Friday, May 30, 2014

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

How do you feel about Lily Bart, the central character in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton? What kind of person do you think she was? I use the past tense in referring to her (spoiler alert!) as she dies at the end of The House of Mirth. What did Wharton intend by having Lily die? Our book group found much to discuss when we tackled the novel last week. I felt it was one of our more focused discussions.

While Wharton's second novel, the one that earned her initial fame, can be called a classic, it is not guaranteed to be liked by readers. At least two of our group thought Lily was irredeemable. Most of us thought that there were very few characters to like in the book. Readers have to look hard to find good points for many of the men and women in this society novel, but I think they are there, especially for Lily. I think her failure to carry through on some of her schemes to land a wealthy husband were subconsciously conscience-driven. Sadly, she never achieved anything good for herself.

While reading I realized that The House of Mirth can be cast as a prequel to The Great Gatsby. There were more self-made millionaires invading society by the time of Gatsby, and Wharton heralded their coming twenty years earlier. By the time of Gatsby and the Jazz Age, the refined cover over the emptiness and cruelty of high society had been removed.

The characters, the story, the historical setting, and the life of the author all led to a lively discussions. Keep The House of Mirth in mind for the classic fiction slot in your book club's schedule. If you do choose it, suggest your members keep their own scorecard of characters. There are many of them. 

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905.

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