I finally finished House of Mirth from my summer reading list. I wanted to abandon it several times, but it felt like cheating to not to read any of the classics off the list. I tried to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover several years ago on the beach in Aruba. Needless to say that was a bust.
Anyway, it took me over a month to get through it. I have to admit I didn’t love the book. I liked Age of Innocence much better, which isn’t hard to believe since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Nonetheless, I kept reading House of Mirth becauseWharton’s fictional world of wealthy New Yorkers reminded me of the contemporary struggles between upper and middle class. Unfortunately, in today’s world your socio-economic level can effect more than how you’re viewed in society or what party you’re invited to. It can mean losing your job while the CEO continues to be paid 231 times more than the average employee [“Are they worth it?” The Economist]. Wharton’s commentary on self-indulgence is as relevant today as it was in 1905.
But the most profound message from the book came from the following quote:
Miss Farrish could see no hope for her friend [Lily Bart, the protagonist] but in a life completely reorganized and detached from its old associations; whereas all Lily’s energies were centered on the determined effort to hold fast to those associations, to keep herself visibly identified with them, as long as the illusion could be maintained.
Lily Bart had been exiled from her familiar world of indulgent wealth, because many believed that she had an affair with a wealthy man. And though she didn’t enjoy interacting with the people who belonged to that world, she couldn’t let go. Her own identity was too closely tied to the perceptions of other people and the trappings of wealth. Letting go would have meant giving up who she thought she was. So she continued to strive for the life she thought she should have rather than the one that had the possibility of affording real happiness and love.
It reminds me of a picture I once saw on Facebook with two circles: one labeled “Your comfort zone” and the other labeled “Where the magic happens.” Lily’s behavior is much like our own when we are unwilling to a take a risk because it involves letting go of our perceptions of ourself. Sometimes detaching from “old associations” and reorganizing our lives is the very thing we need improve our circumstances. But instead, we use our energy to maintain the illusion of being satisfied with the status quo.
It happens to me more times than I care to admit. I resist some change because I’m afraid I might lose the comfort of the status quo. I spend way too much energy trying to maintain the illusion of who I think people think I am. the But defining one’s self by the perception of other is the very thing that drove Lily to her tragic end.
House of Mirth has stood the test of time because it speaks to the universal truth that It doesn’t matter what other people think. We each have to live our own lives.