This post contains details about the plot and ending of The House of Mirth. Do not keep reading if you don’t want spoilers.
I recently re-read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for the first time since high school (so… for the first time in a long time, is all I’m sayin’), and though I remember liking it very much, I don’t remember closing the book and being about as angry as I’ve been in a long time, as I was the other day when I finished my re-read.
It is a bitter, bitter book. If you’re familiar with Wharton, you know that she was raised amongst the privileged classes of turn-of-the-century New York, and was also a vocal critic of what she clearly saw as petty and pointless discrimination and cruelty practiced by her socioeconomic peers. Her more famous work, The Age of Innocence, was written fifteen years after The House of Mirth, and its more mature and nuanced approach won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. But it is not nearly as punishing as her earlier book, in which heroine Lily Bart follows a downward spiral to poverty and despair because she is too conflicted to navigate the intricacies of the social sphere to which she was born.
Keeping the Plot, Missing the Point (Sort of)
Terence Davies’ 2000 adaptation of the book is very faithful to the plot, mostly taking only minor liberties for economy’s sake. For example, he combines the characters of Gerty Farish, Lily’s kind-hearted but unfashionable friend, and Grace Stepney, Lily’s cousin who inherits their aunt’s fortune. Where he missteps, I think, is in making at least two changes that conflict with the intent of Wharton’s novel. First, Selden never suspects Lily of sleeping with Gus Trenor, as he does in the book. Second, in the book, Selden never finds out that Lily was formerly in possession of love letters written to him by Bertha Dorset. These omissions in the film unburden Selden of his complicity in Lily’s eventual demise, and shift the focus of the story ever so slightly, making it more about star-crossed lovers in a cruel world and less about how absolutely arbitrary and man-made the rules of that world were. It makes Lily’s choice more about her hesitance to expose Selden’s transgressions than about how blackmail utterly violates her sense of moral uprightness.
For Lily to go to the grave as she does in the book, without Selden ever having fully understood her, before he understands her liaison with Gus, and never knowing that she had the power all along to save herself by blackmailing Bertha, is of a piece with her whole sad unfair life. Because the book is largely about Lily’s refusal to be someone she isn’t in order to avoid starvation. She can marry someone she doesn’t love and pretend to be happy about it. She can blackmail Bertha despite the fact that the very idea of stooping so low disgusts her. She can marry Selden even though he can’t afford the only lifestyle she has been brought up to appreciate. She can, in her own eyes as well as those of society, degrade herself by taking money from married men in exchange for sexual favors. Or she can die. So Selden is really only one of her options. And Wharton takes care to show us that despite Lily’s love for him, he is one of the main contributors to her downfall, because the truth is that he sees complete self-denial as the only honorable option for Lily. Wharton’s Selden is a man completely of his time, who loves nothing more than to fancy himself ahead of his time.
Meanwhile, the one-line synopsis on the DVD cover reads, “How far would you go to protect the one you love when faced with total ruin and disgrace?” It’s a gross oversimplification.
Eric Stoltz, who plays Selden, I think has a better idea of who Selden is than the plot of the movie would make it seem. He plays him well as a detached, self-involved intellectual who takes great pride in throwing barbs at society while shamelessly enjoying whatever perks he can glean from it.
Laura Linney is wickedly wonderful as Bertha Dorset. She reminded me of Orson Welles in The Third Man, who despite his moral repugnance is a breath of fresh air simply because he seems to be the only person who’s having any fun.
Gillian Anderson gives an excellent performance, though her Lily is not quite the Lily of the book. She plays her with a gravity not innate to Wharton’s Lily Bart. Anxiety and dread are imposed on Lily, who otherwise has a natural light and hedonistic bent. It’s not that Lily is stupid– in fact, she’d be a great deal happier and less conflicted if she were– it’s that she is näive. She can’t see when she’s being entrapped, she thinks her beauty and charm are enough to protect her and purchase her security, and she often expects life to be fair when it is not. Lily’s fatal flaw is that she is has a rock-solid, albeit idiosyncratic, set of morals, but is not mature enough to see that moral flexibility is sometimes justified. Anderson gives Lily an almost intellectual flavor that makes her eventual death seem more like self-inflicted punishment than moral conflict.
But All in All…
It’s a very good adaptation. It looks beautiful, it keeps the main plot points of Wharton’s novel but paces them well for film, and it gleans the best dialogue almost word-for-word from Wharton’s skillful hand. The movie has a force to it. It respects the patient unfurling of Wharton’s novel. Though it either did not understand or did not choose to fully articulate all the subtleties of Wharton’s novel, it understands the power of subtlety itself, and that that is where the powers of social expectations lie.