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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, February 12th, 2008
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House of Mirth

by Edith Wharton

Notes On New Novels: The House of Mirth: A Classic Review

A review by Mary Moss

[Ed. note: This review originally ran in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, January 1906.]

In The House of Mirth Miss Bart's actions not only surprise you, but you are even ready to dispute Mrs. Wharton's knowledge of what her heroine really did do. Lily is a very complete study of the siren of a girl, too poor to keep up with the set in which she moves, who is unfortunately too radically snobbish to cut free from it. Her hold upon this society lies in beauty, elegance, adaptability, and willingness to amuse superfluous husbands (here again woman is the aggressor). Yet under this pliability, she is victim to a self-indulgence so boundless that, at last resort, it amounts to a fair imitation of principle. To be consistent, with her utterly sordid ideals, Lily should promptly knock herself down to the highest bidder. Yet at the very moment when the dull, eligible suitor has finally come to terms, Miss Bart must always see the sweetness of frisking off with a detrimental. She is too fastidious for the life she is leading, but unfit for any other available one. As a point of probability, would not Lily either have early succumbed or managed her way to better things? But when you find yourself discussing the truth of a novel, you are really paying it high tribute. Moreover, such inconsistencies are perhaps likely in a person whose conduct is guided entirely by taste, without a shadow of conviction. Lily is no more deliberately venal than she is deliberately decent. Certain surroundings and a comforting sense of being "in things" are necessary to her existence. A balloon may not scheme to get gas; it merely collapses without. On the whole, I believe that Mrs. Wharton knows the truth about Lily. She was as incapable of meanness as of any other form of economy. She only wanted a pretty gown, fresh flowers, a roll of dollars in her pocket for bridge, a pleasant companion, and all doors hospitably open to her. Simple, rational needs! That her income, though ample for a plainer life, was quite unequal to the pace of her friends naturally plunged her into trouble. As for the society in which poor Lily moves, Mrs. Wharton has no colors too black, no acid too biting, for its unredeemed odiousness and vulgarity. She shows its sensuality to be mere passionless curiosity; she displays its cautious balancing of affairs so that reputations are preserved, not lost, in the divorce courts; her people, with regard to the quality commonly known as virtue, resembling rich defaulters who are lucky enough through a technicality to miss a term in jail. The whole is brilliantly well conceived, brilliantly executed. Facets of light glitter before your eyes at the mere thought of it. No cheap sacrifice is made to the buying public's supposed craving for sweet pretty endings. There is but one lack. Read it with approval, with enjoyment. Put it down and go your way refreshed by a novel that held your attention unflaggingly to the end. That is exactly the crux! After finishing Diana of the Crossways, did you tranquilly proceed with the business of life? Did you not, at least, need -- a dry handkerchief? Diana committed a far baser act than any of poor Lily's, yet we love her! Diana betrayed a friend for money, yet we love her! For all its brilliancy, The House of Mirth has a certain shallowness; it is thin. At best, Lily can only inspire interest and curiosity. You see, you understand, and you ratify, but unfortunately, you do not greatly care. There is more pathos in what befell Miss Cather's wretched little degenerate Paul than in the pitiful fate of a beautiful girl like Lily Bart!

Indeed, after the somewhat arid glitter of The House of Mirth, you turn with a sense of comfortable repose to the seasoned solidity of the average English novel.


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