place in New York’s aristocracy, but her timing is awful, her decisions somewhat questionable, and her position in the pecking order simply too low. Lily is sabotaged repeatedly by a “friend,” Mrs. Bertha Dorset. Lily socializes with the wrong crowd, she dresses herself too provocatively, and takes money from a man that she believes to be her own investment earnings, but turns out to be a loan. Bertha sees in this an opportunity, and eventually falsely accuses Lily of sleeping with her husband in order to hide her own affair.
Bertha’s duplicity sets Lily on the road to ruin. Hearing salacious rumors of her behavior, Lily’s benefactor cuts her off and writes Lily out of her vast inheritance, leaving her only enough to pay her debts after a waiting period. Too proud to ask for help, and still too snobbish to seek it among the lower classes, Lily eventually finds work but is no good at it, becomes addicted to opiate sleep serum, and upon finally receiving her inheritance and settling her debts, overdoses a pauper.
The only light in Lily’s life was her friend Mr. Selden, who loved her when she didn’t love him, and who she loved once he had already moved on. The book’s pièce de résistance is the tragic scene where a waifish and malnourished Lily says goodbye to Mr. Selden, asking him to remember her as she was, and as she could have been. He comes around to love her again but too late. Lily’s fall is complete.
There are no heroes in the story, only villains. Lily is a victim of three immovable forces: Bertha Dorset’s society gossip, her own poor choices and timing, and a cannibalistic society of immense wealth designed to keep women down by having them trod upon each other. Wharton’s book is a scathing social critique of late 19th Century American upper class life. But the themes transcend these class boundaries as easily as they cross generational ones. We are not yet past the point where people will tear each other down and destroy each other just for the sake of a small, temporary personal gain. It’s a tragic tale, but the bigger tragedy is how it is nothing more than a mirror for what we’ve always been.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
A Room with a View
E. M. Forester