Some of you already know I’m that geeky kind of reader that truly enjoys much of what we term classic literature. There is just something amazing about the stories that have endured. Mostly it involves the way they employ language to put the human condition on display and (at least for many of the older works) give some kind of hope at the end, even if that hope is bittersweet.
I can deal with bittersweet endings. There is something so real about them. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a happy ending. I read far more of those, for there is an eternal truth about the happy ending that my soul craves. I can’t live on a steady diet of bittersweet. But there is something about the bittersweet endings that stay with me and make me think. They make me want to live differently, to ensure that my ending does not include recognizing truth too late.
Such is the story Edith Wharton crafted in The House of Mirth. Long ago I read other Edith Wharton titles and enjoyed them, but I’d never read this, her very first novel. And I picked it up for one reason. When I asked my son (who reads a ton of literature as a Great Texts major) what his favorite book was from the fall semester, this was his choice. That intrigued me. And so I read.
First let me say, I’d forgotten Edith Wharton’s amazing use of language. Fabulous writing. Amazing insight into character and motivation. But even more unforgettable is the ache of journeying with a character who makes all the wrong decisions, whether on purpose or by mistake. While at first glance Lily Bart’s dilemma might not seem to be relevant today, the core of her quest is alive and well in the 21st century. It’s the pursuit of material things. Of financial security. Of recognition by the “right” people. It’s a pursuit of happiness that actually leads away from the inner contentment that is sought. Reading Lily’s story causes me to question my own motives, cautions me in my own pursuits and desires. But her story stays with me for another reason, too. Through Lily, I gain compassion. I remember why the world needs Jesus. That, to me, is the mark of the best kind of story.