The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is one of the more difficult books I have ever read. Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book, suggests reading through the first time without stopping to look up words, but how can one understand context if he does not understand the vocabulary? And even more demanding than word usage is Wharton’s complex plot. I thought Leo Tolstoy was complex? Ha!
So here is an attempt at decent answers of TWEM’s three-stage questions:
Grammar Stage: What is the most important event (when the main character changes)?
When I began The House of Mirth I was disappointed by Lily’s bad choices, especially when she was not truthful. She presented herself to certain people as someone she was not in order to gain acceptance. Most of the time her deception got her into trouble.
However, by the second book, I saw another side to Lily. No matter how many times she is shunned or insulted, used or knocked down, often not her fault, Lily just keeps on going; she is like a leaf floating atop a stream wherever it takes her.
No matter how many times she gets herself into an uncompromising situation, she maintains her civility and graciousness. Even in her weakest moment, she acted honorably: she paid her debt when she could have kept her small inheritance, and she could have blackmailed that evil Bertha Dorset, but instead destroyed the letters that would have exposed Bertha’s hypocrisy or gained financial reward. (Well, maybe.) Many times she could have protested the lies told about her to clear her name or gotten even by playing the same game, but she didn’t. Whatever the case, Lily was not one to hurt, target, or use others intentionally as had been done to her. She always acted admirably, and this gives the reader cause to like Lily.
Now this brings me to the most important event - when Lily changes. I think right after she loses her second job, we see her succumb to her failing health and her sadness of being alone. She believes, and with good reason, that she has no other options. She has hit bottom; she doesn’t seem herself anymore. She is out of choices and is very aware of it. That’s when she formulates a “plan,” although the author does not tell us what it is.
When she runs into Nettie, the poor, unhealthy woman whom Lily helped some years back, Nettie is doing well, married with a baby, though still poor; but she is happy, healthy, and hopeful. Sitting with Lily, one may think that the two women have since traded places.
The reader may see that Lily still has options. Look at Nettie! There is still hope! But we shall never know if Lily thought the same.