Monday, November 25, 2019

The House Mirth Readalong Week #3: Chapter 7-12

Blunders, Force of Nature, Corrupted Society

From chapter 7 on we saw how Lily was 'jumping out of the frying pan into the fire'. It seems that one blunder led to another (worse) in rapid succession; it's like watching a snow avalanche. But are they really her blunders, her series of personal bad decision? Could she have avoided them? Here are my random thoughts.

Chapter 7-8

Lily trusted her money investment to Gus Trenor. Okay, to escape poverty she needed to have money fast. Solution: investment. It's perfectly understandable. She couldn't do it by herself, so she used her charms to induce Gus Trenor to help her. I cringed at this, but then, what can a woman in her position do to get assistance from men? So, okay, she had an income now, replenished her wardrobe, and back to the game again. The problem is Lily's 'crude passion for money' which she inherited from her mother. She has become a gambler, who couldn't stop at the right moment. She should have stopped when Trenor began to charge for "commission"! So... yes, it's a blunder.

Chapter 9

She shouldn't buy those letters from the char woman. Better save the money for emergency - but how she supposed to understand that, when her mother has taught her from childhood to spend, spend, and spend. It's a force of nature-the cursed inheritance things, then, though perhaps indirectly related to her downfall. Still, did she really think she could get even with Bertha Dorset with the letters? Haven't she learned enough of the power of money? Or did she do it for Selden's sake? Nah, I don't buy it. It's just her defense to soothe her reasons.

Chapter 10

And she shouldn't spend money lavishly on charity, either, especially when it was for pure selfish purposes! But, again, Lily hasn't been taught of saving money, so again... put the blame on her mother. Or, on the corrupted society where she grew up in.

Lily, who has hitherto prided herself of the wide knowledge of men's psychology had miscalculated (or more precisely: neglected) the "Rosedale consequences". Blunder no. 2.

By the way, I loved Wharton's nature symbols of the bluebottle:

"Because a bluebottle bangs irrationally against a window-pane, the drawing-room naturalist may forget that under less artificial conditions it is capable of measuring distances and drawing conclusions with all the accuracy needful of its welfare."

Chapter 11

As was with her miscalculation on Bertha Dorset, Lily well understood men's vanity, to use it for her advantage, but failed to recognize the same in women. Yes, I am talking about Grace Stepney's poisonous story to Mrs. Peniston. Of course, Lily wouldn't have known its huge implications with her dear hypocrite aunt, so it doesn't really count as blunder, right?

Chapter 12

I have always wanted to lecture Lily on this chapter, so I'll take this opportunity to pour it out here.

"Lily, you have once technically turned down Percy Gryce - which was perfectly understandable, because that's not what you have wanted. But don't you realize that you're not getting any younger, and the possibility to find a suitable [rich and respectable in her circle] suit gets thinner and thinner? So when a guy who, though hitherto seemed reluctant to marry you, is now smitten by you - DON'T THROW HIM AWAY! He's your last chance! And what if he's not as rich Percy Gryce? He has a quite comfortable professional career. And though is out of your circle, he still loves to attend the parties and enjoys the luxury you love once in a while, and they respect him. You could still charm them with your skill. What more, he is funny, intelligent, and with him, you will achieve the freedom you have dreamed of. He's the most suitable man for you! And most importantly he loves you, understands and respects you, and will never treat you like a trash - like some men! And you love him too, so what more do you expect? Now when he finally made up his mind to love you - and even has sealed it with a kiss, for Heaven's sake, Lily... TAKE IT!"

Oh... this chapter is so heartbreaking to read, I must stop for a while. After her 'triumph' in the tableaux vivant, and topped with Selden and Lily's romantic moment in the "almost midsummernight's dream" garden, Lily's declaration of: "Ah, love me, love me - but don't tell me so!" always gets me. Why Lily, why can't you?? And this, I think, is the worst or biggest blunder Lily Bart has ever did (the rest is just the snowball effects). She could have done it, or at least could nurture Selden's love a bit longer before saying ‘yes’. To "throw the door on his face" so soon is terrible, terrible mistake!

Well, after this, The House of Mirth began to be uncomfortable, and even painful in the last chapters, to read. But one must get on, because it also gets interesting. So... I’ll brave myself ‘till next week!

Monday, November 18, 2019

The House Mirth Readalong Week #2: Chapter 5-6

Chapter 5

Sundays at Bellomont means going to church. Like in many other societies, attending the church gives them sense of honor. No matter what they do on the other six days, going to Church on Sundays seemed to neutralize everything, and they got out of it clean and pure again, to go back to your corrupted life the next day. What a hypocrite!

Anyway, the last touch of Lily's conquest of Peter Gryce would have been for her to put on her grey dress, bring a prayer book, and go to the church with him. She certainly knew it, as she have known how to "woe" the shy Mr. Gryce on the train. But instead, she played truant and went for walk with Selden. Is it really Lily's strategy to whet Gryce's appetite - as Selden's suspicion (and Lily's defense to her own conscience)? I don't believe it. I think, Selden has shed new light on her view towards her circle of society. She could see now how freeing the outer side of it was. Her procrastination is not of laziness, but because she dreaded the dull and monotonous life she would lead on marrying Gryce (or anyone from her set). She delayed because she wanted to know more about her alternative - which she hitherto only saw vaguely; she was still weighing the choices. Unfortunately, she miscalculated the Bertha Dorset factor. Lily's wide knowledge on human psychology, apparently, didn't touch much on that of her own sex.

Chapter 6

The most important chapter of the book - the center of the story, where Wharton poured her personal view towards the corrupted society.

=Selden and Lily

Selden's attraction to Lily started with amusement. Selden the spectator perhaps admired her subtle skill to climb the society stairs, and - you got to admit it - it was almost heroic, her continual struggle to get out of poverty!

Lily's attraction to Selden was because of his detachment from her circle. She admired his freedom and easy going manner, while she must calculate every step through the slippery stairs as she belonged to the circle he despised. But their leisure walk changed everything. It was the turning point for both, but most of all for Lily.

Now Selden realized that Lily was not thoroughly shallow like her friends, and not that haughty as he thought she was. Also after he detected her "weakness", he was flattered to be "the unforeseen element in (her) career so accurately planned".

On the other hand, Lily viewed Selden as the representation of freedom; and because he was "as far removed as possible from any assertion of personal advantage" and "being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest man she had ever met." Shortly, they attracted to each other because Selden and Lily were both different from the others.

=Wealth vs happiness

The priceless philosophy from Wharton: the republic of the spirit. Through Selden, Wharton criticized how society saw money as the highest achievement of life, and a means to buy freedom (it is merely illusion, because rich people eventually became the slave of their money). She wanted to remind us that the real freedom is when you personally feel free to lead whichever life or role you want to lead, whether you were rich or not, and no one can dictate you, or impose on you rules to obey. She wanted to emphasize that money only brings corruption; especially when "so much human nature is used up in the process". That was the core of this story; that was what The House of Mirth is about.

=Who was the real coward?

The character of Selden-Lily's relationship could be concluded in this passage - beautifully crafted by Wharton:

'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?' 
'No, I have nothing to give you instead', he said, sitting up a d turning so that he faced her. 'If I had, it should be yours, you know.' 
She received this abrupt declaration in a way even stranger than the manner of its making: she dropped her face on her hands and he saw that for a moment she wept.

People always discuss on who is the real coward, Selden or Lily, as they called that to each other in this chapter. Well, for years I have been switching opinion from Lily to Selden. But this time I can give my definite answer, that neither of them is a coward.

Selden couldn't marry Lily, unless he succeeded to convert her to his "republican of the spirit", otherwise he couldn't afford her. On the other hand, Lily, though despised her society, could not bring herself to denounce her "natural habitat". It is in accordance with the theory of determinism of 18-19th century, which was based on the idea of heredity and environmental influence on human's behavior. So, in this theory, Lily was not a coward - she's a victim of the corrupted society.

I have actually read through Ch. 7, but just didn't have time to put my thoughts into this post. Until next week, then.. ;)

Monday, November 11, 2019

The House Mirth Readalong Week #1: Chapter 1-4

"It's all coming back to me now!" - was how I felt when first plunging into this one of all-time-favorites of mine, on my third read. And with it, I also saw things I haven't noticed previously. Here's my train of thoughts on the first four chapters.

Chapter 1

=Lily stood apart

From the train station scene, where Selden saw Lily Bart standing uncertainly on the platform: Lily Bart always "stood apart from the crowd", and "always roused speculation". I questioned myself: is it her exceptional beauty? The next sentence answered it: "that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions". And I instantly felt sorry for Lily. For the upper classes it's like a fun show, where they sit comfortably on the top, watching her climbing up the society slippery stairs to reach them. They might cheer her along the way, or might even bet on her, just to see whether she'd make it or not, and if not, aah... it's been a fun show; then go home thinking nothing of it. Even Selden, who isn't really their set, also found Lily Bart 'interesting'. Indeed, you could find in ch. 1 only, the word "amused" quite often attached to Selden, concerning Lily.

Chapter 2


And so it reminded me that Edith Wharton was one of the prominent Naturalims authors in 19th-20th century. And this treatment to Lily Bart is typical Natutalism literature, where we are brought to analyze how a character would react under influence of heredity and social environment. As is Doctor Pascal in Zola's Rougon-Maqcuart cycle, so is Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth - though I admit that Selden is more deeply involved into the story than Pascal (I guess, because I haven't read the last novel in the cycle, LOL).

Wharton also used animal-on-hunt analogy for Lily's approach towards Percy Gryce: "She began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack". Animals hunt to survive, and so does Miss Bart!

Chapter 3


Still on the naturalism theme - Lily inherited her mother's "extravagant aptitude" and crude passion for luxury, while from her father, a refined mind and taste. And so Lily is always torn between these two poles. It will be much easier (and happier) for Lily if she was just like her mother - and marry Percy Gryce; or more like her father - and marry Selden (for I am convinced that Selden would marry her if she has given him the chance).

Lily knew that in order to survive, she must get Gryce, but at the same time, part of her revolted at the idea of being a mere trophy to a man. I think what she truly wants is marriage for happiness (an equal marriage), but Lily has been brought up in the environment of upper classes; it has became her habitat, that she couldn't do more than marrying money. And that's why Lily forbade Judy Trenor of inviting Selden to Bellomont, for she instinctively knew that her conquest would be faltering when Selden is present.

Chapter 4

=Choices and Guidance

Lily's situation reminded me of my mother's advice years ago. No, I have never hunted for husband... LOL. But, as Wharton classified husband hunting as career, I then compared it with my own. Mom told me that one cannot always get the best of everything in life. So you must set your own priorities in your career - do you seek money or comfort? If you're lucky, you can find a job which pays well, and with nice atmosphere. But mostly you can only choose one of the two. I have left my first job with high salary, to move to my present (with lower salary) because my first job was full of intrigue, and they did not trust me. And now I'm so grateful I have listened to my mom in the first place; I have made the right decision. But not everyone is fortunate enough to have a good mother or family who could guide one through life. Poor Lily is one of these.

=Laziness and Procrastination

Chapter four was the turning point of Lily. Just when everything went smooth, and the target was within her reach, entered Lawrence Selden, bringing with him everything that Lily has been praising deep in her heart. Why do you think she stayed single at 29 years of age, with her beauty and "skill"? I think it's because Lily never felt sure she would be happy by marrying money, but she did not have enough strength to do otherwise. And so she kept delaying her decision to marry. I think she inherited too, from her father, the laziness to face uncomfortable truth. We don’t know for sure how Mr. Bart came to his ruin (the process, I mean, not the cause – for that we knew that the Barts spent more than what they could afford – and was he not a gambler? I vaguely remember… maybe Lily inherited that too?) But I imagined that Mr. Bart felt powerless while seeing his fortunes drained day by day, with the luxury they were enjoying, until the inevitable fact hit hard on him. I noticed that Lily did the same in chapter one after the Rosedale “accident”. Along the chapters we’d see that she had the habit of procrastinating important and “ugly” things, and let the thought passed “for the time being”.

Have you finished the first four chapters too? How is it so far?