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Rereading the Future

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


I noticed the dynamic relation between age and narrative the second time i read edith wharton's the house of mirth. on my first experience of reading the novel, as an undergraduate of eighteen, I was engaged by its thwarted love story and saddened by Lily Bart's tragic but honorable end. When I reread the novel in graduate school, however, I was about to turn twenty-nine, the age at which Lily's marriage prospects and high expectations for the future begin to fade. Although Lily is widely admired for her remarkable beauty, readers are alerted in the novel's opening pages to the incipient erosion of that beauty. Even as Lawrence Selden finds his eyes “refreshed” when he catches a glimpse of Lily at Grand Central Station, remarking that “he had never seen her more radiant” (37), he credits this impression to the way her dark hat and veil have temporarily restored “the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing” (38). While Selden silently muses about her age (“here was nothing new about Lily Bart. … [H]ad she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?” [37–38]), Lily declares that she's “as old as the hills” (38); she perceives that “people are getting tired” of her and saying she “ought to marry” (42). Lily is ambivalent about marriage as her “vocation” (as Selden puts it [43]) but undertakes this quest. By the end of the novel, having lost her social and economic standing and failed to secure a husband—and thereby a future—she puts her affairs in order and overdoses on chloral (43). Her age is certainly not the only factor contributing to her decline: Selden's continuing fascination with Lily affirms that she has remained dis-tractingly attractive (even if, perhaps, “ever so slightly brightened by art” [39]), and the novel attributes her social descent more directly to her financial circumstances than to her age. Nevertheless, the opening scene of The House of Mirth emphatically establishes twenty-nine as a precipice over which Lily Bart falls to her doom.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2018

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