"It was the life she had been made for: every dawning tendency in her had been carefully directed toward it, all her interests and activities had been taught to center around it. She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty."
I once arrived at the UNLV library well before opening time accidentally. I pulled out the book I was reading at the time, Balzac's Pere Goriot, and started reading the final section. The library opened, people came and went, and I could not put it down. When I closed the book, tears streamed down my face and I needed a hug.
That is how I felt finishing House of Mirth (and, when I looked up EW in my Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, I found Balzac on the list with EW under 'realism'). I wanted to cry. I needed a hug. It's been 12 hours and I still need a hug.
EW is all the guilty pleasure of Jane Austen with love, romance, society, grand parties, witty back and forths between
hipsters characters who are too cool for whatever soiree they're attending, but EW adds the reality of how shitty life can be to all of these scenes which makes it both better and worse - and I can't say that I prefer one over the other, but I see a need for both.
The novel opens in conversation with everything else I've read this semester, although this book is NOT for my Gender and Lit class. Lily Bart, protagonist, tells a male character, "How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman" which I will accept as a nod to Virginia Woolf. The character she's talking to, Seldon, looks at her and thinks, "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" which I will accept as a nod to Mary Wollstonecraft. This opening scene basically sets up the entirety of the novel. We discover that Miss Bart feels alone in the world, because "the other women - my best friends - well they use me or abuse me; but they don't care a straw what happens to me." We also discover that Miss Bart needs to marry because she is "horribly poor" and "very expensive."
It's an entertaining read, but it cannot be considered light as it still shows the devastating consequences of beauty and boxes. Society did, and still does to some extent, have particular expectations for the pretty woman and Lily Bart's story is the natural outcome of those expectations. At one point she says, "life is difficult, and I am a very useless person...I was just a screw...in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole?" and this captures the way so many people feel: trapped, useless, reliant upon skills they no longer want to rely on.
I would not be surprised to meet someone who hates Lily Bart and finds her story achingly boring and trite, but as someone who feels like I groomed myself to do one thing really well and am no longer really interested in doing it, I really feel for Lily Bart and feel like we are both in a crap situation that I wish I could save us both from. I always knew I was going to be a teacher. I went to school for it. I like it. I'm good at it. It's a steady job that offers me the ability to do it anywhere in the world. But taking a 7.7% paycut makes me want to find something else to do, but I'm afraid that I may be of no use anywhere else, just another Lily Bart who only fits in one hole. At least my hole has to do with my brain and not my looks.
Before you think that we live in a world where women are no longer pigeon-holed by their looks over their ability, check out how many comments there are about this young genius's appearance that would never be said if the young genius were MALE:
*the word 'girl' is used 21 times (the 'girl' in question is 16)
*the word 'look' is used 17 times
*the word 'blonde' is used 12 times
*the word 'ditzy' is used 4 times
Many of the words are used in quotes from herself and her parents - but those quotes still tell us the kinds of questions the reporter was asking (or if nothing else, the perception the parents have of their daughter and the self perception of the teen herself). If she were ugly, overweight, brunette, or male, don't you think the article be more focused on personality, interests, and activities rather than appearances?