Context: Finished this off while I was attending the first workshop of the Oral Literature Project at Cambridge University.
Another tale of woe from Wharton. I can forgive anyone who spends their life writing about one theme when they do it well. This wasn’t her best but it was certainly entertaining. Lily Bart isn’t Bovary or Karenina but she flirts with becoming one. If you’re familiar with Wharton you’ll feel very at home in this novel. If not, prepare yourself for an individual’s conflict between desire and society. As usual with her, society comes off worst.
Lily Bart, the protagonist, is looking for a husband. As usual, she’s schemes and manipulates the men around her, using her charm and beauty as the tools of her trade. But her ‘fortune’ isn’t as large as it she wants it to be (sound familiar?) She thus sets out to capture someone who can make her a society woman and thus beat her rivals into the dirt.
Of course, it all goes wrong, she ends up with mud on her face and eating humble pie after a series of unexpected events leave her in worse circumstances than when she had the world at her feet. Having hesitated to marry because she was enjoying the thrill of the chase, she now finds herself the victim of a class system that closes the door on her.
I think Wharton tries, again, to show that society has no room for the independent self-determined woman who has value in her own right. But there’s a problem with this. Society is the sum of its parts and therefore reflects the dominant views current at the time. There’s little an individual can do about this without swimming against the stream and, if you do that, there’s no time for sulking and pouting when everyone hates you; it’s par for the course.
So, while Lily is totally happy to use the system when it suits her, this doesn’t earn her any friends when the system works against her. That’s the way it goes and I can no more feel sorry for her than I can that Hitler had to kill himself, poor dear. And was society stuck up and snobbish to a cruel degree in early 20th century New England? Yes, but if it hadn’t been, Wharton wouldn’t have had a market for her books and enjoyed the extremely privileged lifestyle that gave her the education and freedom to write in the first place. It’s all kind of circular really and while I did enjoy the writing and the story and the characters, the moral’s a bit lost on me.
It’s a tragedy that will have a few weeping and is worth a read as an important image of the world in that place at that time.
Selden paused in surprise.
He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.
rubbish | poor | mediocre | okay | good | very good | excellent | superb