Upon finishing the book, I wrote the above fragment. Now that a few days have passed, and I have had a chance to digest the book more fully, I want to elaborate on why I found this book to be completely amazing.
This was only my second Edith Wharton book – I have previously read The Age of Innocence, which I also highly recommend – but no others. Wharton treads much of the same ground from The Age of Innocence in this one. Both books are set in gilded age New York, and both are, in a sense, novels of manners. But, while there are similarities in time and place, the stories are entirely different.
Lily Bart is a remarkable character, and Wharton’s slow unfolding of her character is masterful. I spent the first quarter of the book being completely disgusted by her. Her frivolity, her shallowness, her materialism – I saw very little in her character that was redeemable. As the book progressed, though, I found myself beginning to admire her, first unwittingly, then unwillingly, and finally without reservation. She is a fool, certainly. She has been trained since childhood to be a pretty ornament on the arm of a man with money. In spite of that training, she finds herself unable to overcome an innate sense of integrity which precludes her from marrying for money, because she does, it seems, love Lawrence Selden. The price that she pays for that integrity is unparallelled.
I have thought a great deal about the society that Wharton portrays. A society in which a man like Sim Rosedale turns out to the be the most honorable man in the room – an honest social climber. Selden was so deeply disappointing – he thought of himself as throwing off the shackles of society, and yet when it came down to a point where it was really, really important that he stand against society, he completely failed.
There are two characters who were, actually, completely unredeemably monstrous: Bertha Dorset and Grace Stepney. The first is a deceitful hypocrite, the second a venal back-biter. In this relatively short novel – as compared to Dickens or James – Wharton lays bare a society in which appearance of morality is all that matters. In which women are not merely ornamental, but are raised in such a way that they are utterly incapable of so much as feeding themselves. In which the rules are bizarre, absurd, and the only people who have to follow them are the people without the power to ignore them.
I know that a lot of people hated the ending. I didn’t. But, I will say that it is unsatisfying indeed that that bitch Bertha Dorset never gets the comeuppance she so richly deserves.