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Edith Wharton Revisited

Whisked Away: Destiny and the Railway in Wharton

In both The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton efforts the destinies of her characters in conjunction with the mysterious role of the rail system. Being a relatively recent confluence of industry and commerce, the railway also introduced the idea of traveling at will and at leisure, expanding not just infrastructure, but the understanding of what the possibilities of geography could hold for personal lives.

For Lily Bart, the railway is a conduit of fate.

Early on in the narrative, and throughout, she is whisked away to Bellomont, one of the two major nerve centers of Lily’s storyline, and the hub of all things determinism (in reference to her literal destiny). Similarly, the rail station (Grand Central) is the scene of her alternate destiny, the point where she rediscovers Selden. Because this rendezvous is cast at the start of the novel, Wharton underscores the notion that Lily’s elusive, parenthetical romance with him, and the possibility of what it could mean for her happiness, is indeed center stage, with all other “conduits” of her own storyline crafted carefully by Wharton, like rail lines diverting Lily away from her true and “intended” life of fulfillment. Consequently, the railway is transporting Lily Bart here and there, even against her will, everywhere but the glory of what could (and should) be, a diorama represented in the still and majestic “other world” of Grand Central Station.

Conversely, in Ethan Frome, the railway may be defined as a means of ineffectual rescue and escape – at once to temporarily alter the trajectory of Ethan’s fate, and again to serve as a pathway for its telling.

When Zeena travels to Bettsbridge to stay with her Aunt Martha Pierce, in search for a new diagnosis, Mattie and Ethan spend the night together, and in the absence of Zeena realize the notion of their romantic prospect. The railway thus exists as a demonstration of what must be subtracted from their situation in order for happiness to be achieved, but only temporarily. Though Zeena’s absence lends a grace period to the covert couple, the presence of the train only defies, even mocks the possibility that there is an attainable alternate destiny in store for Ethan outside the confines of his isolation. It serves as a dysfunctional escape route, even though it is Zeena who has literally done the escaping.

The railway also brings the narrator to Starkfield, laying ground for the telling of Ethan’s tale. Without the narrator’s arrival, the elliptical formation of Ethan’s personal story would be impossible, and because the narrator is required and able to travel by means of rail, the dissemination of the details of Ethan’s story is likewise able to be revealed to the reader. Yet the ability of the railway to aid in Ethan’s narrative formation lends no form of redemption: it no longer makes a difference if Ethan’s story is told because the agent of his potential rescue has come too late. It is a sort of dramatic non-sequitur, a contradictory conclusion that has already come with a price. Though the “crystal clearness” of the narrator’s perspective seems enough from the reader’s point of view, it isn’t enough for any of the characters – for Zeena, who has assumed the role of caretaker at the expense of her own sanity; for Ethan and Mattie, who have sacrificed their happiness; and even for the community, who still will have little, if any, idea of what actually happened in the “gaps” of Ethan’s narrative.

In an ironic sense, the railway serves as an impotent driving force that both determines and hinders the outcomes of Lily and Ethan’s eventual, and alternate, destinies. The railway is Wharton’s tantamount, iconic metaphor for a mechanism of change that, though failing to provide a means of escape for her characters, at the very least provides the reader with an understanding of her own deterministic vision.

Wharton’s Wartime France

“It is not in the mud and jokes and everyday activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monster in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.”

–Edith Wharton,¬†Fighting France

Edith Wharton was familiar with the environs of international conflict associated with the First World War. Her work in the French relief effort is much of what defines her post-authorial life.

With the unfolding events in Paris, I couldn’t help but wonder how Wharton would have reacted to her beloved expatriate city under siege. I happened upon this piece from The New Republic that reveals her responses to the ravages of war, war violence, and the sociological effects of its reality:

Edith Wharton’s War: Was Edith Wharton Hopelessly Enamored With Battle?

The writer points out that “[w]hen Wharton takes advantage not of her eyewitness proximity to the trenches but rather of the distance and off-kilter perspective that her non-combatant status and relative safety made possible, she seems able to report authentically the terror of the war.”

Upon further reading, I can mutually empathize with the writer’s observation of the frustrating paradox that pits the image of Wharton’s literary, idyllic Berkshire Estate against the unflinching realism of wartime. Also keenly demonstrated is Wharton’s detachment from that realism. Her novels tellingly reveal her stand-aside observant gaze upon the members of her society that are so instrumental in the formation of her “Old New York.” She also appears equally withdrawn in her method of documentation and representation of the very real and cataclysmic European conflict.

Does this indicate that she was largely indifferent to its traumatizing effects on individual lives? Even, conversely, indifferent to the sufferings of her own characters? Or is it simply her characteristic role as writer and correspondent that lends to her generally unemotional tone?

While it is at least safe to assume she was overtly concerned with conflict itself, wartime or otherwise, and innately intuitive of the anxieties it caused, one can really only assume what she may have thought of Paris being “terrorized” at a point in history other than wartime, had she lived. Having settled there through the First World War and following its end, until her death, her attachment to the city may have revealed a new found allegiance to it, a profound sense of sympathy with its people, the recent and more sophisticated tactics and horrors of contemporary warfare (she might agree) worse even than the subversive, life-destroying manipulations of her Bertha Dorset.

References: Samet, Elizabeth D., (6 September 2010), “Edith Wharton’s War” – New Republic (TNR).

 

 

May I? — A Poem on War, Unrest, and a Centenary of Change

May is not always just a month of change, it is a month of reflection, revival, and growth.

Not just in seasonal and allegorical ways, either, but in historical, individual ways.

On May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania set out from her American port en route to Liverpool. She was a ship of wonder, the equivalent of The White Star Line’s Titanic, famously lost three years earlier, a rival of the Cunard line’s crowning glory, and icon of Edwardian engineering and maritime pride.

She never made it back home through the ‘war zones’ of Britain, and fell in spectacle on May 7, 1915, to the bottom of the sea, seven miles off the southern coast of Ireland, in vantage point from the lighthouse that caps the cliff of ‘The Old Head of Kinsale’; with 1,198 souls lost, many of them Americans, the murder of the Lusitania outraged the American public, and set off a spark of American involvement in the growing war in Europe. Sailing through hostile German naval territory, the Lusitania was torpedoed on her starboard side by a German U-boat, and sunk in eighteen minutes. Not only a catastrophe in it’s own right, a turning point that would herald the first ever global war, ‘An End of Innocence’, a catharsis of ideals, and an American cultural revolution, but the bringing to life of new ideas, and the sobering rethinking of mankind’s expressions of ingenuity, ones that would shift from technological marvels like the Lusitania to other modes of individual, literary, and artistic ‘expression’ that would emerge through and beyond ‘The Roaring Twenties.’

Of course, I cannot help (again) to make parallels with the currents of protest now running through the nation. The uprising in Baltimore, though in a sense drastically ‘different’ from the chain of events, the loss of the Lusitania being one of them, that initiated a global crisis, is also in another sense remarkably similar — it is another distinctly ‘American’ opportunity to embrace change.

Did Wharton see the sinking of the Lusitania as the end of her ‘beloved’ (sarcasm, of course) Gilded Age ideals? Her purpose for her writing? The transformation of tragedy and unrest into a rethinking of ‘American’ values? I really have no clue, and I’m not sure that the opinions of a rich, privileged, dead white woman at this point could really lend much value towards a conversation about chronic, race-based inequality and unrest in 21st-Century America. ūüôā But it is certain that the Great War that followed catapulted her desire into assisting directly on the front lines and in the relief effort. And, I will speculate, that May 1915 may have been the month, the year, the ‘turning point’, the true wake-up-call for not just America and the world on the heels of war, but for the cynical, the brusk, the inert, the snobbish Edith Wharton, to leave her pen and paper, her failed marriage, her elaborate estate, behind, and spread the light that she had once so brashly and mercilessly denied all of her characters — and to some extent, herself — into the lives of real people, other people, people caught up in the turmoil of World War One.

May 1915. This, not all but just Wharton could likely see, was a, if not the, definitive moment of the century, the ultimate uprising and unrest of a generation, the spark of change that would, perhaps, ‘make all else clear’ …

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~ May I?

 Remembering the Lusitania ~

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May 2015 … bring forth fruit.

May 2015 … bring back light.

May 2015 … tear down hearts of stone.

May 2015 … raise up spirits of truth.

May 2015 … uproot the weeds of fear.

May 2015 … plant the seeds of love.

May 2015 … be not month, year, but purpose.

May 2015 … revive, restore, souls, bound by time.

May 2015 … renew polluted minds.

May 2015 … release the ties that bind.

May 1915 … bring us through these wars.

May 1915 … bring our nation hope, color, glory, again.

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~ Lusitania! She is not dead! She has been sailing with us all along. ~

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Edith Wharton and Margaret Mitchell: Would-be rivals? Or fellow bedfellows?

MMitchell

A portrait of Margaret Mitchell stares me down every time I hop off the elevator to the floor housing my current workplace. It’s one of those it-doesn’t-matter-where-you-are-in-the-room gazes, (what portraits are not?), and it can be creepy as she wildly projects the dominion of her vision over her typewriter, her premiere editions of Gone With the Wind, and her Pulitzer, all displayed in glass casings that reflect the obnoxious glare of the florescent rectangles of light overhead. It is a shrine to a woman and writer I’ve known so little about, and frankly, until now haven’t had the least bit of interest in. The ‘sensation’ of GWTW, both the novel and the film, though unrivaled in popular American culture, just never seemed palatable to me, a kid who attended most of grade school only miles from ‘The Road to Tara’, a kid still, who even now doesn’t fully have a grasp on the romanticization of ‘The Old South’ and the lament of its destruction.

Instead of regurgitating what is already stated in academic acknowledgements of Wharton being an ‘influence’ on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, I will just consider what I can imagine Wharton’s opinions or views may have been regarding GWTW, and the sentiment of ‘lost ideals’ so loudly and blatantly apparent in Mitchell’s unforgettable story.

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Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, the year before Wharton died of a stroke outside of Paris, an ocean away from the literary ‘currents’ of not just modernity, but the still permeating, and increasing influence of ‘popular fiction’ on American culture. What Wharton would not have known, then, was the way in which Margaret Mitchell ‘composed’ her novel. After reading essentially every single book from The Carnegie Library, Atlanta’s original city library, and after injuring her ankle after leaving her job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal, her husband, John Marsh, in so many sarcastic terms, ‘encouraged’ her to write her own story instead of devouring others’ by her husband’s arm-fulls — and so she did, writing about a city she knew so well, her home, Atlanta, set in a period that had all but vanished.

For those who know Wharton and her perspective, this, of course would sound much too familiar.

But Margaret Mitchell, despite her own ‘popular’ approach and mastery of storytelling that has so mythologized Gone With the Wind, did not seem to have the same ‘respect’ for the novel as an art form that Wharton did. In fact, she has been quoted as saying regarding the completion of GWTW — “I just want to finish this damn thing.” While Wharton herself was likely unamused with the rigorous physicality of the writing process, and the lengthy depths of thought involved (she was of course, unamused with most things in life), she would have also likely disdained the way in which Mitchell saw no purpose in her work. Another compelling ‘fact’ was that Margaret had demanded the original manuscript of GWTW returned to her after being mocked and subsequently irritated by an acquaintance, and after having already submitted it to the publisher. She did not even believe herself that the novel would bring her or the public any form of commercialized success. [http://mentalfloss.com/article/30591/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-gone-wind] Though Wharton’s temperament was in some ways practically identical to Mitchell’s, I believe she would have frowned upon and even disdained Mitchell’s nonchalant and indifferent attitude towards the role of the contribution of her novel and her work, Gone With the Wind, to the American cultural imagination, whether considered ‘literary’ or ‘popular’. Wharton’s aims and vision for her novels were far more broad-reaching and polemical in comparison to Mitchell’s, even though Mitchell’s one-hit-wonder (though not singular) work of fiction, Gone With the Wind, cannot be disputed as having far exceeded any single work of Wharton’s in not just national, but worldwide popularity.

I can’t help but not forget, however, the kinship of sentiment and subject matter shared by both Wharton and Mitchell concerning ‘things lost’ — Gone With the Wind both sponging and proclaiming the maudlin reaction to the burning of Atlanta, the end of The Civil War, and the dissolution of the agrarian South, while Wharton’s ‘Novel(s) of Manners’ pierce and bite the rigid, self-serving tactics of ‘Old New York’, lamenting not the loss of a romanticized ‘way of life’, but individual life, individual lives, casualties of an intangible milieu that would, ironically, just like the tangible roads and byways from Atlanta to Savannah along ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea’ consumed in flame, also completely disappear into history. In not just a literal sense could Wharton and Mitchell be considered ‘bedfellows’ — they both wrote in bed and often flung written pages of their work onto the floor — but that both cultures from which they wrote, North and South, so polarized in ideals, in an allegorical sense, ‘made their own beds’ and slept in them, meaning, that both the idealized, slave-based plantation systems of the 19th-century South, and the unforgiving social rungs of 19th-century aristocratic New York, would equally dismantle these now only and forever archived ways of life, the fleeting ‘securities’ and comforts that they had brought to the privileged, with their ignorant disregard of inequality, the soulful, and the passionate, forever securing, with the help of both Mitchell and Wharton, the myths of a nation once — or still? — divided.

But He Who Dares Not Grasp the Thorn…

Adding not ‘thoughts here’, but rather some color from a friend to liven up a dreary, abandoned blog site as indication of some more spring-inspired musings to come …

Hint: If I don’t do this now, Wharton’s ‘lessons’ might simply become ‘gone with the wind’ … ūüėÄ

Mary C. M. Phillips

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.‚ÄĚ
‚Äē Anne Bront√ę

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Happy — Yes, Happy — 153rd Birthday, Edith Wharton

‚ÄúThe very good people did not convince me; I felt they had¬†never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands – and you hated the things it asked of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I’d never known before – and it’s better than anything I’ve known.‚ÄĚ —The Age of Innocence

‚ÄúDo you remember what you said to me once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well — you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always helped me.‚ÄĚ —The House of Mirth

“The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway crossing.” —The Custom of the Country

‚ÄúThey seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods.‚ÄĚEthan Frome

… “The silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.” …

~Edith Wharton, b. January 24, 1862

Fables and Fiction: Wharton and “The Age of … Relevance”

“Fiction is the chief intellectual stimulus of our time […] It is ninety-nine chances out of one hundred that the book which, at any given moment, is making the world talk, and making the world think, is a novel.”

–Novel Writing, and Novel Reading (1899), lecture by William Dean Howells

Recently, I have begun to notice something¬†interesting in the things that are “trending” across social media,¬†the web, and (it appears) contemporary literary circles. On my Facebook feed,¬†someone had shared a link to an article titled “Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction.”¬†Google’s Zeitgeist commemorative video of the “Year in Search” (2014) revealed that people had searched for “science more than fiction.” And a newly published essay by Roger Grenier in The American Scholar magazine is aptly dubbed “Last Works: Is There Anything Left to Say?”

I loved fiction growing up, and mostly, that was the only kind of reading I did … (I¬†think that’s the only kind of reading most pre-adolescent kids do¬†if there isn’t something more interesting on television, or as¬†a last-resort¬†alternative to spending a weekend or summer away from having to read for homework, and the like) … But¬†I think that it is safer to assume that everyone learns about the world, and themselves, through storytelling. The oral tradition, before the advent of the printing press, had handed down the epic fables, the chronological, biblical tales recorded in story format that were eventually compiled into the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible, the text that most everyone already knows is the single most reproduced collection of “stories” ever published … and at¬†the turn of the previous century, the novel had become the premier, ultimate reflection of society’s ability to not just tell and write their own stories, but to turn storytelling, in novel form, into art:

“… The place occupied in the world by the prolonged prose fable has become, in our time, among the incidents of literature, the most surprising example to be named of swift and extravagant growth, a development beyond the measure of every early appearance […] It arrived in truth, the novel, late at self-consciousness, but it has done it’s utmost ever since to make up for lost opportunities. The flood at present swells and swells, threatening the whole field of letters […] The book, in the Anglo-Saxon world, is almost everywhere, and it is in the form of the voluminous prose fable that we see it penetrate easiest and furthest.”

–The Future of the Novel (1900), Henry James, essay

Wharton, encouraged by Henry James, took every advantage of the contemporary trend of the “prolonged prose fable,” and used not only her talent and foresight to populate the imaginations of her readers, but her understanding of the power of the fable.

The fable is, by meager definition: “a short story … conveying a moral.” A few of Wharton’s more successful works are, if measured by their length, technically considered fables (or novellas — Ethan Frome, Summer), but her three most distinctive, novel-length works — The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence — would more appropriately fall under James’¬†heading of the “prolonged prose fable.” It was these novels that mirrored the “zeitgeist” of Edwardian New York society. If there were any hashtags placed before words in private, written correspondence, they would have probably gone before the titles of novels such as Wharton’s.

Perhaps the novel form that Wharton perfected is truly not as relevant or as popular a force today as it was then, nor as singular an indicator of the spirit, tone, and interests of contemporary American society. Since the turn of the previous century, more modes of expression have emerged to conduct the electricity of storytelling, and the power that it brings to individual life. And perhaps also, the use of the novel as a conductor of storytelling is not as favored or as preferred by artists as it once was by Wharton and James.

Yet the story itself remains. The fable remains. And even if everyone across the globe were robbed in an instant of their ability to read and to write, the need to tell stories would remain, to turn stories (events) into fables (lessons). A return to the oral tradition, in an ironic way.

In this sense, I believe that there is no “Age of Relevance” for the story and the fable. Turning one into the other — whether in a novel, on television, on YouTube, in the theater, in graffiti color on a wall of a neglected underpass, in a¬†journal or a notebook or a time capsule that no one may ever see — is a kind of expression, a kind of fiction, that will never die with time, and that telling our own cultural¬†and personal stories, whether in more direct ways, or using fiction as a filter, is a priority that cannot be ignored.

It seems apparent that Wharton, and other American writers who followed, were conscious¬†that the novel¬†would become a¬†sort of “dying breed” of written expression. But there is no doubt (in my mind) that most of these writers, including Wharton, would not be so scathing enough to entirely disapprove of the different modes of media and expression and communication that most everyone is familiar with today …

Distracting? Yes. Detracting? Perhaps. But irrelevant? Far from it.

But At Sunset the Clouds Gathered Again‚Ķ

The Incarceration and Liberation of Lily Bart

“She was evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate … [yet her] attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline — as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality.” –The House of Mirth

About a year into college, I switched majors from Real Estate to English Literature. My “plan” had been to earn a B.B.A. and pursue a career in real estate appraising, a road that two of my uncles had chosen to make a living. It wasn’t very apparent where this choice would lead, but it was a required core American Literature course (and its professor) that sparked my interest in studying literature further. The following fall semester, I had already changed majors, and registered for (what was now) another required course in introductory literary studies. Same professor. Actually, funnily enough, it was the same lecture hall. I think even the exact same classroom.

Towards and as a part of the completion of the class, we were required to choose one of three novels, and apply to it, in essay form, (I will pause to apologize in advance if my blog posts more resemble essays than blogs!), one of the ten “literary theories” we had studied and read about throughout the semester.

This was deep stuff. In the beginning, I really had no idea what the purpose of these theories were meant for. Among the required reading were philosophies and literary theories and movements of the past century, including Marxism, deconstructionism, multi-culturalism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and ideas of “modernity,” formed by legendary “thinkers” such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, and the like. Yeah. All, as a newcomer to literary studies, completely and utterly over my head. Yet I was fascinated.

Among the choice of novels meant to be used for this assignment was Wharton’s The House of Mirth; I had never read it to this point, but chose it solely based on my initial attraction to Wharton’s storytelling in Ethan Frome, in high school, her only work I had read, and enjoyed, to date. I was pleasantly surprised. Again. I didn’t realize it right away, but Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart — her physical beauty, her fragile, inner sense of dignity, her (literally) painful awareness of the world around her — was merely a subconsciously female counterpart of Ethan Frome. Going through the story for the first time, I also identified with how the urban setting of Edwardian Manhattan, both the physical, lavish constructs of Fifth Avenue, and the plutocracy that controlled it (“The Lords of Pittsburgh,” as Edith Wharton referred to the industrial tycoons of her day), played an integral part in the plotting of Lily’s destiny. New York City, in Lily’s time, was still a residual product of the wealthy Dutch ancestry that had purchased, founded, and established the “New Amsterdam” of the 17th Century, and was not exactly the wondrous, modern metropolis of today that leaves countless tourists awe-struck and on sensory overload. New York City was, for brooding, independent souls, like Lily Bart, an asphyxiating prison.

The proverbial light-bulb went on over my head after realizing Wharton’s implication: we are creatures of our environment. This really is no cliche, and was certainly no cliche in Wharton’s time. Even though Lily is born into white privilege and financial “advantage,” she still (again, no spoiler alerts here) ends up, just like anyone else “beneath her,” living in debilitating poverty. She makes that feared descent into failure alone, although there are some in her path, social “outliers,” like Lily’s penniless, dilettante love interest, Selden, and his “dingy” cousin, Gerty Farrish, who attempt to intervene. A literary critic of the time, Edmund Wilson, writes in his critique, “Justice to Edith Wharton,” (1937, the year of Wharton’s death), that she (Wharton) makes a point to craft her novels as “almost [invariable upshots] of a conflict between the individual and the social group.” This is Wharton’s unspoken, but obvious mantra behind her fiction and form, and the inevitable driving force of action (or inaction?) in the lives of her characters, like Ethan, and, as we see here, Lily. It is the defining feature of her tragedy, like the ornate facade and pinnacles of the Woolworth Building, only for Wharton’s characters, it is more like the banal, obtrusive face of an exceedingly unjust social prison.

My mind immediately went to a theory I had enjoyed reading about in our theory textbook: Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon, a term mentioned in his more thought-out, novel-length book “Discipline and Punish.” A panopticon is a circular French bastille (prison) that has, within its center, concentric layers of building structure that contains individual prison cells. These cells are constantly monitored by guards from a sentry tower located in the center of the structure, but cannot be seen by the inmates (hence the effectiveness of monitoring and controlling the behavior of the prisoners). This concept of surveillance immediately reminded me of the New York of Wharton’s time, played out in The House of Mirth, and how the physical buildings that line the dull, cheerless avenues of Lily’s New York are the “sentry towers,” the members of her circle the “sentries”. We see an example of this as Lily’s Aunt Julia, a loveless relative who “tries [Lily] for a year” in an act of pretentious charity after the death of Lily’s parents, constantly watches Lily’s comings and goings from the windows of the drawing room. Everything is scrutinized, and everyone knows everyone else’s business, in a society where “scandal was dreaded more than disease”; only, because of her innate, intuitive sensibilities, Lily Bart does realize this, and understands her need to both satisfy and resist it in order to survive. The only place in this brownstone menagerie that Lily feels “free,” we discover halfway through the novel, is the “other-worldliness” of the Brys’ conservatory, the Brys a new-monied family who host a lavish ball (orchestrated to facilitate their ascent into the upper-class) where Lily is an invitee; it is in this conservatory that Lily shares a kiss with Selden. Wharton implies that the wild foliage of the natural world on display in the conservatory serves as a metaphor for Lily’s natural beauty, similarly on display for, and at the disposal of, a group of people who would rather admire the conceited, materialistic grandiosity of their own achievements.

How does all this lead to Lily’s eventual condemnation from society? Lily knows her limitations, in terms of the people and occurrences dictating her fate, but she does not know her limitations in how to tolerate and deal with them, so she resorts to self-policing tendencies to preserve her fragile spirituality. It is her most rational choice, because, sadly, sound personal choices of any other kind are, for Lily, themselves limited, and few and far between; almost any other choice made available to her to escape or transcend her crises (one, the threat of poverty, the other, the grim humiliation of sacrificing her personal integrity to remain rich by marrying rich), will mean some kind of abject compromise. For Lily, as the reader navigates her gradual, turbulent fall from grace, we begin to realize that she is, proverbially, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. It is not so much the viscous, heinous, unforgiving, grudge-holding social circle that allegorically jails and incarcerates her, but it is Lily that incarcerates herself, and ironically, in so doing, preserves her sense of self-worth, however neurotic she may appear to those close to her. In her eyes, even at the close of the final chapter, staying true to herself, defying the “attrition and corrosion of the soul” that is enabled by her tangled connections with New York’s elite, is what actually frees her in the end, and Lily Bart becomes not just a literary heroine in her own right, but a transcendent testament to, and mythological martyr of, the age-old destructive forces of every American society that preceded Wharton’s time, the society that Wharton herself knew, and every American society since.

What can we learn from Lily Bart? Why was the city of her time such a dreary, confining, and spiritually intoxicating place, when the city as we know it today has become a place of change, education, and reform? Have the confinements of the “class-based” society vanished completely? It can be noted, and has been documented through the American historical record, that this time period, the Edwardian Era, was an age of “transition” between not only the American post-Civil War era, but of an intensely global imperialist ideology (Wharton actually confessed, in 1901, to being a “rabid imperialist,” despite her understanding of the cruel forces of elitism), and the ravages and consequences of the First World War. This was, in both a literary and historical context, a time of excess and arrogance of faith in man’s achievements and wealth, even if it was at the expense of not only sensitive, artistic persons in high society (like Lily), but also the quality of life and “good of the masses,” the 3rd, and even 2nd-class (now, as we call it, middle class) citizens of Wharton’s day. Spirited, adventurous visionaries of any kind, in any social stratum, were discouraged, and even though history has revealed the ignorance of this attitude, we must now go in search of the Lily Barts and Ethan Fromes of our time; that they must no longer be stifled, exiled, or ignored; we must break the molds, the deceptive, self-serving misuses of religion and politics, and find the true, pure meaning of our individual purpose in this world, and — yes, we can still dream — the world to come. The bleakness and harshness of Whartonian fate becomes merely the thing of legend, and although, as Edmund Wilson states, “[Wharton’s] grimness melts rapidly into benignity,” perhaps even obscurity, her message remains clear: that the single greatest incarcerating force, the thing that keeps us from glory and liberation, our greatest enemy, is not society and the confounding disapproval of other people, but the lies we believe about ourselves.

We can now clearly see Lily Bart in her glory. Wharton has uncuffed Lily from her suffering, and released her “Beyond!” the annals of her prose, the limitations of her own storytelling. Lily’s period of incarceration has ended, and Wharton gives her, at the end of the novel, a final, eternal rite of passage, the breath of a single word, the utterance of which, made by Selden, “makes all else clear.”

“No one can ever put out the fire you bring.
The heavens still sing, they’re singing out your name
I’ll never forget, I’ll keep it within
And I’ll fight from heaven to hell.

There’s a ball of fire painting my skies,
It’s orbiting my mind and my desires.
In your black hole eyes, I’m losing control.
You’re pulling me in, body and soul.

I’ll never put out the fire you bring.
The heavens still sing,
They’re singing out your name.
I’ll never let go, I’ll never be the same.
And I’ll fly from heaven and hell,
Holding your flame…”

–Holding Your Flame, Epic Pop

{In the pure, hopeful, virtuous spirit of Lily Bart}

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