The House of Mirth

I lied to you again. It turns out that Gravity’s Rainbow has been delayed by a week. I started looking up influences and references in it, and it turns out I have a lot of reading to do before starting the novel. Second, the book club I joined meets this Sat, and I haven’t even started the book. The book is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

OK. Since I’m interested in post-modernism, I would never dream of reading Wharton on my own. She writes social realism, which seems to be a wasted genre. Realism definitely has its pluses, since it points out faults with society, but to be considered literary enough for a book club is beyond me. When your main concern is to get things right, how can you include the millions of other aspects of a work of literature that actually requires interpretation and hence would make good discussion.

I started it, and it is quite enjoyable. At the same time it is highly frustrating. Wharton’s intent is to point out many dreadful aspects of society (of her time), but unintentionally she is pointing out something much bigger in my mind. The clearest theme (and I’m quite sure it is unintentional) that comes across is how unreflective western society is. These people are going through their entire lives and not once asking themselves any of what I consider the “big questions.” They don’t even realize that there could be something to think and talk about outside of their shallow thoughts.

I could be wrong about whether Wharton wanted this to come across or not, but I don’t think so. Her themes (as realism dictates) are quite obvious. Since she is portraying realistically, though, the theme I just discussed inevitably comes across as well to someone concerned with that aspect of society.

This just reminds me how far art has come in such a short period of time. This was only about 20 years before Faulkner, but Faulkner is at such a higher level. Other than theme, I can’t really think of good things to talk about in Wharton. If we were to discuss Faulkner, we would have to start at such a more fundamental level. What is the plot of the novel? There would be disagreement. What are all these crazy devices being used? Why? Look at all these different levels and patterns emerging, etc.

When we move even further along the literary timeline we get even crazier things like: Character A is thinking about Character B. Suddenly the narrative shifts to B, and travels via analepsis back in time to her life with Character C. Character C takes up the narrative and analeptically shifts the focus back in time farther to an event that shaped his life; then the focus returns to C’s “present.” The prose is then recycled back to its starting point with Character A, who is currently inhabiting the reader’s “real-time” present.

I just don’t understand why a book club would pick a novel that is so one-dimensional with so many other novels out there that have extreme interpretations worth discussing.


6 thoughts on “The House of Mirth

  1. I haven’t read much of your blog, so I apologize if you’ve already answered this question, but what kind of book group are you in? Wharton seems like a good choice for a generalists/classics book group, but she’s not exactly considered cutting edge today. To play devil’s advocate, though: in her time, her portrayals of society in general, women in particular, were considered by some to be quite shocking. Women marrying for money and not love? The horror! But that was the reality she chose to write. And I think you’re correct: she was very much concerned with the shallowness of modern society.

    And boo to Faulkner being on a higher level than Wharton. Faulkner makes me want to eat my own eyeballs. 🙂

  2. It is just a general summer reading club through a local library.

    I think Faulkner is a better choice for discussion, since he doesn’t ignore half of the art form. I don’t like discussing pre-modernism, because people were too concerned with theme and showing us things. It is like watching a movie in which the director was so concerned about the acting that he forgot to pay attention to editing, screenwriting, music, cinematography, mise en scene, etc.

    When you read something that is expertly crafted (Faulkner, DeLillo, Wallace, Pynchon, etc) there is so much more to talk about. What do you say about Wharton? Lily was a fool not to marry for love. Everyone agrees. Well, that about wraps this up. Everyone agreed. No argument. No interpretation. No confusion to sort out.

  3. Mmm….but this assumes the only texts that require “craft” are the complicated ones.

  4. Eh, so I’m sort of a jerk. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a nice simple read every now and again, but I feel that if a group of people are going to get together to discuss a work, might as well make it one that they wouldn’t be able to understand without that discussion.

    This word “craft” is interesting. I guess I would interpret it to be something complicated enough that I feel that I could not have produced it myself (seeing as I am not a writer). So yes, it should be at least complicated enough that I “feel” that I could not have produced it.

    This happened to me with the movie Elephant. I was highly disappointed with it precisely because I felt that I could have made it myself.

  5. It seems to me that your criticism is more of your book club than of the book House of Mirth itself. Just because the specific individuals in your book club can’t look at House of Mirth analytically, just because they all agree, doesn’t mean that all people can’t look at analytically, or that all people would agree. This singular experience of yours does not define the novel; just because your book club turned out to have similar perspectives on the book does not mean that House of Mirth is not well-crafted.

    Furthermore, how were they to know that they would all agree? That’s the risk you take when you pick a book that no one’s read before: you don’t know what the response will be.

  6. I am having difficulty understanding your criticism of House of Mirth. While it might not be crafted through a postmodern lens, there are many fascinating issues brought up by the story. One of those would be the debate between free will and determinism. We often think of ourselves has having the will to change courses, determine our own fate. In House of Mirth, however, the author seems to suggest something else. Could Lily have made a choice to escape her fate, or was she determined by the conditions of her upbringing and predispositions, to turn down every opportunity to help her financial position? Were all the characters acting out their predetermined destiny?

    Beyond that biggie, there is interesting material to explore regarding the cult of beauty which the novel describes. This is a social group that reveres all that is beautiful. Indeed, beauty seems to be the ultimate value, not the good or right. That certainly seems an interesting topic to explore in a book club.

    Another idea that jumps to mind is the language Wharton uses. It certainly varies from how we speak today. One is lead to wonder if our experiences today take on a different character than they did then because of the less precise way we express ourselves.

    Anyhow, I think House of Mirth brings up many questions that are interesting book club questions. In addition, I find it more useful to approach a genre with which I am less sympathetic differently than you have approached this. Rather than find answers to all the ways you find this genre less worthy than a postmodern style, why don’t you ask yourself the harder question: What are the ways in which this genre does a better job of adding to the literary experience than does your preferred style. If you Really, really tried in earnest to find an answer to that questions, you could find a way to deepen your own postmodern style.

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