Edith Wharton must have been a very courageous writer if she populated the pages of her first novel with a cast of irredeemably trivial, unattractive characters. The worst among them are the two protagonists of The House of Mirth.
The female protagonist, Lily Bart, is the most vapid literary character I have ever encountered. Her only goal in life is to avoid making a living, and Lily is prepared to do absolutely anything to achieve that goal. She attempts to sell herself in marriage, and when nobody wants to make the costly purchase, she prefers to wheedle money out of her friends’ husbands, act as a beard to an adulterous friend, and even die in order to avoid doing an honest day’s work. Lily spends the entire novel sighing coyly, “Ah, what can I do if I’m so useless. . .” and despising women who achieve financial and professional independence. I’m sure you can imagine by now how much I’m likely to admire this type of character.
As unattractive as Lily is, Selden, the male protagonist of the novel, is even worse. He is a self-important, self-involved turkey of a man who sees in Lily’s unrelieved stupidity an opportunity to feed his vanity. He appears every once in a while, dupes Lily into feeling evil in comparison to his vaguely defined virtue, feeds his sense of self-importance on her impotent cooing over him, and disappears, leaving the silly young woman to deal with the consequences of his need to feel wanted.
I never read anything by Wharton before but I have to say that this novel is absolutely brilliant. More than anything else, its beauty lies in how timeless it is. There are worthless, insipid creatures who drift through life like discarded furniture in every society and in every era.