Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is the greatest novel ever written by an American. It is an almost perfect book, smoothly merging content and style. Wharton makes the usual suspects--Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wolfe--look like boys in kneepants.
Is there a "Great American Novel"?
Note that I did not say that The House of Mirth is the great American novel. I don't think its possible to speak of a "great American novel" in the same sense you can speak of a great French, British or Russian novel. You could say that there is more than one France--Zola, in his Rougon-Macquart series, ranged from the depths of a coal mine to the heights of French society. But, at least to an American, there is a more consistent thread of identity and philosophy uniting all French art than there is here. The United States, alone among western nations in modern times, nearly severed itself into two countries, and it contains the seeds of many more. Any novel can only contain the image of a particular American experience: New York society, the plains of Texas, the swamps of Yoknapatawpha county, the Everglades, or the intrigues of Washington, D.C. A great American novel would have to reflect or critique a current myth which ties us all together, and there is none.
It isn't really significant to speak of a Great American novel for another reason. Despite local variations, literature uses a universal language. Karamazov and Crime and Punishment both succeed because one feels they could happen anywhere. Society's decision to destroy one of its own--the theme of House of Mirth-- is one of the basic human stories, transcending all settings, possible in any. There is no second set of criteria which would distinguish a "great American novel" that was not also a great novel for all purposes.
Can Americans write?
I was educated to believe that America was the greatest country in the world in all respects. It was rather a shock to discover, much later, that no-one elsewhere thinks that American writers are anywhere near the level of Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevski or Tolstoy. It was a second shock to realize that it is true.
If I am correct in saying there is not one America, then there shouldn't be one reason for the general inferiority of American literature. However, DeTocqueville's paradoxical insight about the lack of interest in free speech in America may help us out here. I quoted the following some months ago in an essay on minority rule:
In our time, the most absolute sovereigns of Europe would have no idea how to prevent certain ideas, hostile to their authority, from circulating silently in their countries and even in the heart of their own courts. Its not at all the same in America: as long as the majority is uncertain, everyone speaks; but as soon as the majority has irrevocably decided, everyone shuts up, and friends and enemies alike seem then to jump, with one accord, on the public bandwagon. The reason is simple: there is no monarch so absolute that he can hold in his hand all of society's force and vanquish all resistance, to the same extent as a democratic majority with the right to make and execute the laws.
The lack of diversity in American literature seems to map exactly to the same lack in American political culture. A society without Marxists may also be a society without artists, not because there is a vital relationship between leftward thinking and art (though sometimes there seems to be) but because a society wearing blinders will not tolerate either.
Another way to get to an answer is to examine American novels and look for common problems. American "great" novels seem to fall into two categories: grandiose, flawed machines like Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn, and small over-hyped works like The Great Gatsby or anything by Faulkner.
Moby-Dick is symptomatic of what's wrong with the more ambitious American literature: Melville, though brilliant, writes like a barbarian. He's all over the place. A theme worthy of Victor Hugo (another magnificent but over-inflated writer), interspersed with an endless succession of chapters on rope and navigation. The talent is evident but the material is not mastered. (Contrast James Joyce, who is also all over the map, but always with a purpose.) Mark Twain is even more of an accidental angel. He probably took himself far less seriously than most other "great" American writers. Without paying too much attention to what he was doing, he hit a few notes which were above his general capabilities (including much of Huckleberry Finn). Much of the rest of what he wrote was tripe. In a forgotten sequel, he had Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn playing detective, and in another one he sent them off to Egypt in a hot air balloon. Twain had a fatal lack of judgment and taste; he was unable to distinguish between his fine set-pieces and his creaky ones. The agonizing coda to Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck and Tom lock Jim up in order to free him, ruins the novel.
On a more modest level, William Dean Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham illustrates the same problem. Like The House of Mirth, it is a tale of the protagonist's simultaneous moral rise and social fall, and it works rather well. But, at the last moment, there is an extremely creaky, sentimental plot twist: a woman Lapham has been sneaking off to see all along, turns out not to be his mistress but someone's unfortunate widow, whom he has been helping, for no particular reason, in secret. While every writer must select from the same drawer-ful of devices (House of Mirth involves a packet of incriminating letters, which will be either revealed or burned) we want a novelist to be able to carry off her manipulations without our noticing, for when we become aware, we are kicked out of the novel. Think of the moment in movies when the band of intrepid evil-fighters decide to separate: "You take the basement, and I'll search the attic." They might as well be saying, "Let's split up so that our foe can pick us off separately."
Then there are the novels seemingly concocted so that high school English teachers can interpret their Symbolism. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's worst novel; it is trite from the first page to the last. There is not a single credible character in it, and the Symbols--the Wasteland with the Eyes of the Billboard Doctor overlooking it-- are obvious and amateurish.
Fitzgerald is a good case study for the failure of American literature. Even his best work is drenched in self pity. There have been great novels of compassion and of anger, but no-one has ever written a great novel of self pity. When the protagonist is a thinly-veiled version of the author whining to us, our knee-jerk reaction is "enough already".
Fitzgerald's failure is closely tied in to the idea that in America, the writer ought to be a social lion. Although Europe knew this type too--Balzac was one-- it had its line of scribbling madmen as well: Proust, Joyce, Kafka. In America, with the exception of Thomas Pynchon, even the scribbling madmen go on talk shows. When an American writer appears on a talk show, he is finished: the stations of the cross for the death of American art also involve appearing in a Dewar's ad (or a Gap ad, wearing a black pocket T) and writing a screenplay. When literature becomes nothing more than a means to a better life or at least a better automobile, the writer is likely to have lost the ability to distance himself from any theme involving the pursuit of an elusive goal. Which is most themes.
Writers have to walk a microscopic line between familiarity and distance. On the one hand, they are best writing what they know; extremely well researched sagas of peasant life in Uzbekistan tend to read like research. On the other, autobiographies tend to consist mainly of bragging and complaining. The writer, to succeed, must write autobiography like history (The Education of Henry Adams, written in the third person, is an example of an autobiography with the writer's ego submerged, and with pitiable details, like the suicide of Adams' wife, entirely omitted). Wharton succeeds in maintaining her distance from Lily Bart, but Fitzgerald thinks he is Lily Bart. For an inferior version of the same story, read The Beautiful and Damned right after The House of Mirth. Lily Bart is beautiful and damned, but Fitzgerald's characters are neither.
"The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter." It is rare to find a perfect marriage of style and content. Many writers capable of grand themes, like Theodore Dreiser, have plodding styles; it takes oceans of awkward prose to float a powerful if ugly battleship. On the other hand, sometimes when the prose is beautiful, there is little or nothing going on behind it. Mark Twain has a funny essay aping extravagant prose; he buries logical impossibilities in the middle of flowery paragraphs, then points out that you missed them because your eyes glazed over.
I'm a content man myself; I like a strong story, and the presentation shackled to it, like a carriage-horse. It may be a beautiful horse, and shake its mane or engage in a spirited extra step or two, but it should always, first and foremost, pull the carriage. Henry James' great mistake, especially in later life, was to bury the story in inert prose, so that when the story chose to move, it had to haul the prose after it, like an immense weight. When he re-wrote The American at the end of his life, he changed phrases like "He had shaved that morning" to ones like "His cheek bespoke the joys of the matutinal steel". The edition of the American you will find in your bookstore is the early one, not the overloaded one from James' old age.
Wharton understood when prose should be transparent and when to allow it to sparkle. She takes a few minor flights in establishing the social setting. Lily Bart, thrown from her complacency as usual by the unsettling Lawrence Selden, sees "her little world through his retina":
[I]t was as though the pink lamps had been shut off and the dusty daylight let in. She looked down the long table, studying its occupants one by one, from Gus Trenor, with his heavy carniverous head sunk between his shoulders, as he preyed on a jellied plover, to his wife, at the opposite end of the long bank of orchids, suggestive, with her glaring good looks, of a jeweller's window lit by electricity.
Also in that line-up is "young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles." As if F. Scott Fitzgerald had wandered into the house of mirth. Also, Jack Stepney, "with his confident smile and anxious eyes, half way between the sheriff and an heiress."
But her best prose, at once dispassionate and compassionate, is reserved for Lily Bart. Here Selden notices how Lily has changed in the three months since he has seen her:
[A] subtle change had passed over the quality of her beauty. Then it had a transparency through which the fluctuations of the spirit were sometimes tragically visible; now its impenetrable surface suggested a process of crystallization which had fused her whole being into one hard brilliant substance....[T]o Selden it seemed like that moment of pause and arrest when the warm fluidity of youth is chilled into its final shape.
Wharton's genius consists in saying things that are immediately familiar to us, but which we would never have thought to phrase that way. A beautiful woman who looks like a jeweller's window lit by electricity, another one turning into a hard crystal herself, both transmit a shock of recognition. We know people who look like that, or to whom that has happened.
Lily's death is a fictional moment beset by danger and opportunity: there is a risk that she will be carried away by pink clouds of sentimentality, with angels singing. Instead she dreams briefly of a baby she has held a few hours before:
It was odd--but Nettie Struther's child was lying on her arm: she felt the pressure of its little head against her shoulder. She did not know how it had come there, but she felt no great surprise at the fact, only a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure.
Here we are in danger of sliding into sentimentality again--substitute baby for angel-- when:
[S]leep began to enfold her. She struggled faintly against it, feeling that she ought to keep awake on account of the baby; but even this feeling was gradually lost in an indistinct sense of drowsy peace, through which, of a sudden, a dark flash of loneliness and terror tore its way.
It is a brilliant effect, bringing us back to the world Lily is leaving: there is no baby, no angels, most likely no God, just loss and self-deception.
The House of Mirth has the structure of a classic tragedy. We like Lily Bart but recognize her flaw: there is an irremediable conflict between her moral views, which abhor the idea of a loveless marriage for money, and her equally strong desire to live well, surrounded by beautiful things. Wharton presents us with the highly realistic and interesting spectacle of Lily failing to grasp each opportunity that life presents. In the opening pages of the book, just when she has boring but wealthy Percy Gryce in her grip, she goes off to spend a Sunday walking with Lawrence Selden. Gryce would have proposed, if only she had gone to church with him that day. Instead, his disappointment in Lily leaves him open to the intervention of Bertha Dorset, Lily's enemy (who is angry that she has taken Selden for the day) who fills his ears with rumors, and Gryce flees. We learn that earlier in life--she is now twenty-nine, and has been on the social scene eleven years--she similarly threw away the opportunity to marry an Italian count.
The rest of the novel is a blues progression, elucidating the problem stated in the first few pages. Bertha intervenes again, this time launching a fatal blow which bars Lily from society entirely: to cover her own infidelity to her husband George, she implies to the world that Lily was trying to take George from her. Lily is granted two opportunities to triumph over Bertha and restore herself to the only world she cares about, but she is insufficently greedy or brutal, and has too strong a sense of the person she wants to be morally, to seize any opportunity. She lets slip these two chances, each of which would have required her to use Bertha Dorset's incriminating letters, which she bought from a charwoman. If Lily gave George Dorset, Bertha's husband, proof of Bertha's infidelity, he would divorce Bertha and marry Lily. Or Lily could use the letters to blackmail Bertha into restoring her to society.
The House of Mirth would be monochromatic if Lily only rejected the temptation to be worse than she is. The novel comes to its full realization, creates a fully-rounded and believable character and world, when it shows us Lily rejecting her own redemption as well. This appears in the problematic character of Lawrence Selden, a rather enigmatic man about whom we are told (but not really shown) a few things: he is too poor to support Lily in the style to which she is accustomed, but has a fine mind and sensibility. Several times (the first occasion is that Sunday walk) Selden approaches Lily a bit too tentatively, indicating a love not expressed by a strong passion, showing her an image of a life he is not quite offering her:
It was her turn to look at him with surprise; and after a moment--"Do you want to marry me?" she asked.
He broke into a laugh. "No, I don't want to--but perhaps I should if you did!"
Selden is the one character in the novel who is not fully sketched; we know what Lily (and perhaps Wharton) want him to be, but we are never quite sure what he is.
The problem of Lawrence Selden
This seems to me to be a failure of Wharton's, rather than a deliberate effect. Selden is three-fifths of a character. With a couple more flourishes, she could have finished him off, and made us believe in him. His problem is that he (like Proust's narrator in A La Recherche) plays a dual role: he is an actor but also the chorus. As the chorus, he must be morally unimpeachable--his role, of course, is to tell us what to think about everything else. As a man, he is weak and rather cowardly. If Wharton had been satisfied just to let him be a man, and not imposed on him the immense responsibility accorded the chorus, The House of Mirth would have been a perfect novel.
Selden's role as the chorus is established in the first lines of the novel: the first point of view is his:
Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart....Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing.
Selden's role as an actual human is sketched in the conversation they have after he takes her back to his apartment for tea:
"Don't you see," she continued, "that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me, and that what I want is a friend who won't be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them? Sometime I have fancied that you might be that friend--I don't know why, except that you are neither a prig nor a bounder, and that I shouldn't have to pretend with you or be on my guard against you."
The problem is that this tells us little about him, and much about what Lily desires him to be. Because we are busy looking at Lily from Selden's eyes, we don't learn enough about him at this crucial moment. During this eventful first meeting, Selden is constantly looking at Lily's hair, her eyes, her hands, but Wharton never tells us what he looks like. By contrast, when Lily leaves, she immediately runs into Sim Rosedale--" a small, glossy-looking man with a gardenia in his coat".
He was a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.
This allows us immediately to place Rosedale, but we are left longing for such a description of Selden. When Lily meets him next--and the book has settled down, with a few later interruptions, to her point of view--Selden appears in another three or four scenes before we get any kind of description of him. He has even inspired her to look critically at her peers--the scene in which Gus Trenor is a heavy-headed predator and his wife a brightly-lit jewelry shop--but she never looks critically at him.
They're alone on a walk in the country, when we finally get a hint or two about him:
It was, moreover, one of his gifts to look his part; to have a height which lifted his head above the crowd, and the keenly-modelled dark features which, in a land of amorphous types, gave him the air of belonging to a more specialized race, of carrying the impress of a concentrated past.
And we are already almost seventy pages into the story. Why not admit it? Unlike Rosedale, whom she paints for us, vividly, in an instant, Edith Wharton does not really know, or perhaps care, what Selden looks like. He is not so much a person as a role; perhaps the wires are exposed when Wharton says he "look[s] his part".
However, when Wharton, speaking directly or through Lily, extols Selden, most of his qualities are merely negative: he is "neither a prig or a bounder". Through-out, Selden is defined entirely in terms of what he is not:
Not that he was notably brilliant or exceptional; in his own profession he was surpassed by more than one man who had bored Lily through many a weary dinner. It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at.
So he is not a prig, nor a bounder, nor materialistic, nor does he expect something from Lily in the same way that Gus Trenor and George Dorset (both of whom are married) do, or that Sim Rosedale does (who is at first impossible because Jewish). And that is about all we ever learn of him. He has never written anything, nor does he ever quote Dante to her, or even Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Wharton, who is so good at showing us everything else, merely tells us that Selden is a man among men; but she gives us no reason to believe her.
In general, it is part of Wharton's art that most of the declarative statements made early in the book prove not to be true later. On their walk in the country, when they joke, not entirely, about marrying, Lily says that "I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes; but I can trim my own hats." As she sinks near the end, we learn that she is, of course, beautiful in anything she wears; but when she attempts to work for a living, we learn that she cannot trim hats.
Selden turns out to be a prig, and depending on how you define the word, even something of a "bounder"; he never is malicious like Gus Trenor, or amoral like Sim Rosedale, but he is, deliberately, nowhere to be found at a couple of critical moments later, when Lily needs him. The problem is that, where Selden is concerned, Wharton loses her sureness of tone, so we don't know if she is being ironic about him. It is possible that Wharton really sees Selden as being neither a prig nor a bounder.
Selden only becomes real at the very end, when he realizes his own cowardice. Unlike Marquez's Santa Sofia de la Piedad, who only existed at the critical moment, Selden never does. Selden has rushed over at last to propose marriage, "cut loose from the familiar shores of habit" and launched "on uncharted seas of emotion"; but Lily has died in the night of despair and an accidental overdose of "chloral". Going through her effects as a last duty, looking for anything which will harm her reputation even further, he finds a note he had written her, to make an appointment at which he would have proposed, but which he never kept:
[H]e found, with a strange commotion of the heart, the note he had written her the day after the Brys' entertainment.
"When may I come to you?"--his words overwhelmed him with a realization of the cowardice which had driven him from her at the very moment of attainment. Yes--he had always feared his fate, and he was too honest to disown his cowardice now....
Selden becomes real to us at the last possible moment, two pages before the end of the novel. Wharton missed an opportunity, by not making him more obviously a cultivated coward on the first page, and letting him strut the stage instead as a cardboard paragon.
The most important thing I can say about Sim Rosedale is that I, who am Jewish, and resent Shylock, am not bothered by him.
I am a hyphenate, a Jewish-American, and like most hyphenates, one identity tends to predominate over the other. I have spent hours and days at a time unconscious of any differences between me and a roomful of other types of Americans until someone drops an unexpected comment about Jews and I am, all in an instant, booted from the club. The same phenomenon occurs while reading almost any nineteenth century novelist, and it is both more private and yet more painful, because I expect more from Dostoyevski between the pages of a masterpiece than I do from Joe Botz over lunch. Somewhere in Dostoyevski, I found the "submisive leer worn by all members of the Jewish race without exception"; and in Henry Adams, the very paradigm of a liberal-thinking American, otherwise a class act if we ever had one, you find a yowling, caftan-clad Jew.
Sim Rosedale is too real, and sympathetic, to affect me that way. He is no better than he should be, a successful business shark navigating Wall Street, who has conceived a desire to be admitted to society as a sort of hobby, the way other men enjoy cigars or gambling. As a shark, he always has his own best interests in mind, and at first they coincide with Lily's: he wants a wife who will be the seal upon and continuing guaranty of his social admission. There is a poignant moment late in the book, when Lily is ready to marry him, when she has sunk so far that she can no longer admit him to society, but instead will pull him out of it. He tells her so, and she thanks him for his honesty; after Selden, he is only the second man to tell her the truth. But then, Rosedale, who loves her (though he will never let love get in the way of a goal, any more than Lily did), stands by her anyway, and recommends a course of action which will rehabilitate her: she must use the letters (how he knows about them is not explained) to blackmail Bertha Dorset into rehabilitating her in society. Then Rosedale will marry her.
Though his recommendation is typically amoral, Rosedale gets credit for being the only man to stand by Lily Bart, even at times when the superior Selden has fled the scene. At the end of the book, he has little or nothing to gain from helping her, and displays a quality of steadiness and loyalty that bring her, after long acquaintance, to feel a little affection for him.
There is a similar character in The Beautiful and Damned: a wealthy Jewish man who is sleeker and more refined every time we see him. As in The House of Mirth, the sinking protagonist is offset by a rising Jew.
I first read The House of Mirth a quarter century ago, and immediately thought what a wonderful movie it would make, with Susan Sarandon as Lily Bart. Today she is too old for the role; Gillian Anderson, who starred in Terence Davies' film of last year, was an inspired substitute.
The New York Times reviewer commented that the movie was a partial misfire, and cited Anderson as too robust for the role. This was a misreading of Wharton, I think. Lily Bart is not fragile; she is healthy and rather physical in a time when the exercise women took was restricted to dancing and walking in the country. I think Anderson was well cast for a role requiring beauty and intelligence, and she did a good job with it.
However, the movie, done with care and mainly with fidelity to the source, did not measure up to the movie I have imagined for twenty-five years. Some of the reasons were structural. Davies made his most significant error in eliminating the character of Gerty Farish from the film. Gerty is a plain young society woman who has dedicated her life to service. She is a problematic character because she is at once a bit of a cliche and yet vital to the story. She represents both the values of compassion and independence that Lily aspires to and the fate which horrifies Lily more than any other: living alone in fusty surroundings without enough money. By the end, Gerty has become real, more so than Lawrence Selden: she sacrifices any thought of Selden for herself in order to encourage her friend's happiness, and she takes Lily in when no-one else will. Since she is so important as a double offset to Lily--what she desires and what she most fears--Davies' decision to omit her is a puzzle. Perhaps he didn't think she would work on screen; maybe he thought the story was already too crowded with characters. Having eliminated her, he found he needed some of her lines, and he assigned them to Grace Stepney instead, the equally plain but jealous and narrow-minded young woman who displaces Lily in her aunt's affections. At a key moment, when Lily asked whether Selden would help her, Gerty replied "He is not like other men," and quietly relinquished her own hopes. In the film, Lily poses the question to Grace, who replies, "He is as other men," and bitterly weeps afterwards, calling out Selden's name.
The movie does not solve the problem of Selden, either; he is played by Eric Stoltz, who has the passive, priggish good looks, but does not bring the animation to the role which would have made Selden something more than cardboard. In this case, the movie is possibly too faithful to Wharton. Sometimes the best thing you can do in bringing a book to film is to exceed its requirements.
As has been endlessly pointed out, books and films are very different animals. Filmmakers tend to do best when they are free to completely transform the material, and they are free-est when filming novels we don't know, so that we will not be indignant about the changes. The classics tend to be inert on screen; Masterpiece Theatre is the epitome of the respectful but motionless version, where the costumes appear to strut on their own.
Sometimes the actors are too contemporary, and don't belong in a costume drama, like Winona Ryder in Martin Scorsese's failed attempt at another Wharton novel, The Age of Innocence. Most offensive of all are attempts to update the author with sex, drugs and politics, like recent versions of Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove and Mansfield Park. (Sex and Henry James in particular don't mix.) Other than these last few examples, I have rarely actively disliked a movie based on a novel by Jane Austen, one of the Brontes, or Henry James, but they are rarely memorable either. Of all the movies based on the novels of Jane Austen, the only one that really worked was the version of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, which lived effectively in Austen's narrow world, but did so with great energy and humor.
Sometimes the people themselves are too stuffy, passive or generally alien to us, as in Austen's works like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, where romance consists of soulful looks and internal suffering. This is why Henry James is generally unfilmable: the mountains of prose do not translate to the screen, and the film is left presenting only the motionless story.
On the other hand, an author of an earlier era who seems to do well on screen is E.M. Forster: A Passage to India, Room with a View, Howard's End and Where Angels Fear to Tread--four films from three directors--were all successful. Other than Passage to India, which succeeds because it is political, Forster generally works on screen because the settings are light, the stories humorous, the people lively. Most importantly, Forster's aim and execution are perfect: his aspirations are modest enough to be attainable (he knows he is not Dostoyevski) but he aims just high enough to make the voyage worth the destination, saving him from the oblivion of the stylish social storyteller.
Wharton falls somewhere in between Forster and James. She is more ambitious than the former, lighter and more sensual than the latter. Characters like Gus Trenor and Sim Rosedale are recognizable and universal, and therefore bridge the beginning of the last century and our own time. But the world Wharton portrays, like James' or Austen's, has so thoroughly vanished that perhaps no contemporary film audience can ever completely sympathize with Lily Bart's predicament. Watching Gillian Anderson on screen, we have thoughts we are not likely to when reading the book: we wonder why she doesn't go to law school, or move to another town.
The problem is most likely based in the distinction between hot and cool media described by McLuhan. When we read a novel, we live in the author's world; we perform the mental effort of meeting her at her home, rather than making her come to ours. Movies, by comparison, do the exact opposite; they bring everything to us, and expect us to do no work whatever. A world that makes perfect sense on paper may make none whatever on celluloid, because brought to us as passive recipients it no longer seems to hold together. When we go to it, we provide the glue.
Wharton works best in a cool medium and not a hot one. The movie I imagined many years ago is probably impossible.
What is society?
The failure of films of Wharton, Austen and James raises another interesting question: what are the merits (literary or otherwise) of the world being portrayed, how real is it to us, and (not exactly the same question) how relevant?
European and American high society has been the subject of a substantial amount of bad writing even by good authors, because surrounded by a veil of infantile romance. The exchange reported by Hemingway illustrates this mysticism. Fitzgerald: "The rich are not like us." Hemingway: "Yes, they have more money." It starts with the idea that "life is elsewhere", that somewhere else people are happier, better, more educated, more attractive, more comfortable than we are. In Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, there is a marvelous fantasy scene where Allen is seated in a grimy train, with slovenly, depressed people. A train pulls up alongside, full of people in evening dress, drinking champagne; a woman (Sharon Stone in her first bit part) blows Allen a kiss.
People writing about high society tend to tell us vaguely, rather than show us specifically, as Wharton did in portraying Lawrence Selden. There is a phenomenon I'll call James-fatigue: hundreds of pages into a book like The Golden Bowl, you're still waiting to find out why the people he portrays are better than us. In the end, his heroine will illustrate how she is better than everyone around her, through a renunciation of some kind, which is all very well. But we never quite are brought to understand what is fine and special in that world, aside from money and the beautiful things (and people) you can buy with it.
There must be something else, or writers wouldn't be constantly describing the gradations. There is always an invisible line somewhere, keeping out Jews like Sim Rosedale (Judy Trenor refers to him as "the same little Jew" who has been served up, and rejected by the Social Board, times immemorial), and beef-heiresses from Kansas City. Both of whom have more money than people inside the line. But we are asked by many writers merely to assume that the people inside the line are better. Is it their quality of not being Jewish, or from Kansas City? These are mere negative qualities, and we wait for an affirmative statement without ever being satisfied.
There are two types of writers: those who answer the question "Why should we care?" with a tautology--"Because its them"--and those who portray high society as just another human grouping recapitulating the behavior of all others. James, Fitzgerald, Austen, even Proust fall into the former category; Proust, perhaps unknowingly, portrays himself as kind of social whore, ready to drop anything, even betray any friend, to meet a princess or a duchess. In Wharton (other than the cloud around Lawrence Selden) there is no illusion whatever about the quality of society. The description quoted above-- Gus Trenor, one of the lions of Wharton's New York, as a heavy-headed predator. Trenor is dull, vulgar, and obnoxious and finally, malicious when Lily rejects his heavy-handed advances. He is the same human being Zola might have portrayed as a bar-owner in a novel like L'Assomoir, or might turn up in Dreiser as a low level manager making life difficult for those lower still. Wharton neglects to tell us what makes these people "society"--did their ancestors all come over on the Mayflower? Are they the ultimate high New York society, or is there one more rarified still hovering above but never mentioned? All of the characters shown us--the Trenors, the Dorsets, Mrs. Fisher--are startlingly ordinary. Which raises one more mystery of the book: why Lily regards them, without ever wavering, as the only world there is, to the point where you might die if not re-admitted. It can't be just the money, because she might have had that at any time by marrying Rosedale. One of her last renunciations is when she declines to help a wealthy but mysteriously unsuitable outsider marry a young man of society. Wharton, though her eye is more realistic, asks us to assume, as Henry James did, that the game is worth the candle.
It is remarkable how many good and great books end like jokes, with a punchline. In the last pages of The House of Mirth, there are several references to a word that Selden wants to say to Lily, and one she wants to say to him. As she is dying, she thinks:
As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered vague and luminous on the far edge of thought--she was afraid of not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well.
The next morning, in the glorious sunlight, as Selden is rushing over to see her:
He only knew that he must see Lily Bart at once--he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said. It was strange that it had not come to his lips sooner--that he had let her pass from him the evening before without being able to speak it. But what did that matter, now that a new day had come? It was not a word for twilight, but for the morning.
Lily is dead; he finds only Gerty Farish, who (one more renunciation) leaves him alone with her. He finds the check she has written Trenor, and understands in a flash the nobility of her final action, of clearing her accounts with him. The book ends:
He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.
The word which Selden and Lily communicate to one another, is the word which Wharton passes to us, and we receive it like electricity.