The House of Mirth and The Awakening have so many similarities

I read The House of Mirth and The Awakening almost back to back (one book in between – Susan Choi’s Person of Interest) unintentionally, but I was totally struck by how similar the two books are. The Awakening was published in 1899, while The House of Mirth was published just six years later in 1905. The protagonists, Lily Bart and Edna Pontellier, are also incredibly similar (and, interestingly, almost exactly the same age – Edna turns 28 during the course of The Awakening; Lily is 29 when The House of Mirth begins) – both are in rather precarious positions because of both their own actions and their own yearnings for something more than conventional social life, and both end their own lives because they are unable to find fulfillment through men and society and unwilling to conceive of a life outside of those constraints.

Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, has the clarity to both see her precarious position and realize that she’s really not suited for a life without wealth. Because of these two things, she knows she must marry for wealth. She knows what she wants and has the social skills to get what she wants (a proposal from a rich man), and beyond that, she has so many opportunities to get exactly what she wants. The issue is, she always gets cold feet at the last moment. Every time she’s about to get someone to propose to is on the verge of accepting a proposal, she gets a conscience and starts to feel bad that she’ll just be marrying for wealth, or she’ll think she can do better, or she thinks oh wait, maybe she doesn’t need wealth, and backs out. And then after she gets cold feet, she has the same realizations (that she really does want luxury and society) all over again and starts the whole useless cycle again, progressively with less and less leverage. She becomes doomed to a “dingy” life and unlike her foil, Gerty Farish, she’s unable to make peace with her circumstances. Then, she dies.

Unlike Lily, Edna Pontellier in The Awakening is already married and has two kids. She slowly awakens to the dissatisfaction of her life – her husband is nice enough, but expects total submissiveness; she’s expected to live solely for children in a way that seems impossible to her. Her “awakening” is the result of a passionate lust for Robert Lebrun, who returns her affection but is first hesitant and ultimately unwilling to act on that passion. Like Lily, Edna has a foil – Madame Reisz, a rather disagreeable musician who lives (it seems happily) alone in a small apartment (the descriptions of this apartment match closely with the descriptions of Gerty Farish’s apartment!)

Both Lily and Edna find solace at Gertie Farish’s and Madame Reisz’s apartments, respectively, but neither are able to fully give up their claims to conventionality and society in the way their foils do. Neither women are satisfied by the standard option that society provided to women: marry and be part of society. Both women can comprehend an existence that is entirely separate to their lives (Gertie Farish and Madame Reisz), but both cannot fully give up their previous, conventional lives – Lily cannot stop wanting wealth (which would come only through marriage) and Edna cannot stop wanting a marriage-like relationship (Robert).

A lot of people have written articles about both The House of Mirth and The Awakening that are a lot more eloquent and nuanced than this one. In particular, I liked this article about The House of Mirth and this article about The Awakening