Welcome to The Augur Lit, a new Bit column about books, literature and their place in the GDS community and beyond. I have always loved books; with The Augur Lit, I hope to share my passion with others by exploring the relevance of literature to pop culture and our lives as GDS students. I’ll review books, provide recommendations, report on the English department and maybe even discuss students’ creative writing. For my first column, I am taking a closer look at the classic novel The House of Mirth and its striking parallels to current society.
Author Edith Wharton was born at a time when the internet didn’t exist, but the world of glitz and glamour she grew up in, and that she describes in her 1905 novel The House of Mirth, will be familiar to keen observers of pop culture today.
The novel opens in a milieu of excessive wealth: the New York City upper class in the late 19th century. The reader learns that their society, much like our own, is one of profound unfairness and economic inequity. Wharton primarily focuses on the wealthy class—privileged, powerful, but rife with self-delusion. In Wharton’s society, that class of people represents what poor and middle class people are meant to strive towards.
Yet the upper-class characters are portrayed as plainly ridiculous in the text; petty and superficial, they play an intricate, often futile, game of manners and complex financial dealings in an effort to achieve greater stability on their perch. Ordinary people in the society around them are obsessed with the elites’ shallow lives.
The best modern parallels to that dynamic are the interactions between social media influencers and their followings—Kim Kardashian being a great example. She lives a life of extreme privilege and luxury, but because of her following, she is more than a person, or even a rich person: To her followers, she is an almost tangible symbol of the life they wish they could live.
Likewise, the main characters in The House of Mirth are widely seen as representatives of an ideal life, which fuels the public’s obsession with them. That is particularly true of the novel’s protagonist, Lily Bart. Lily begins the book as a well-off orphan on a hunt for a rich husband to secure her spot in the upper class. Her friends and the broader society consider her the perfect woman, worshipping her in a way almost akin to Kardashian-mania. In Wharton’s 19th century, that perfection entails beauty, elegance and ample money to spend on sartorial frivolities.
Lily’s situation raises obvious questions for readers. Is the ideal life that Lily represents and that the characters are meant to aspire to attain really worth anything? That leads us to Wharton’s point: By society’s standards, Lily’s life is valuable and desirable, but to her individual sensibilities, it is neither. Because Lily must sacrifice so much to be considered worthy of the society in which she operates, she constantly lives in a state of financial insecurity. Not only that, but she sacrifices potential friends, plans and aspirations to uphold aspects of her image. Lily is betraying her own self in favor of a continued place in the upper class’ superficial world.
I imagine a comparable problem faces Kim Kardashian and everyone seeking to follow in her footsteps as the next big celebrity or internet star. The world of influencer culture is no less artificial than Lily’s, and similarly arbitrary distinctions mark what makes someone worthy of celebrity. One wonders how much of themselves influencers are required to sacrifice for their place in the arbitrary celebrity pantheon.
For Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, perpetuating that performance becomes impossible. Over the course of the plot, the reader sees how skilled Lily is at convincing wealthy men to want her for a wife. But whenever the opportunity to marry comes within her grasp, she lets it slip through her fingers. Lily is unable to betray the part of herself that wants more than the life the people surrounding her have always told to desire. The success of the novel is in that dilemma.
Wharton is, at heart, a sympathetic author who strives to understand rather than condemn. As a result, the reader feels as Lily does: her anguish, her sadness, her small victories, her mistakes. Wharton’s descriptions of Lily’s situation are ironic and occasionally funny, but equally unsettling and sad. She manages an unsteady tone throughout the novel, balancing lightness with deep melancholy. The effect is like that of a note registering slightly off to the ear as, along with Lily, the reader grows increasingly uneasy with the persona she has adopted.
The final chapters of The House of Mirth detail Lily’s descent into poverty and subsequent death—whether by suicide or an accident, it is unclear. In the tragic aftermath, Wharton highlights the dangers of setting one’s sights on an idealized existence, and how a society built on superficiality will eventually fail even its most privileged people. What is a false life worth in the end? It is a complex question, which Wharton probes with grace, wit, sympathy and above all humanity. Her ultimate answer, to Lily’s world and ours, is clear: nothing at all.