Rev Up the Engines

I Slog Through "The House of Mirth" Because Someone Decided It Was a Classic

I like to pretend that I have refined tastes and a sophisticated palate when it comes to entertainment. But I also admit that is a total fraud and a charade I perpetuate so I can get into exclusive dinner parties (or really any place that I can get a free meal). My tastes can't be too refined when one of my favourite current shows is basically prime time soap opera trash (Revenge), I consider Star Wars the measuring stick for quality films, Nirvana is my version of high class music, and I lap up absolutely everything done by Stephen King. I'm not even close to being the poster boy for "high class entertainment."

But like I said, I do like to pretend. So, I delve into the occasional award winning documentary, I seek out the "golden era" cinematic masterpieces, I'll attend the sporadic symphony, and I read my share of classic literature. Most of the time, I actually enjoy myself. Sure, there is a clear lack of hard guitar riffs or brain eating zombies, but I'm usually able to walk away feeling very entertained. I think I do a rather fine job of enjoying both the pedigree and the bowels of the entertainment world.

Actually, I'd go as far as to say that some of the classic and highly regarded entertainment is some of my very favourite. I'm a big fan of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I love Lords of the Flies, and both are not only considered classic literature but are regularly debated by the highly educated scholars. I can be entertained by the classics and hold my own when chatting it up with the literary snobs (though the conversation may sour when I address them that way).

But in my effort to read classics and be well read, I stumble upon some high regarded literature that amuses me as much as a screwdriver up the nostril. The specific book I'm referring to is Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. I own this novel because I needed it for my Woman in Literature course back in University, though I'm not sure how much I really needed it since I aced the course without ever really opening up the book. It has been occupying space on my book shelf for about four years now, and so I thought it was time to actually read it. The cover of a lady wearing a hat that looks like a giant taco holding feathers wasn't the most appealing, but I thought since I own it then I should eventually read it (plus it would be nice to see how close my essay actually got to describing what I assumed the book was about). To my credit I got to page 125, but I even got there thanks to the power of skimming and skipping. Now, I'm reading Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Tunes into TV and I'm finding myself far more entertained (but I'm still telling myself it is only a matter of time before I need to plow through ol' Wharton's "masterpiece").

I know what you're probably telling yourself, "Christopher doesn't appreciate that wonderful piece of literature because it is about women's struggle in high society in the late 1800s/early 1900s because he has a penis thus can never appreciate such a dilemma." That sounds like a rather sound criticism except it is completely wrong. My dislike can't be due to it being about the suffering of women's place in society or even to do with being a part of high society, because I'm a big fan of Kate Chopin's The Awakening -- which deals with both those issues. The Awakening is also several hundred pages lighter and has a main character that I actually give a few rips about.

I want to make something clear here though. I recognize that Edith Wharton is a wonderful writer. I also will admit that The House of Mirth is wonderfully written. The prose is beautiful and the skill is beyond obvious. It is a well craft piece of literature when it comes to the use of description and language. The language is well crafted enough that I will be able to get through this book with some super skimming.

My problem is I can't relate to the protagonist Lily Bart. I actually can't relate or even like anyone I've encountered in this novel. I have a feeling that I am not really supposed to either. This is fine, because I've enjoyed fiction where there aren’t any real likeable characters. In that case, usually it is at least a situation that I find fascinating. I am not really getting a kick out of reading incredibly rich people have weekends at their country house or parties on their big boats or them going on and on and on about how a woman's job is to marry someone rich. At the same time, those themes can't be the absolute turn off because that is partly the story going on in The Awakening too. I found Edna Pontellier to be a far more relatable and likeable character. I understood her struggle and why she felt trapped. Lily Bart just seems like a ditz that keeps causing all her own problems (and I realize that is sort of the point of the story, but at some point I need to actually feel bad for her in order to care at all).

I know that The House of Mirth is all fancy, dancey, highly touted, classic literature. And lovers of this book can just claim my criticism is proof that I'm nothing more than an ogre and can't appreciate fine works. I'm sorry but your literary snobbery doesn't hold any weight here. I argue that The House of Mirth is basically the early 1900s equivalent of Krazy Kardashians (or whatever that reality pap is called with the sisters I'm begging to be shipped to the moon for good). The crap on the E! Network has a following because people like watching the lifestyles of rich people and see all the pettiness they unleash on a daily basis. As far as I can tell after 125 pages, that is likely the same appeal this book held back then. It showed how the rich lived. It made the rich look really petty. The novel has some validity because Wharton was from that circle of society.

So, you can criticize me for my tastes or lack of refinement, but I don't really think this novel is that much different than some of the pap we're tortured with on a daily basis. It isn't exactly the same. I realize this is incredibly well written unlike the garbage I'm comparing it to. I know the novel uses big words and all the literary devices my professors told me to use if I wanted to be a 'real and respected' author. It also has deeper messages and a great use of imagery. I also think the message has been told in other works, and works that happen to not bore the hell out of me.

I don't know, maybe I'm just not in the right place to enjoy this novel properly. Maybe I should don a top hat, put on a monocle and retreat to the fireplace in my study. Then maybe I'll read it and declare, "Yip Yip! This is a mighty good yarn that I can both relate and love. Fetch me my Scotch, Alfred."

I said Alfred because that is the name of Bruce Wayne's butler. I'd rather think of Dark Knight Rises than keep on allowing this novel take up my thoughts. See, I'm just not in the right place yet -- I'll have to find a smoking jacket and a bear skin rug soon.

I am going to try to slog through this novel. Partly because my obsessive side doesn't do well with knowing I have an unfinished book on the shelf. I'll power through this thing and maybe glue a page together so I can get to the end quickly. Who knows, maybe I'll realize I'm just not being fair and the problem was I was too eager to read some of my other books. Maybe this is going to be the novel that changes my life and by page 363 it'll have captured my heart.

Wait, page 363? How long is this thing?!?

483 pages?!?! I mean sure Uncle John is over 500 and Stephen King's books are big enough to down a Yeti, but they also don't constantly spend 10 pages at a time with the character debating if she should walk across the room to talk to the handsome man or play another game of bridge instead.

Maybe I can convince Crosby to eat this book???


  1. I like this initial thought process you've shared. It makes me want to eventually check out the books you've referenced and test if I get the same emotional reaction as you....remind me sometime in the future to borrow these books (one at a time, of course) :)

  2. The Awakening and Huckleberry Finn are wonderful novels and mandatory reads for anyone who professes to love literature. I've also got several other delightful books I'd love for you to check out, and then we can discuss after.


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