Saturday, August 6, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The House of Mirth'

The Book: The House of Mirth

The Author: Edith Wharton

How I Found It: Some time ago, I was flipping channels when I noticed the film adaptation of the novel starred Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, who I loved in The X-Files and Little Women, respectively. I picked up a copy of the book the next time I was in a bookstore, and finally decided to take the jump and read it this summer.

The Review: Oh, this book. It made me think. It made me wonder. It made me feel.

As ever, I was reading as my mother and I were driving one day, and my mom, having never read the book, asked me how it was, what I thought. I had just finished the first chapter and hadn't had much time to formulate my thoughts, but I told her it made me feel lucky. It made me feel glad. We no longer live in a society where reputation is quite so important. Gossip might taint a person's reputation, but it's not quite so damaging as it was back in Wharton's time. A woman has the ability to work and choose a husband for herself, rather than going by social convention.

Lily Bart, our heroine, does not possess these freedoms. Published in 1905, it is the first of Wharton's novels to feature Old New York, and the portrait of New York society was enough to evoke the feelings I mentioned above. Lily is nearly 30, beautiful but unmarried. Each time she has gotten close to an engagement, she has either shied away or done something that necessitates the breaking off of the relationship, and this is leading to complications. Lily is part of a social circle where women and men wear fine clothes, gamble, and flirt outrageously, even if they're married. Living with her stern Aunt Julia, Lily is in desperate need of money to support these habits, and marriage is looking like her only way out of debt.

It's a shame that her marriage prospects are so confused. There's Percy Gryce, a stuffy bore who collects Americana. There's the vulgar Rosedale, a Jewish man looking for entry into high society (more on Wharton's portrayal of him later). And above everyone is Lawrence Selden, an old acquaintance of Lily's. A chance meeting at a train station renews their friendship, and throughout the novel, Lily and Selden are repeatedly drawn together only to be pulled apart, whether by their own feelings or by the scandals that surround them.

For no matter where she goes, scandal seems to follow Lily. She is getting a bit too old to be on the marriage market still, for one thing. For another, she is beautiful. For a third, she's naive enough to not realize the danger in inadvertently ending up alone with other women's husbands. Circumstances, both personal and financial, continue to worsen, and no matter how hard Lily fights, she might end up being her own downfall.

I love Edith Wharton. I think I came to this conclusion after the third chapter. The things I love about writing, whether it's a novel or film/television, are characterization and dialogue. The plot and descriptions can be nonexistent for me as long as there's introspection, as long as there's believable interactions between the characters. This book fortunately had a plot and descriptions as well as dialogue and characterization, and it was just a truly affecting experience for me.

Lily, for one thing, was so easy to relate to that it stunned me. As a college student with little money (although, unlike her, I have the means to earn it), I felt for her. This passage is the one that struck me, the one that converted me to a Wharton lover:
But of course she had lost—she who needed every penny, while Bertha Dorset, whose husband showered money on her, must have pocketed at least five hundred, and Judy Trenor, who could have afforded to lose a thousand a night, had left the table clutching such a heap of bills that she had been unable to shake hands with her guests when they bade her good night.

A world in which such things could be seemed a miserable place to Lily Bart; but then she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations.

She began to undress without ringing for her maid, whom she had sent to bed. She had been long enough in bondage to other people's pleasure to be considerate of those who depended on hers, and in her bitter moods it sometimes struck her that she and her maid were in the same position, except that the latter received her wages more regularly.
Who among us hasn't felt that sense of bad luck, of the universe being utterly against us (especially, I should say, in today's job market)? That last line, about she and her maid, of two different social classes entirely, being in the exact same financial position, had me thinking for days. It was how absorbed I became in Lily's struggles, how much I felt for her, that really made me love the book at first.

Then--oh, and then. Lily and Selden are now one of my favorite relationships in all of literature. I practically held my breath during every encounter of theirs, waiting to see what would happen next, who would speak, what they would say to each other. Their relationship was beautifully drawn. Selden might criticize Lily and her set, but he does it to try and better her, to make her realize the painful truths of her society. Lily, for her part, does the same. When he criticizes the people she chooses to associate with, she rightly points out that he moves in the same circles himself, spends a lot of time in the element he so loves to criticize. Every encounter they have is emotionally charged and, surprisingly, romantic, such as this one:

But suddenly she turned on him with a kind of vehemence. "Why do you do this to me?" she cried. "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?"

The words roused Selden from the musing fit into which he had fallen. He himself did not know why he had led their talk along such lines; it was the last use he would have imagined himself making of an afternoon's solitude with Miss Bart. But it was one of those moments when neither seemed to speak deliberately, when an indwelling voice in each called to the other across unsounded depths of feeling.

"No, I have nothing to give you instead," he said, sitting up and turning so that he faced her. "If I had, it should be yours, you know." (63)

Lily's complicated relationships with the men in her life, and how those relationships influence her interactions in society, were built up slowly, satisfyingly. Admittedly, the portrayal of Rosedale is problematic these days (as with many classics, the anti-Semitism is a product of the times, but no less cringeworthy because of that). But even if he is painted slightly as the villain, Rosedale does genuinely care for Lily. So does Selden. So do, arguably, the married men Lily inadvertently finds herself with.

The thing I loved the most about the characters was that they all seemed believable. All of them were people I could imagine still existing today. Lily's financial struggles were all too easy to relate to. Rosedale, the social climber, surely has modern day compatriots. And most easy to imagine of all is Bertha Dorset, the master manipulator, both of her husband and of the society gossip mill. Bertha was villainous in the worst way: she made herself, even with all her indiscretions, look innocent while she crucified others around her. Actually, as I read the book, it struck me how easily the story could have been modernized and placed in, say, a high school. There were certain things that reminded me of, say, Josh Schwartz's series The OC and Gossip Girl. Given the glamorous settings and rich teens in both series (and the nods to The Age of Innocence in an episode of Gossip Girl), I had to wonder if Schwartz is a Wharton fan. It wouldn't surprise me.

The plot, I'd say, isn't so much a plot as it is an examination of Lily's society and its social obligations, all of which involve her in some way. I agree with the assessment that the New York Times gave on the novel's original publication: "... the discriminating reader who has completed the whole story in a protracted sitting or two must rise from it with the conviction that there are no parts of it which do not properly and essentially belong to the whole." Thinking back on the plot myself, I can't think of a single episode which could have been spared, and I enjoyed every part of it.

Having seen the film adaptation, I was left with the same feelings that I had as I came out of the recent Jane Eyre--it was a good enough adaptation, but certain things I loved about both novels will just never come across on screen. For Jane Eyre, it's the sheer joy of reading "Reader, I married him." for the first time. For The House of Mirth, it's those vivid, detailed descriptions of Wharton's--of the places, sure, but more important, of her characters' thoughts and actions. Selden's nigh-scientific observations of Lily as he tries to master his feelings, Lily's constant musings on her place in society... it's just not something suited for film. And that said, that very point the New York Times made about how integral each portion of the plot is? That's a drawback, when you have to fit an entire book into two hours.

The cast did an admirable job, for the most part. I had a bit of difficulty believing Anderson (Lily) and Stoltz (Selden) together at first--Anderson was a mite too loud and Stoltz a bit too quiet--but by "Ah, love me, love me--but don't tell me so!", I started to see it. My favorite scene between them was undoubtedly the confrontation at the Emporium Hotel, when Selden begs her to leave and save herself from scandal. It was well-played to the point of being electrifying; the anger as well as the depth of their feelings for each other was just palpable.

Laura Linney (Bertha Dorset) and Anthony LaPaglia (Rosedale) really shined. I've been a fan of Laura Linney for some time but had never seen her in a real villainous role, and she played it off well here. LaPaglia made Rosedale more sympathetic and less conniving, I felt; it was very believable and tender towards the end when you see his genuine concern for Lily. The only one who hit some false notes, in my eyes, was Dan Akroyd; I think he was too much of a comedic actor for the role. I cringed my way through most of the scene where he corners Lily; it was one of the only things I felt was poorly done.

There were some things that were utterly baffling--the very obvious "this is symbolism!" decision to have Lily in a red dress, as opposed to the muted shades of the other women, when she attends the opera with Trenor and Rosedale; the really odd decision to make Gerty Farish and Grace Stepney into a composite character--but it did a decent job at squeezing the entire plot in, and its only fault was, well, that it wasn't the book. Still, it's worth checking out.

The House of Mirth has become one of my favorite reads of the past few years, and I'd recommend it in a heartbeat. Even 106 years later, it still manages to be relevant, relateable, and moving. I can't wait to read more of Edith Wharton, although I'm sure I'll return to this one over the years, as well!

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