I didn’t realize when I read it what an outlier Ethan Frome is compared to the rest of Wharton’s work.
Well, I haven’t read all her work, so maybe that statement is uneducated and overblown, but imagine reading that bleak depiction of a hard-scrabble rural life and then popping over to The House of Mirth, where we follow New York City socialite Lily Bart about the drawing rooms, ballrooms, and restaurants of upper-class New York during the Gilded Age.
It’s a real jump.
Here’s the Goodreads synopsis of The House of Mirth, which will give you the gist if you haven’t read it:
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 thirty, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing, and to maintain her in the luxury she has come to expect. Whilst many have sought her, something – fastidiousness or integrity- prevents her from making a ‘suitable’ match.
I found Lily Bart to be as compelling a character as she is infuriating. Her decisions, based wholly on making herself into the woman her social set expects her to be, are maddening at times.
Her problem is one we can understand from a contemporary perspective. Lily is beautiful but she is getting older. She has refused a number of potential rich husbands having no real desire to be married to them.
As a contemporary woman, I get that. But I also have better choices than Lily had in her time. Even women of poorer classes during that time needed to marry well to cement or improve their social standing–or at least an acceptable standard of living.
But Lily’s story shows us what happens when a woman is raised to believe that her beauty is her chief social currency, and maintaining it her chief purpose, and that no other striving is necessary to land her the life she has been promised. As a woman in the 21st century, I have no problem relating to the themes within this struggle.
Lily doesn’t seem to want to marry any of the men who seek her out. Instead, she relies on an aging aunt to fund her increasingly expensive lifestyle.
But, Lily’s obsession with keeping up appearances and her set’s penchant for gambling lead her into some “dirty” business with Gus Trenor, husband of her friend Judy.
Gus, a known flirt/philanderer, wants too much in return for the favor he does for Lily and, in an unfortunate turns of events, the deal between them is revealed and Lily is cast out from her former friends’ circle.
From the outside, we see her lose more and more dignity as she seeks to preserve her social standing armed with only her beauty and wit.
And then we see the choices she is left with when they fail her.
She does have one true friend in Lawrence Seldon, who tends to see her for who she really is outside of her social machinations. Their interactions allow for points of hope throughout the novel in a sort of will-they-won’t-they dance that carries through to the end.
I won’t give away the ending. It is apt and terribly sad.
I also have failed to capture all the wonderful themes in this novel. It is a beast in that regard, so many threads to pull out and examine. I have no doubt I’ll reread it before long.
Do read it if you have any inclination.