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From Timely to Timeless
le 18 octobre 2011
Reading The House of Mirth today, it's easy to overlook the obvious: that it was not written as a "period piece," but as a modern novel. Readers can get so caught up in the early 20th Century details (the Edwardian-era clothing, the carriages, both horseless and horse-drawn, the elaborate social rituals), that they tend to forget that for Wharton and her first readers this story had all the timeliness of, say, Sex and the City, a book which will probably seem just as dated as Wharton's by the 22nd Century, and less well written.
What Wharton set out to do, and did so effectively in the final analysis, was to present a picture of a then "modern woman," one endowed with beauty and intelligence, placed in a privileged yet precarious position, and to show how a tragic combination of character and circumstance could lead her from the promise of a glittering future to her ultimate degradation and destruction.
Lily Bart, the woman at the center of the novel, was modern in the sense that she was a product of both her era and her social class when the novel was published in 1905. Born and raised on the fringes of upper-class New York society before the turn of the last century, yet orphaned young without inherited wealth, she was expected and prepared to be the wife of a wealthy gentleman. Though refined in the moral as well the esthetic sense, she was prized by her society primarily as an ornament. A beautiful ornament, it's true, but so long as she remained unmarried her "mission" in life could never be considered fulfilled, despite her numerous and varied attributes.
Lily is 29 at the novel's start, and in that era dangerously close to becoming an old maid. The longer a woman in such a situation remained unwed, the more exposed she was to unfavorable or even vicious comments from those whom she most needed to ingratiate herself with in order to maintain a place in their charmed circles and to marry well. A woman in Lily's circumstances could ill afford to be considered too independent, or too careless of her reputation, as she belatedly discovered.
When, through a series of costly reversals, brought about either by accident (Wharton's novel is filled with momentous chance encounters), or due to her own proclivity to sabotage the advances of her prosperous suitors, Lily is cast out of "polite society" and ultimately forced to earn a living through manual labor, she discovers how unprepared she is for what she considers the "dingy" side of life. And not mere dinginess and toil, but the prospect of poverty and abject humiliation are what she faces as the novel nears its conclusion.
A sharp descent indeed for someone who started out so near the pinnacle of worldly success, and was so intimately received by those that had already achieved it.
When today's readers encounter Lily and her plight in Wharton's novel, there may be an urge to dismiss this story as unrelated to our modern society, where social rules are not so inflexible, and women (in most cases) are routinely expected to be able to earn their own living. But Wharton was not a reporter, she was a gifted novelist, and her tale of a character trapped in an infernal machine from which she can find no escape still has the power to move us deeply. Beyond the period details, The House of Mirth offers us a believable story in which a character struggles to survive a catastrophe partly of her own making, and partly of others'. Such a tragic tale, so skillfully narrated, is timeless.