House of Mirth (1905)

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is a novel about society in the twentieth century, focusing on the role of upper-class women. Though the modern reader may not be sympathetic to Lily Bart’s plight in life, Lily is a victim and prisoner of her era as well as money and social expectations. In this novel, Wharton illustrates a variety of women; the unmarried philanthropist Gerty Farish, the adulteress Bertha Dorset, the widow Julia Peniston, the divorcée Carry Fisher. But none of these are women that Lily Bart can respect as a role model. With so few options, Lily’s course in life is already dictated for her; “she was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelets seemed like manacles chaining her to fate” (Wharton 7).

From an early age, Lily has been groomed, probably like her mother before her, to marry a wealthy man. Before her death, Mrs. Bart watched over Lily’s beauty and “studied it with a kind of passion, as though it was some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance” (Wharton 34). Now Lily is 29 years old and even though she has had numerous chances at marriage she has somehow missed her opportunity. While talking to her long-time friend Lawrence Seldon she admits, “’I’ve been about too long – people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry’….[ Selden] returned amicably, ‘isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you were brought up for?’” (Wharton 9). Though it is her “vocation,” marriage is not something that she necessarily wants. She is forced to chase potential husbands by “organizing methods of attack” (Wharton 17) behind a a gauze of beauty. Though Lily is a jeune fille à marier she does not have a mother or chaperone to guide her.

In “Book 1,” Lily spots and chases the wealthy bachelor Percy Gryce. Lily is smart enough to know that if she wants to keep up her present way of living, she needs to marry rich. Her only other option is to stay single, but the Gerty Farish is the only example of a woman who bucks tradition in this way, and Lily thinks that she is unstylish and “her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap” (Wharton 7). Her only alternative is to try to secure a husband for herself. She knows that her marriage will not be for love, but it instead will be a marriage of convenience to insure her social standing and income. To Lily, marrying Gryce “was a hateful fate- but how escape from it?” (Wharton 25). Sadly when she misses out on this match, she becomes indebted to another man when she tries to secure financial stability in a different way.

When Lily asks Gus Trenor for financial help, she unknowingly forms a very dangerous relationship with a married man. Lily accidently indebts herself to Trenor after accepting money from him and creates for herself another prison. She is forced to humor Trenor and she puts herself in some very questionable situations that could hurt her reputation. When Trenor manipulates and lies to her in order to get her alone in his house, it very suddenly and horrifyingly becomes obvious how much control he has. When Lily finally gets away from Trenor, who is literally imprisoning her in his house, “she [feels] a mad throb of liberation, intoxicating as the prisoner’s first draught of free air” (Wharton 147).

The novel House of Mirth is full of vocabulary and situations that keep reinforcing a theme of imprisonment. This imprisonment seems to extend to all of the women in the novel in one form or another, but it especially dictates the life of Lily Bart. Lily is imprisoned by the expectations of her family, friends, and society, but almost more importantly by money.

Pride and Prejudice (1813)

This was officially my first Austen book. Not exactly my first exposure to her, her novels are so mainstream and made into numerous movies (on both sides of the pond) but I had never read one of her books. I admitted this to the class in my grad class and actually I was not a minority. A lot of people had skipped her or just watched the movies.

So, while I was reading this book I was struggling not to imagine the movie that I saw a few years ago playing out in my brain (i believe I saw the 2006 version with Keira Knightley). All together, once I got past the first 50 pages I become more interested and invested in the story line and by the time I finished it I genuinely enjoyed the novel so much that I kicked myself for not having signed up to write one of my position papers on it.

The class has a focus on Edith Wharton/Jane Austen so my next dozen books are decided for me- don't know when I'll return to the luxury of selecting my own books...

The Age of Innocence (1920)

The Tempest (1610-1611)

TRINCULO: … [He sees CALIBAN.] “What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fishlike smell; a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish. Were I in England now (as once I was) and had but this fish painted, nota holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver” (Shakespeare 37)

Caliban was the only living human (or at least half-human) on the island when Prospero and Miranda first land there, and the only man besides her father that Miranda ever meets before she marries Ferdinand. Caliban is described throughout the play as “a freckled whelp, hag-born… not honored with a human shape,” “a strange fish” (37), “a monster,” “an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt,” “some monster of the isle with four legs” (38), “man-monster” (46), and “moon-calf.” He is also characterized as an animal, with references to being kept in a sty like a pig (18), and being referred to as a slave throughout.

The reason that the other characters looks down on Caliban doesn’t just lie in his appearance but also in his family. Prospero tells his story: “the foul witch Sycorax…. The blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child and here left by the sailors” (16). Sycorax came from Algiers and was obviously accused of witchcraft, but instead of being killed, the people just sent her away to this uninhabited island since she was pregnant. The editors note that the reference to Sycorax having blue eyes could just be another remark concerning her pregnancy or that it could mean that she was “an unusual figure in Algiers, where dark eyes would be the norm.”

The first person to enslave Caliban in this play is Prospero. Prospero, at least according to the story he tells Miranda, found him, took him in, and taught him English. In turn, Caliban “then loved [him] and showed [him] all the qualities o’ th’ isle, the fresh springs, brine-pits, barren places and fertile” (18). Prospero, as explorers or colonists often do, met Caliban, saw all of his barbarian ways, and tried to teach him otherwise. This lasted only until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Propero’s attempts to teach Caliban had almost completely failed because Caliban just wanted to “people else this isle with Calibans” (19). Though Caliban did learn to speak from Prospero, he still reverted to a more animalistic way of thinking.

Though the characters treat him as a freak, oddly enough the first thought that enters everyone’s mind after they meet Caliban is how can I use him to my own ends. Both Trinculo and Stephano think about selling him some how; Stephano says “If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor” (38). But when Stephano gets Caliban drunk, he realizes (as Prospero did before) that Caliban can be useful in other ways. Caliban calls Stephano his god and offers to show how to live on the island, how to overthrow Prospero, and how to take Miranda. Stephano and Trinculo take advantage of Caliban saying “O brave monster, lead the way!” (41) and Caliban celebrates trading one tyrant for another.
Even if Caliban’s intelligence is inferior to his master’s, Caliban tells the two shipwrecked men that they must “remember first to posses [Prospero’s] books; for without them he’s but a sot” (48). Caliban has served Prospero long enough to know his weakness; we don’t really know if they sorcerer’s strength really lies in his books, but Caliban seems to think this. When the three men finally get to Prospero’s cave, Trinculo and Stephano foolishly begin going through Prospero’s things and stealing clothing instead of looking for the books.

It’s unclear if Prospero know that his slave Caliban had betrayed him and pledged his allegiance to Stephano until the final scene, but Ariel might have told him. Though Prospero is busy maqnipulating everyone else on the island, he does very little to manipulate Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano. Maybe because he thinks Caliban is no threat to him.