Sunday, January 17, 2010
Earlier this month the icy weather kept me housebound for a day, and I appealed to my Facebook friends to help me decide what to read to fill the time. I eventually settled on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which I first read more than 20 years ago. Something in the chilly atmosphere made Wharton’s world of beautiful things and brittle people seem alluring, but what really sold me was a friend’s comment that she’d like to return to the book herself now that she has “a middle-aged perspective.” Whoa.
I’ve been comfortable thinking of myself as middle-aged for quite a while but I didn’t like the suggestion that my view of the world—and of literature—has started to wither along with the rest of me. That’s not really what my friend meant, of course, but that’s how I read her. “Middle-aged perspective” struck me as a polite way of saying sour, cynical, resigned, passionless, etc. So I plunged into The House of Mirth with a sort of half-conscious agenda, determined to enjoy it in the same way I had the first time around. I was going to relish Wharton’s ruthless dissection of society, and I was going to wallow in the tragedy of beautiful, useless Lily.
Unfortunately, I got about 40 pages in and had to abandon the book. As it turns out, I apparently have acquired a middle-aged perspective, and it has nothing to do with being sour or cynical. On the contrary, I found that I just couldn’t bear the cruelty of Lily’s fate, because I can’t feel superior to her anymore. My younger self pitied Lily’s weakness and her captivity in a vicious social order, but I didn’t feel any real empathy for her. I never saw myself as someone who might ever be trapped by illusion and the inexorable passage of time. Now life has taught me better. We’re all trapped, in one way or another. Some of us manage to work out a better ending for ourselves than Lily does, but we all share her costly addiction to self-delusion.
Edith Wharton was 43 when she wrote The House of Mirth, and she tells us in the book’s first pages that Lily is doomed. Actually, she lets Selden tell us:
“As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilisation which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
I think that passage is Wharton’s invitation to us to feel Lily’s plight as our own. I didn’t see that twenty years ago and now I do. That’s middle-aged perspective.
Illustration by A.B. Wenzell from a 1905 edition of The House of Mirth