The House of Mirth is Edith Wharton’s supposedly scathing satire on upper crust society before the turn of the century (1900, that is). The descriptions seemed apt and I could completely envision the world Wharton described. By the end, it felt like a great novel that encapsulates that world and society.
And I’m starting to think that’s the point of the whole satire thing. Trusty Wikipedia expanded the definition for me and I now see how The House of Mirth is a satire.
I have relied too much on my history background as a way to define satire but historic political satire was usually portrayed through scathing cartoons or essays. You always feel hit over the heat by the point of the thing. (That’s what she said.)
Wharton used derision more than anything to get her point across. Lily Bart’s situation is dire. At 29 (God help me), she is beautiful, poor, and in desperate need of a rich husband to protect her and support her expensive habits. Lily requires both love and money in order to marry, a detail that will result in her (spoiler alert!) demise.
It seems to be an age old question, to marry for love or money – at least in fiction and for the wealthy. Lily Bart meets a poor woman at the end of the novel that she had once helped through her charity work. The woman is happy in her tiny apartment with her husband and baby and basically no money. Lily envies her. But isn’t the grass always greener? If the book was about that woman, wouldn’t it just become Vanity Fair – the movie, not the book? (Another satirical novel, by the way, with flawed characters and technically no hero.)
This debate reminds me of something a mentor taught me about business – time and money are intertwined, two values in their own right that make you wealthy beyond belief if you have both. If you have time to invest in a project, then you don’t need a lot of money or you are able to save a lot of money. If you have money to spend, you can buy time (for example, receiving something faster in the mail due to expensive shipping). Be giddy if you have both. And it is difficult if you have neither.
Is it possible to have both love and money in a marriage? Is it even worth focusing on? Luckily, women have come a far way since Lily Bart’s world and we don’t necessarily rely on men and favors to get us through the world. We can have good paying jobs now and support ourselves. This may take money out of the equation and allow the quest for love to play out.
Lily’s perennial flaw – money – was frustrating at times. I wanted to shake her and tell her to just marry Selden already, despite his silly name. He basically proposed and she turned him down for a chance to flirt with a wealthy, antisocial man. She keeps circling back to him and the descriptions of how he makes her feel are moving.
She might hate him, but she had never been able to wish him out of the room. She was very near hating him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his clothes – she was conscious that even these trivial things were interwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness came upon her, and the turmoil of her spirit ceased. (page 243-244)
But Lily lives in a world in which a young woman without the protection of a family or a man must blunder about, attempting not to turn off her friends as she curries favor with her friends’ husbands. I’m so glad to be in a more modern age.