“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Ecclesiastes 7:4 (KJV)
This season of COVID-19 does have a few benefits. We have more time to read, to think, to be quiet. The Yoder house is running full speed all the time. However, during this season things have slowed down from necessity. Perhaps this post will motivate you to read more deeply during this season.
I’ve been on a literary vacation. It is with great delight, then, that I ended my vacation. I started reading again. I read Edith Wharton’s book entitled, “The House of Mirth”. Years ago, I used to read more regularly but it has been, oh, probably eight to nine years since I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading a classic.
I enjoy the classics. I enjoyed this book. This is the first time I’ve met Edith Wharton. She wrote and flourished during a time when women did not have the privileges and freedoms they do now. She broke through anyway. I’m glad she did.
This story is a critique of the upper social class. Wharton gives us an inside look at dysfunction, cruelty, and sadness. I’ll give you a brief synopsis of what I read. Enjoy…
Money or love?
This story follows the social and financial decline of a beautiful young woman named Lily Bart. The social circle in which Lily Barton runs is the wealthy and financially powerful. The setting is New York City at the beginning of the 20th century.
Lily is a woman who is fundamentally at the mercy of others. The reasons for this are twofold, she isn’t married and she doesn’t have money. While lacking these two assets, she does have emotional intelligence, wit, and beauty. Her assets are not enough to atone for her lack though. The culture demands conformity and will not yield on this. Lily is enjoyed and admired by others, but more as an ornament, a trinket. Her lack of a husband and money is not something society can forgive. These are the rules.
Why isn’t this beautiful twenty-nine year old woman married? She is undoubtedly beautiful and could be married. This question can be answered in a few ways. First, she cannot bring herself to marry a wealthy man, for wealth alone. She has an inner alignment to relational integrity. The rich are often dull-witted, gluttonous, and so shielded from pain they are oblivious to wisdom. She could have married Gryce and Rosedale, to name a few. They lacked appeal, social grace, and humility. So, while she could have married them, she didn’t.
The one man she really did love wasn’t wealthy. She could have married him but … he had no money. This was Lawrence Seldon. Lily thought of him as one who ran in upper echelon circles but kept apart from “them”. He kept himself intellectually and socially honest. He was her equal, maybe even her master if we can say that. She had genuine respect for him. But, her desire for money was stronger than her ability to yield to him.
These two dynamics kept her single. She wouldn’t compromise and marry a rich boor. She also couldn’t bring herself to marry for love alone. In spite of her distaste for hypocrisy, she was touched with it too. This conundrum is difficult to understand. While Lily correctly perceived the hypocrisy of the rich and wealthy, she nonetheless desired these things too! Yet, she couldn’t give herself to the game either. This left her in a no man’s land, with no guiding policy or direction. There was no salvation here – but she didn’t know this.
Leadership or confusion
One cannot help but be struck by a keen lack of leadership for Lily. She has no leader, no advocate. Time and time again, she needs help making decisions but there is nobody there. She is carried along by her passions and whimsy. Her emotional ups and downs are understandable but tiresome. The slightest social ‘win’ sends her to the heights. A social ‘loss’, though, doesn’t send her to depression.
She makes so many poor decisions. She goes into debt over playing cards. Who will help? She seeks out a shady character to invest her money in the market, Trenor. He is socially stupid and entranced by Lily. She manipulates him into thinking he is the one to help her. His requirement is her attention, her focus, and femininity. She dishes out just enough to keep him working for her. Indeed, her charms were very powerful and she could radiate femininity with great effect. But she is making promises she cannot keep. An unaware Trenor keeps asking for more and more. Lily cannot deliver.
Her lack of leadership causes social decline. She spends time with wealthy but manipulative people. She goes on a cruise. Her way is paid. Her role? Distract the party from dysfunction, namely, Bertha Dorset’s adultery. Lily’s social charms put George Dorset at ease while his wife sabotages the marriage. Lily is strangely complicit in the ruse. She understands intuitively what her role is. Bertha betrays her in a moment of truth. Lily takes the hit while Bertha escapes social ruin.
This scandal is followed by another hit. Lily is disinherited. Because she didn’t watch herself carefully, her rich aunt suspected her of foul play with Trenor. Additionally, through Lily’s careless treatment of her cousin Grace Stephney, she is repaid with rejection.
Example after example evidence Lily’s lack of leadership. She desperately needs someone to help her navigate society and point out her own foolish actions. Who?
Lawrence could be her leader and she knows it. Seldon had “the faculty of drawing out of the depths” her real “self” (pg. 85). He alone noted her desperate role on the cruise. He advised her at different times to take the better course of action. She couldn’t. She was confused. Her desire for money clashed again and again with her need for leadership. In the end, confusion carried the day. She remained in no man’s land, unable to choose and live.
Life or death
Lily is eventually at the end of her rope. She has no money, is a day-laborer, and lives in poor conditions. She has fallen with finality. She has a habit of drifting downward, declining compromise, drifting down, declining compromise, and drifting ever downward.
Even in her poverty there are flashes of generosity and virtue. She declines to scandalize Seldon in order to be restored to society’s graces. She declines to avenge herself on Bertha Dorset. She declines dishonesty. These are commendable moves on her part. These things leave the reader wishing she would have done better.
In all of these unfortunate circumstances, there is a pattern of poor choices. Yet, these choices aren’t blasphemous, they’re just poor. And, when confronted with real blasphemous things, she declines. There is no redemption, only a long drawn out decline.
Where to go? There is nowhere for her to go. Her wealthy “friends” won’t touch her. The friends that are real friends are not seen as such. Her wistful longing for that distant shore blurs her perspective. The orchids are overlooked in search of roses.
In the end, there is no path forward. Her salvation lies in yielding. She quarreled with Seldon near the end, driven by pride and stubbornness, she only hurts herself. She does not humble herself. He doesn’t either, in time. Each time salvation comes walking by, she is busy pursuing something else. She is lost in the midst of forces too complicated for her.
So, she is addicted to opium. Her nerves are a wreck, so bad she cannot sleep. The narcotics help her. The narcotics are her salvation – only – they do not really deliver. They leave her more dependent and rob her of her true self. One night, she takes a little more than usual. For a precious little time, she is kept awake by disconnected, frantic thoughts. It is that stage between fitful, nightmarish thinking and sleep. She balances for just a moment, takes the plunge, and falls to sleep, a sweet eternal sleep.
Edith Wharton wrote a very good book. She demonstrates keen insight into the emotional state of fear and social anxiety. Her skillful handling of Lily’s journey gives us understanding. We cannot commend a society that oppresses those who are weak. We see hypocrisy, cruelty, and oppression so clearly.