Thinking about Lana and Britney and Beyonce and the “Being a Girl and Losing” genre, and finishing Jonathan Franzen on Edith Wharton in this weeks New Yorker, which I started on the plane. I finished House of Mirth a couple of weeks ago, so I was like, okay, let’s talk about Edith Wharton! Franzen starts out with how hard it is to sympathize with Lily Bart:
On the surface, there would seem to be no reason to sympathize with Lily. The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile, she’s profoundly self-involved and incapable of true charity, she pridefully contrasts other women’s looks with her own, she has no intellectual life to speak of, she’s put off from pursuing her one kindred spirit (Selden) by the modesty of his income, and she’s in no danger of ever starving. She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn’t even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily’s image—the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments. So why is it so hard to stop reading Lily’s story?
My reaction to this was basically a record scratch sound and thinking the word “whaaaa?”
While it’s not like Franzen doesn’t understand the novel (Lily’s beautiful and has been raised to be elegant and beautiful and charming and to find a rich husband, and she really doesn’t know how to do anything else, but every time she gets close to having a rich husband she somehow fucks it up because deep in her heart she knows she doesn’t want to be trapped in this world, but of course there’s really no way out of it, but he also totally ignores that Selden loses his nerve a few times as well as Lily’s reputation starts to go downhill from being associated with unsavory stuff he knows she didn’t actually do, because well, Lily’s “the worst sort of party girl”, except that she’s beautiful but totally prim and virginal, her biggest social triumph is appearing as a portrait in a tableau vivant, etc.), it strikes me as bizarre that he would approach it in this way, because Lily’s constant refusal of all the horrible bargains offered her and her crushing awareness that the only skills she have can never get her any of the things she actually wants but doesn’t know how to name, are, to me, really really obviously sympathetic and relatable to a modern reader! When she is a lady, at least. Because obviously the skills we’re supposed to have and the bargains we make now are different, they really aren’t very. I’m not sure why the idea of sympathizing with a flawed character trying to navigate a complicated but unfair society is being presented as news-worthy from a literary criticism standpoint unless you are about 12 years old.