Sunday, January 24, 2016

Two Favorite Novels

The House of MirthThe House of Mirth 
by Edith Wharton

“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”   ― Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Today is the anniversary of the birth of  Edith Wharton,  a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and designer.   Wharton combined her insider's view of America's privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. 

She wrote in a style called social realism. Writers associated with social realism range from Mark Twain to Henry James, from William Dean Howells to Sinclair Lewis. Literary realism, like all styles of literature arose out of a social moment, a historical context, and its proponents rarely agreed on what constituted realism. William Dean Howells was influential because as an editor he wanted his colleagues to write of the "smiling aspects of life". This was not the approach of Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth which, although it is realistic in its depiction of society, it is closer to tragedy than comedy. While not as naturalistic as the novels of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris she is not willing to gloss over the dark side of the life of the elite. Wharton's closest ally among the realists was Henry James. There is a famous story of literary collaboration and advice here as with many writers. When Henry James read Wharton’s novel The Valley of Indecision, he wrote to her his praise of it, but then wandered around with his characteristically wandering prose to get to the point that she should confine herself in her subject matter to New York. He wrote, "Do New York! The first-hand account is precious." She did so for the most part with great success for the rest of her career.

The House of Mirth is usually viewed as a novel of New York society manners, which it is. The heroine is Lily Bart, an impoverished socialite, who lives off a small inheritance and her Aunt Julia’s generosity. She travels with the elite of New York society by being charming and beautiful; something she finds increasingly more difficult the older she gets. But the novel is also an example of a modern, secular vision of alienation in which Lily Bart faces an inability to reconcile her nature with the world around her.
"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 calculation."(p 271)

For Lily the tension increases until it becomes too great to manage. She does not realize that the elite crowd are not her friends. Her downfall lies in some poor choices and a misunderstanding of her situation. In spite of her difficulty in understanding the world around her I find Lily a sympathetic heroine. Her missed opportunities remind me of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage who seemed to always disappoint in his choices. The classical beauty of Wharton's prose which resembles that of her friend, Henry James, with fewer recondite patches, makes this book appealing to read. One of her better novels, I would recommend this to readers who enjoy Howells and James.

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence 
by Edith Wharton

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”   ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is the twelfth novel published by Edith Wharton, winning for her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. It centers on the impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland. And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth. Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience. But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especially Newland and Ellen were what I found most interesting. The regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.

Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds. It was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations. This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.

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Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for this post.

I also love these Edith Wharton novels. Coincidentally I have commentary on The Age of Innocence waiting on deck. I will be posting it soon.

I found that House of Mirth to be so poignant. One cannot help but to empathize with Lily Bart. I also liked the 2000 film version.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. Edith Wharton is also one of my favorite authors. I have seen the film version of The Age of Innocence but not The House of Mirth. I'll have to check that one out.

R.T. said...

Another great provocation! Wharton's been on my rereading list for a long time, and your postings are perfect catalysts. Thanks!

James said...

R. T.,

Edith Wharton wrote several great novels. These are two of them and I would also recommend Ethan Frome.