House of Mirth a House of Love, Scruples, or Selfishness?

January 10, 2012 at 4:38 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Title: The House of Mirth

Gillian Anderson in the 2000 Major Motion Picture of The House of Mirth

Author: Edith Wharton

Publisher: Barnes & Noble

Genre: Classic Literature

Length: 277 pages

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My all time favorite questions when reading literature are: What is this character’s perception of love? What is the author telling us their own view of love is? And after reading this how do you view love? To quote Moulin Rouge: “Always this ridiculous obsession with love!” But it drives so much, and please forgive the pun, it is truly at the heart of every matter. So in reading The House of Mirth, my driving questions throughout the book have been: What is Lily Bart’s perception of love? What is Wharton trying to tell me about her own worldview concerning love?

Truth be told, I’m not sure what the answer is. She and Selden seem to have this constrained but meant-to-be-doomed-so-impossible love affair. “Ah, love me, love me—but don’t tell me so “? she tells him. She refuses Rosedale and all his money because she doesn’t love him. A lesson in morality from the beautiful Lily Bart? I’d say yes, except that she doesn’t run into the sunset with Selden when offered because he can’t support her lifestyle and she also seems to enjoy stringing Rosedale along, “the first sincere words she had ever spoken to him” not being voiced until very near the end of the book. So what is it Miss Bart? Money or love?

In the end, I have to say I think Lily is truly attempting to stand her moral ground but endlessly falls short via her own selfishness. Wharton would have you believe that this is an early stage of love, as she described Selden’s “impassioned self-absorption that the first surrender to love produces.” However, by the definition taught to me, selfishness is the direct opposite of love. 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 tells us,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Neither Lily nor Selden seem to manage to maintain, much less attempt, these characteristics.

The dichotomy of Lily Bart is a fascinating one, probably one of the many reasons this book has been deemed a classic. One essayist wrote: “Lily’s distinction lies precisely in her ability to transcend such crude ambitions” as using her beauty to marry for money (Lahoucine Ouzgane). Wharton herself writes,

And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?

Many believe this to be a tragic love triangle between Selden, Lily, and the nature of capitalism. Some people believe the work is Wharton making a statement about love, the nature of her own marriage, and the internal struggles she herself felt during the age. But what is The House of Mirth to you? Read it and find out. No matter what you discover of Lily, you won’t regret the experience, Wharton’s prose is lovely.

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1 Comment

  1. Best Book Boyfriends of 2012 « Anakalian Whims said,

    […] don’t recall the characters in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  Regardless of what I thought of the book when I read it, no one in it made a […]

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