Helplessness of those raised to be rich

edith wharton house of mirth book cover sidharth vardhan
edith wharton house of mirth book cover sidharth vardhan
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(A review by Sidharth Vardhan
of ‘House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton
First Published in 1905)

“Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury. It was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in.”

Veblen in his ‘Theory of Leisure Class’ (written six years before this book) argues that one of the way leisure class show their wealth is by maintaining people who will sit idly for them. The chief example is of wives, where richest men do not want their wives to be doing paid jobs – do and own charities – yes, art exhibitions -yes, partying – yes, just not doing any sort of job. The tendency becomes less visible as we go down the ladder of social class, In India, one can still observe the trend. If they are rich enough, many men would rather have housewives and many women would prefer to be housewives. And if they are wealthier still, they would have servants so that their wives won’t have to work. Among such people, a woman earning her living is scorned at and is liable to be cast away by society. Besides wives, the super rich might also maintain a class of ‘friends’ to keep company.

Lily Bart is such a ‘friend’ and has been raised to be such a wife of a rich man. The only thing she knows well and is good at is ‘manners’ of leisure class – and these manners won’t earn her any money. Higher standards of living are addictive and she is addicted, but she doesn’t have any wealth of her own. And since she can’t earn, marrying a rich man is her only option – which seems difficult as she is aging (it is a society where an unmarried women nearing thirties is likely to attract suspicions and prejudice attached to the phrase ‘old maiden’, another thing still visible in India) and, moreover, she also wants to marry for love. To her misfortune, she happened to be a character in Wharton’s realistic novel, instead of being a character in one of Austen’s happily-ever-after tales.

“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

Edith Wharton Sidharth Vardhan house of mirth
Edith Wharton

One must bow low in respect to Wharton’s craft. I mean there are lots of writers who have better stories or things to tell and writers who have awesome literary techniques at their disposal but, very few can beat her,IMO, when it comes to perfection of telling a realistic story in traditional manner (you know no stream-of-consciousness, no magical realism, no Gothic castles etc) And her cynicism (cynics are always sexy), and the way she brings out the helplessness of her character whether it is Lily Bart, Newland Archer or Ethan Frome. She also kept a dog in her lap when she wrote, if her new Goodreads avatar is to be believed.

– February 6, 2017

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