“The House of Mirth” published in 1905 by Edith Wharton is a character driven novel that effectively results in a resuscitation of Flaubert’s dead heroine, Madame Bovary. This time, she comes in the form of the extravagant Lily Bart. Ms. Bovary is brought back to life by translation. Fluent in French, Edith Wharton’s francophilia delivers the pre-conceived warning to American young beauties about the French curse of debt induced suicide. Revitalizing the dead society culture of American high society of her time, Edith Wharton’s love of France and all things French (including Flaubert’s aristocratic critique of bourgeois fallacies) enables the esteemed realistic creature, Madame Bovary, to enter into a hyperrealistic duplication in the form of Lily Bart. Rarely is a copy more compelling than the original, but for many book lovers, this is the case when asked about their preference between Bovary and Bart. Why is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary trumped by her rebirth in the form of Lily Bart? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Lily’s translation is closer in time and space to the contemporary capital of the 20th century, New York City.
Provocatively, Walter Benjamin poses the question, “Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original?” Certainly, the linguistic elitism implied by that question, serves to suggest that we need to and should understand “the original.” Under this aegis, Edith Wharton likewise preserves her authorial claim to originality. Perhaps not having enough of a literate audience to compare the continental canon, she was able to shock and stun her own bourgeois readership of their own frightening entanglement in capitalism. Furthermore, Benjamin claims that translations cannot transmit what is essential about literary works. Therefore, translation is merely a testament to the translatability of the original. In medical terms, we might consider what is translatable to be the “viral,” contagious spread of disease. We are overcome with a work by virtue of our need to share it.
Thus, the afterlife of Madame Bovary spreads the disease of debt and its crippling effects once again in an updated American version. It proves that there may be nothing more stunning than to witness the fall of the most beautiful, effortless, weightless, and superficial members of elite society even though Lily Bart is proven to have more wit and more gumption than Madame Bovary could ever manage. Therefore, she is prepped for a more hungry audience. They liked what they saw, and the virus had taken hold. Each era has the potential to reframe the translatable figure of Madame Bovary as long as her archetype remains fixed, and as long as we continue to fear the threshold of death that looms at the edge of a fall in status. But is that kind of decadence exactly what Edith Wharton had in mind? And why do mostly high-society writers(Edith Wharton was a kin of the elite) latch onto this particular translatable text? Why is it somehow satisfying to kill off a member of their own in fiction?
Let’s recall the novel’s “non-essential” (non-literary) information:
Lily Bart is a beautiful high society lady living with her wealthy aunt in New York City. She earns a stipend from her aunt for her expenses that accrue as she mingles among wealthy social circles by adorning parties with her exceptional beauty and grace. Her lifestyle could only respectably end in marriage. Lily Bart, however, defies this “natural” trajectory by gambling her money away at bridge and eluding her suitors. When she becomes financially entangled with married suitor who seeks to adopt her as his mistress, she realizes she must repay him to quell rumors that will inevitably spread. When her aunt learns of her niece Lily Bart’s defamatory endeavors, unbeknownst to Lily Bart, she adjusts her will to restrict Lily Bart’s inheritance and award the bulk of her wealth to Lily’s previously less-admired cousin. As far as her aunt is concerned, Lily Bart has wasted her beauty and upbringing on frivolous, selfish pursuits. Ultimately, what Lily inherits is just enough to cover the cost of her debts. Lily Bart’s downfall results in her confiding to various suitors of her situation. One of them offers her a loan to cover her debt to the original suitor and restore her reputation in a plan that involves an eventual marriage and return to her customary status. However, by this time, she is working to earn her living as a hat maker for which she has no skill and she is living in a boarding house. By the time she finally receives her inheritance, she realizes its full amount is almost entirely accounted for. Unable to revoke her lifestyle of excess and materialism, or to give up her independence, or to see the virtues of her less materialistic friends, she overdoses while thinking of her hopeless circumstances.
Lily Bart is a direct translation of the character Madame Bovary into a different nation and culture, which offers Edith Wharton the opportunity to provide a critique of American society. Let us recall that Madame Bovary was absorbed in a quest of freedom as a natural exponent of true love. Along the way, her savings succumbed to her dreams as she lavishly adorned the romantic setting where she met her lover to the point of suicide-inducing debt. Lily Bart, however, appears to despise the concept of marriage and dreams instead of remaining free to carouse the tightly-knit circles of society with equal dress and esteem as if she were attached to a partner, but without the trappings of closure and limitation that marriage might impose on her power to allure. Unable to find a suitable partner, she prefers to gamble and dream of the virtues of financial independence.
Edith Wharton’s francophile approach to writing results in an uncanny doppelgänger effect when one reads “Madame Bovary” and “The House of Mirth” in sequence. Edith Wharton’s admiration for French culture is vividly transparent in the near duplication of themes and motivations. Just as Flaubert wished to critique the romantic delusions of the French bourgeois class, Edith Wharton directs her critique at her own materialistic, inbred society of New York where all of the members of the elite merely wish to escape to the superior “culture” of Europe.
What is brilliant about Edith Wharton’s translation of Madame Bovary into a new work is that it reflects her simultaneous desire to adopt French culture as a corrective to her own. Edith Wharton was fluent in French and she died in France at the age of 75. With “The House of Mirth,” she infuses a French classic text into the American imagination because of her profound belief in the superiority of Europe and its aristocratic class to her own. Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” represents not only a heroine’s escape from her troubles, but a writer’s escape from her own environment, by embracing another culture.
The relationship between Madame Bovary and Lily Bart is not about female empowerment, but rather a dissolution into the borderless confines of identity captured by the figure of the flaneur. Lily lands at the cusp of such a wandering phenomena by traversing high and low culture, maneuvering in and out of Europe and America, while also floating in the in between space of decisive suicide and accidental death. This indeterminable half-life, can no longer can be reigned in by patriarchy. Lily Bart instead leads towards an atrophy of self in which the only vague sense of certainty befalls her upon her death. Unlike Bovary’s lust for a transcendence from her strict realism in the form of eternal love, Lily Bart chooses not to choose, and falters over her identity as a relinquishment of willpower. She settles with powerless ease into the systemic demise that awaits her. Lily Bart, trumped by capitalism, represents a more clearly etched indecision that Madame Bovary inspired and transmitted. Eloquently prim in their lack of resistance to the capitalism that rules supreme in these representations, Flaubert and Wharton alike simply give in to the notion that women, left to their own devices, are no match for the death-seeking downward spiral of debt that is induced by a capitalist society. Thus, Benjamin continues to hold the key, by claiming that Paris was the “capital” of the 19th century, proving the most hallucinatory generator of phantasmic images of ghosts, untimely deaths of beautiful women, and the machinery of the resulting continuation of such an epidemic. Cast aside and forgotten, in the story of Lily Bart, the dance of excess carries on long after her death. Lily Bart ushers in the new era of an American translation of such liberal freedoms.