I’ve fallen terribly behind in my “Winter Classics Challenge”. I had vowed to read 5 classics during the months of January and February, and here we are, almost at the Ides of March (BEWARE!), and I’m just now finishing my 4th classic. I’m going to spread the blame out here, because East of Eden was kind of slow for the first 100 pages, and it was a mighty long book, too. Then there was the time I spent trying to get into Tell My Horse, which didn’t go very well, due to a regrettable lack of interest on my part. Add to these factors the return of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and our new TV diversion, Heroes, and I have a lot of fingers pointing all over the place, lots of blame to go around. Unfortunately, you do all know that when you point one finger, you have 3 more pointing back at you, and if I am to be honest with myself, these failures are no ones but my own. Sigh.
Which brings me, belatedly, to the 4th book in my challenge, The House of Mirth. Like any book of its age, the language here requires a slower read (no TV back then, after all), though it wasn’t as slow for me as “The Scarlet Letter“. In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton tells the tale of her heroine, Lily Bart. Lily is a somewhat tragic figure, born into a life of ease and raised to be amusing and ornamental, and most importantly, to marry well (read, money). She has, unfortunately, only mastered the first 2 of these requirements, and she lacks the money to rescue herself from her failure to manage the third. Why, one might ask, does Lily fail to marry? She is stunningly beautiful, charming, and travels in all of the ‘right’ circles of society. Unfortunately, she keeps shooting herself in the foot, thowing away opportunity after opportunity to marry. She bitterly resents that in order to live the type of life she desires, she must marry ~ marry even though she finds her most promising prospects somewhat repugnant.
She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce ~ the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice ~ but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.
After finishing The House of Mirth, my thoughts turned to Scarlett O’Hara, for in some ways, these characters are very similar. They are both women who are bred to be ornamental, helpless creatures. Bred to marry well, and give the impression, if not the reality, of a life of leisure, where gentility and manners matter above all else. Both are from a time and class that is particularly hard on women, willing to put them aside, ostracize them, and leave them to starve, all for the mere appearance of unladylike or immoral behavior, though everyone might know them to be innocent of any wrong doing.
The difference between them is important, though, because Scarlett looks a problem in the eye, and does not shirk from doing what must be done, be it marrying a man (or two…or three) that she does not love, prostituting herself, theft, or murder. For Scarlett, the end justifies the means, and though she dearly wishes to be a great lady like her mother, she always figures that tomorrow will be another day, and she’ll deal with the messy repercussions of her actions then, after the problems of food on the table and security for her family have been resolved.
Lily, however, is unable to do what must be done. She contrives to be like Scarlett, to marry for money, to ensure her own security and well being, to give herself a life of comfort and wealth. And yet, when push comes to shove, she cannot do it. For her, doing what is right, what is moral and just, is vital, for she knows that while living with the scandal of a crime falsely put upon her is difficult, to have to live with herself if she should fall short of her ideals would be impossible. And she falls short of her ideals often, hating the woman she is becoming. She fears that her resolve to do what is right will wane, and so she does not trust herself to consistently rise above the moral dilemmas which are put before her. This fear, along with the brutal constraints of the society in which she lives, proves to be her undoing.
I liked this book a lot. It really got me thinking. I picked up two more Edith Wharton books, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, and I’m looking forward to reading them. They, along with several other books recently added to my ‘to be read’ pile, will have to wait. For now, my fate lies with yet another tragic heroine, Emma Bovary.