At a critical moment in The House of Mirth (1905), just after her humiliating confrontation with Gus Trenor compels Lily Bart to realise how terrifyingly 'alone' she is, 'in a place of darkness and pollution', Edith Wharton's doomed heroine thinks for the first time of the Furies: 'She had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the Eumenides,' the novelist writes, 'and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour's repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain.' Though Lily's memory of the Furies obviously measures the relentlessness with which her society will pursue and destroy her, it serves more subtly to characterise the victim herself: sensitive enough to respond to the power of the dramatist's art and to recall the scene so vividly, she has neither the education nor the discipline to know anything of Aeschylus beyond this chance acquaintance - an acquaintance casually 'picked up' in one of those luxurious houses where the beautiful but impoverished young woman has been a perpetual hanger-on. Having failed to make a wealthy marriage or otherwise to place herself above the reach of scandal, Lily will eventually descend from those houses to the narrow room of a shabby boarding-house, where she swallows an overdose of chloral. Wharton's heroine clearly suffers from a lack of resources in more than one sense - and if the novel sometimes suggests that there is in any case no escaping the Furies, it nonetheless wishes us to understand the shallowness of her education, like her inability to earn her own living, as an indictment of the culture that made her so vulnerable.
LRB 19 January 1989 | PDF Download