The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

Book #770
Reviewer: Kara

The House of MirthThere is something about Lily Bart that sets her apart for everyone else in The House of Mirth. She is stunningly beautiful, which matters a lot to many of the men in the nouveau-riche turn-of-the-century New York society in which she lives. She is also extremely skilled in social situations and is able to understand people’s inner motives, hang-ups, and intentions and use them to her advantage.
As a result, many people like her and even those who don’t want her around to manipulate social situations in their favor. Both of these factors – beauty and social skill – allow her to live the life of a rich society woman, despite being nearly broke. She offers these things in return for gifts and hospitality.
Despite these things though, Lily is 29 and unmarried. It becomes clear that every time she comes close to sealing the deal she sabotages herself – because part of her really doesn’t like the money-focused society she lives in or see its value. In this belief, which is only semi-conscious for her, she finds a partner in Selden, who states it outright and begins to fall for Lily because she is the only other “society person” who seems to get the joke. Also did I mention she’s beautiful.
Selden on Lily, early in the novel:
“He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?”
As you can imagine, Lily’s lack of money coupled with her being a single woman approaching thirty begin to cause her problems – problems that she is forced to solve in less than savory ways in order to maintain her lifestyle and status. Mid-novel, Lily has “a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without ever perceiving the right road till it was too late to take it.” This is when things get interesting.
Wharton focuses on several themes in her withering description of upper class society and its tendency to honor the most selfish and flashy, and chew up and spit out everyone else. First, there is the way that truth is manipulated. As Lily says, “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
This is something that still resonates today, particularly in our national discussion of how people of different races and economic backgrounds are treated by the criminal justice system. Another is the need for stability in life, and the ways in which our various societies shape us as children, then sometimes fail us rather than support us as adults.
When Lily’s society turns its back on her:
“That was the feeling which possessed her now-the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.”
Occasionally in the novel, Lily comes in contact with young women of the lower classes. These are women who must work for a living and are surviving well enough but have none of the fancy things she has, no extra money, and no elaborate social calendar. It is one of these women who gives Lily a glimpse of what a truly satisfying and happy life could be:
“The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence.”
Lily knows that this woman who has very little, has something she does not: stability. She compares the “shelter” this woman has built to a bird nest on a cliff. It’s a safe haven to be at peace and raise a family, protected from the dangers just outside its walls.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin

Book # 326a

Reviewer: Kara


This classic novel of science fiction is the story of Shevek, a physicist from a 150-year-old socialist-anarchist experimental utopia on a moon. He has begun to see cracks in his society, and a return to the ways that the founders left their home planet to escape. He travels to that home planet, with the ultimate goal of “tearing down walls.”

Written in 1974, the novel was an instant hit and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. The primary theme of the novel is an illustration of the merits and dangers of anarchy and socialism. These ideas, while interesting, do read a little bit like a product of their time.

What makes the novel a must-read to this day are the other universal and complex themes it also tackles, including gender equality, the nature of time, and what it really means to be free.

The discussion of freedom occurs at two levels: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of ideas. The novel clearly advocates for personal freedom and glorifies an individual’s right to determine what s/he does for a living and for pleasure, who s/he loves, how s/he lives, etc., without any caveats. The implication here is that people are genuinely good and genuinely care about each other and about contributing something positive to the world.

This freedom was so important to the founders of the society where Shevek lives that they see even having possessions or, in many cases, committed relationships, as a prison. Children are named randomly by a computer and raised in group dormitory settings. Few people have monogamous partnerships and sexual relations happen easily and often. People own little more than a set of clothes or two and go to cafeterias for food. As Shevek says to the people on the home planet when he visits:

“Because our men and women are free–possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns.”

The freedom of ideas is central to the novel, and is central to Shevek’s quest: he has discovered a physics formula of great importance and wants to share it with everyone in all societies on all planets. The importance of shared ideas is stated most clearly in this passage:

“It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

The plot moves very slowly overall, and I was more than halfway through the book before it really picked up speed. Part of this is due to the necessity of world-building, part of this is due to the non-linear structure, and part of this is due to the frequent asides on physics, philosophy, relationships, and political systems. The slow pace didn’t bother me much, but if you prefer adventure or galactic battles in your sci-fi, this isn’t going to hit the spot for you.

If, however, you’re curious what a society where freedom is the ultimate (and only) collective value might look like, this novel is fascinating. And if you’re looking for thought-provoking discussion and the occasional beautifully-written sentence (somewhat rare in science fiction!) look no further. Case in point:

“‘If you can see a thing whole,’ he said, ‘it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.'”