I had been planning a post about characters—and discarding all the possible approaches as too hackneyed or too boring or both—when I finished reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for the Dead Writers Society, a Goodreads group (if you happen to belong to that group, rest easy: no spoilers here). Lily Bart, the main character in The House of Mirth, got to me—as I suspect she gets to most people, because Wharton designed her to do exactly that. So I decided that Lily had the potential to become my entrée into the discussion of fictional characters. More specifically, difficult characters.
When we first meet Lily, she appears (to the modern mind) shallow, manipulative, and thoroughly unlikable. She exists on the fringes of early twentieth-century New York society, although she sees herself in, and at first appears to occupy, a place of acceptance. She is beautiful; she moves in the best circles (although her poverty places her at the edges of those circles); she has influential friends. But her thirtieth birthday is approaching, and her opportunities to establish herself are constricting. Her means don’t equal her desires, and she has trouble imagining alternatives. Within the first few chapters, she settles on a young man, Percy Gryce, who has nothing to recommend him except his fortune.
Lily sets out to seduce Percy into offering her marriage, knowing that she does not love him or even admire him. She does not succeed, in part because a woman who turns out to be her nemesis interferes, and in part because Lily waffles. She wants Percy’s money, but she lacks the ruthless determination exhibited by her nemesis. Every time she has to step up to the plate, she retreats. Every time she discovers an alternative, she retreats from that, too. This inability to be ruthlessly cold-hearted, à la Becky Sharp or Scarlett O’Hara, or deeply principled makes Lily Bart infuriating. And as the book picks up steam, we discover that Lily has exhibited such ambivalence for years. She has had many opportunities to choose love or money, and each time she draws back—spikes her own guns, so to speak. She is, in short, a difficult character.
But what makes her difficult? In part, the answer is Wharton herself. With apparent glee, she rips every possible solution away from Lily, one after another. Marry a rich man? No. Become a rich man’s mistress? No. Establish her own career? No. Marry for love? No. Wharton forces Lily into a box and refuses to let her out, presumably to make a point about the society that Lily inhabits, the society that rejects her, its smallness of mind, its focus on trivialities, its material excesses and spiritual destitution. In that sense, Wharton, too, is a difficult character.
Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope I am. But I can’t help feeling, based on my own experience, that Edith Wharton would have a hard time publishing The House of Mirth today. It’s a wonderful book, well worth reading, yet not a comfortable one. If it came in over the transom from an unknown author, what literary agent or editor would pick it up? The first hundred pages are all slow build, full of exposition and telling. In the ninety seconds that agents give a book, where is there room to discover a classic that doesn’t hit its stride until halfway, then roars toward its relentlessly uncompromising finish? These days, wouldn’t Wharton have to self-publish? And if she did, how long would it take her book to break out?
In short, have we lost the ability to appreciate difficult characters?