Thursday, 29 January 2009

Edith Wharton's The house of mirth

Six Minervans kicked off 2009 this week with a meeting at Gerda's. It was a hot night, but we stayed cool sitting in her back room, with its open hopper windows, sipping ginger punch and white wine. We also discussed The house of mirth, before adjourning to the lounge-room to watch the last few games of Jelena Dokic's quarter final match against Safina in the Australian Open. She lost, but we were proud of her!


Anyhow, the book. All who read it enjoyed it, some with qualifications. We started off with a discussion of the title - its biblical source, and what the word "mirth" connotes to us today. A couple thought the book was a bit wordy ("enough already" was the actual phrase spoken), and at least one thought it a little melodramatic and felt that its seams showed somewhat (that is, it was clear that it was a serialised novel). However, we all felt that she depicted the impact of the tight social strictures on women very well and that Lily Bart was a sympathetic, complex and well-drawn character. We were all glad we didn't live back then. Some of us were surprised to discover such a rigid society in the USA which has always promoted itself as the land of freedom where all can pursue happiness equally. Clearly this was not the case in early 20th century New York! There was a lively discussion about whether Lily was naive in trusting Gus Trenor or whether she used her wiles one time too many. Regardless of our attitude on this one, we recognised that Lily was in a pretty invidious position in that society and we all agreed that Gus behaved abominably.

We were less sure of Lawrence Seldon. Someone asked whether he was meant to represent the other half of the biblical quote alluded to in the title - the half that praises the serious life, expressed in Ecclesiastes as "the house of mourning" - but we didn't in the end feel that was quite it. Perhaps it is simply that his dual role as character and observer/commentator got in the way of his development as a fully-fledged character. We found Rosedale, the Jewish businessman, to be an interesting character. In this book as in many 19th century novels, it's clear that Jews were generally maligned by "society" and yet, while he never stopped being the businessman, he also showed compassion to Lily when the rest of her so-called friends forsook her. (Edith Wharton has been accused of anti-semitism, but her portrayal of Rosedale in this book doesn't really bear this out.)

Finally, we agreed that it is a "true" tragedy: Lily is a heroic character who, despite her dignity and sense of morality, is brought down by a combination of her own flaws and those of the society she lived in.

And now, perhaps other Minervans might like to add their comments...

Photo: Edith Wharton 1915 (Source:En.Wikipedia)

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