Author Topic: House of Mirth - Edith Wharton  (Read 1363 times)


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House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
« on: July 06, 2017, 11:52:00 AM »
I recently read Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, and thought that its discussions about money and women were particularly insightful. I thought about it again after catching up on the other thread about whether you'd choose being a billionaire in 1916 or an average person today. It's really striking to me how much having legal and social autonomy over money matters is such a serious and rare gift, and that for most women, it's a very recent one. 

In chapter 7, the main character ("protagonist" might be a stretch) Lily Bart is in a financial crisis because she continues to live like her friends and former peers when she can no longer afford to do so. She reaches out to a friend's husband, who makes lots of money in the stock market, for help. 

Trenor and Miss Bart prolonged their drive till long after sunset; and before it was over he had tried, with some show of success, to prove to her that, if she would only trust him, he could make a handsome sum of money for her without endangering the small amount she possessed. She was too genuinely ignorant of the manipulations of the stock-market to understand his technical explanations, or even perhaps to perceive that certain points in them were slurred; the haziness enveloping the transaction served as a veil for her embarrassment, and through the general blur her hopes dilated like lamps in a fog. She understood only that her modest investments were to be mysteriously multiplied without risk to herself; and the assurance that this miracle would take place within a short time, that there would be no tedious interval for suspense and reaction, relieved her of her lingering scruples.

Again she felt the lightening of her load, and with it the release of repressed activities. Her immediate worries conjured, it was easy to resolve that she would never again find herself in such straits, and as the need of economy and self-denial receded from her foreground she felt herself ready to meet any other demand which life might make. Even the immediate one of letting Trenor, as they drove homeward, lean a little nearer and rest his hand reassuringly on hers, cost her only a momentary shiver of reluctance. It was part of the game to make him feel that her appeal had been an uncalculated impulse, provoked by the liking he inspired; and the renewed sense of power in handling men, while it consoled her wounded vanity, helped also to obscure the thought of the claim at which his manner hinted. He was a coarse dull man who, under all his show of authority, was a mere supernumerary in the costly show for which his money paid: surely, to a clever girl, it would be easy to hold him by his vanity, and so keep the obligation on his side.

Spoiler alert, Lily badly miscalculates this power dynamic, and her decision to let Trenor "help" her (with what turns out to be significant strings attached) is the beginning of her unraveling. She's certainly an unsympathetic character in this book in many respects, because the primary driver behind her problems is her vanity, sense of entitlement, and lack of foresight. But even so, Wharton makes it clear that any woman who wants to be in this social set does so based on a quid pro quo with a man who has access to and knowledge of financial systems and autonomy to exercise. Understanding and participating in the stock market directly would not have been an option for Lily, even if she was the sort of person who was willing to overcome her ignorance. Carry Fisher "makes her living" by having affairs with wealthy married men; their wives make theirs by turning a blind eye. The only woman who chooses to make it on her own, Gerty Farish (as close to a "hero" as I think we get here) is pitied because she lives in a bare "dingy" apartment. She doesn't have the option to make her own money or bootstrap her way into comfort - her options are to live very simply and be excluded by most of her friends and family, or to try to "make her living" through a man. In the end Lily realizes that Gerty had it right (but realizes it too late).


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Re: House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
« Reply #1 on: July 06, 2017, 12:20:14 PM »
I read this book some time ago.  I remember thinking how limited work opportunities were for women back then.  Think it takes place about 100 years or so ago?   So grateful I am able to be in charge of my own finances.