“The Whole Tragedy of Her Life”: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again.
The House of Mirth reminded me again and again of other novels. In Lily Bart I saw Gwendolen Harleth, proud and sure in her beauty and her certain good fortune until she learns she cannot in fact control her own fate; I saw Isabel Archer, similarly proud and sure and beautiful, then caught in traps set by people more subtle and more corrupt than she is; perhaps because I just read Vanity Fair, I also saw Becky Sharp, motherless, nearly friendless, determined to invest the capital of her wiles and charms where she will get the best return at the least risk. Lawrence Selden plays an off-center Deronda to Lily’s conscience, which like Gwendolen’s is capable of a saving (but paradoxically destructive) clarity about moral hazards and compromises; Mr. Rosedale is Sir Pitt without the peerage, or Grandcourt without the malice.
I don’t mean that The House of Mirth is derivative, only that these books all present us with variations on a theme: what is a young woman of high spirits to do in a world that limits her options so severely and judges her equally harshly for trying to make something of herself and for failing in the attempt? “It was a hateful fate,” reflects Lily, contemplating marriage with a rich man who will “do her the honour of boring her for life” — “but how escape from it? What choice had she?” Brought up to see marriage as their only means of survival (and perhaps of happiness), equipped to do little more than charm but convinced at first of the sufficiency of this necessary skill, all of these women learn hard lessons about their real lack of social, economic, and even personal power. Their novels are all, as a result, deeply depressing and openly condemnatory — not, ultimately, about their heroines (with the possible exception of Becky), but about the hypocrisy and vapidity of the worlds they portray. Lily “could not hold herself much to blame” for her failures to find a productive alternative to the role she has been raised to fill:
Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbird’s breast?
“It was the life she had been made for,” she concludes:
every dawning tendency in her had been carefully directed toward it, all her interests and activities had been taught to centre around it. She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.
It’s an image that is specific to Lily’s situation and history, but it’s also the familiar refrain of women seeing the myth of their influence, and the perfection of their weakness, exposed as lies that serve everyone but them. It’s not just Becky shamelessly marketing herself, but Amelia, trying to scrape together enough money to keep her son at home, and Gwendolen presenting herself to Klesmer in the vain belief that she can be a great singer just by wishing it so, and Isabel imagining she has not just the freedom but the wisdom to choose her future.
For all the similarities, what’s so interesting is how differently the story plays out in each case, not just in the plot but in the whole mood the authors establish, which becomes part of the moral vision they present. Wharton is the only one who takes us all the way to tragedy: she is the only one who risks despair, rather than offering remedies, which is perhaps a sign of her modernity. Even James leaves Isabel standing, and at least by the end of the novel she has become more knowing, which in James’s universe may be the equivalent of grace (to be saved is to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost). Lily and Selden have a final encounter that is very much in the spirit of Eliot’s moments of redemptive fellowship, and Lily’s meeting with Nettie Struther and her baby offers her (and thus us) a vision that transcends the relentless downward spiral of her life:
In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with the visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties — it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by  mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving.
Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily.
In Eliot’s fiction that wider perspective is precisely what draws a suffering protagonist out of her own misery and into sympathy with the larger world. But though Lily’s “surprised sense of human fellowship took the mortal chill from her heart,” it does not help her but only fills her with a deeper horror at the isolation and futility of her own lonely existence. Perversely, the “height of her last moment” with Selden and the unexpected glimpse of something sweeter become moments too precious to survive: “If only life could end now — end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world!”
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