A Masterpiece of Dread: Inner Conflict and Micro-Tension in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

The Irish novelist Colm Toíbín once wrote:  “A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how those energies might be controlled, given shape.” 

The House of Mirth is an awesome illustration of this idea. As narrative, it is an unstoppable dynamo of conflict and dread, an elegant and emotionally merciless equation in which each finely wrought scene brings Lily Bart, Wharton’s highly sympathetic and hopelessly flawed protagonist, one jagged step closer to the tragic fall we understand from the beginning is inevitable.

The House of Mirth is an elegantly built page-turner, a masterpiece of excruciating dramatic irony. By the final chapters one can barely stand to read on, though of course one really has no choice but to do so. Much of the book’s exceptional tension is due to Wharton’s skill and discipline as a craftswoman of narrative structure. Each scene is full of conflict, each has a clear turning point, and each creates a marked change of fortune, bringing Miss Bart either closer to or more distant from her dramatic desires: wealth by marriage, the adulation of her peers, and permanent membership in the highest social echelons of her age and milieu.

The narrative arc is downward, and sharply defined. The chapters are short, like potato chips, so that you can’t just read one, you must finish the whole pile. And Wharton’s turn of the century New York society is so convincingly drawn that once immersed, the reader is hard-pressed to look away.

Wharton’s novel is also propulsive on the sentence-to-sentence level. I believe this is mostly attributable to something Donald Maass has called “micro-tension.” Micro-tension is the “unconscious apprehension” that a reader experiences when faced with a point of view protagonist’s conflicting feelings. Conflicting feelings produce a sense of unease, and according to Maass, the reader will keep turning pages in an unconscious quest to relieve that unease. If Maass’ analysis is correct (and I believe it is), then The House of Mirth provides an excellent case in point:

“For a clever man it was certainly a stupid beginning; and the idea that his awkwardness was due to the fear of her attaching a personal significance to his visit, chilled her pleasure in seeing him. Even under the most adverse conditions, that pleasure always made itself felt: she might hate him, but she had never been able to wish him out of the room. She was very near hating him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his clothes—she was conscious that even these trivial things were inwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness came upon her, and the turmoil of her spirit ceased; but an impulse of resistance to this stealing influence now prompted her to say: ‘It's very good of you to present yourself in that capacity; but what makes you think I have anything particular to talk about?’”

Lily loves Selden and yet she hates him. She is attracted to him, and yet, because she is determined to marry for money, she will not permit herself to act upon that attraction. For these and other reasons, throughout the book, Lily Bart exists in an agonized state of indecision. And it’s not only Lily. Witness Selden’s own conflicted feelings:

“Selden's avoidance of Miss Bart had not been as unintentional as he had allowed his cousin to think. At first, indeed, while the memory of their last hour at Monte Carlo still held the full heat of his indignation, he had anxiously watched for her return; but she had disappointed him by lingering in England, and when she finally reappeared it happened that business had called him to the West, whence he came back only to learn that she was starting for Alaska with the Gormers. The revelation of this suddenly-established intimacy effectually chilled his desire to see her. If, at a moment when her whole life seemed to be breaking up, she could cheerfully commit its reconstruction to the Gormers, there was no reason why such accidents should ever strike her as irreparable. Every step she took seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illumined moment; and the recognition of this fact, when its first pang had been surmounted, produced in him a sense of negative relief. It was much simpler for him to judge Miss Bart by her habitual conduct than by the rare deviations from it which had thrown her so disturbingly in his way; and every act of hers which made the recurrence of such deviations more unlikely, confirmed the sense of relief with which he returned to the conventional view of her.

     But Gerty Farish's words had sufficed to make him see how little this view was really his, and how impossible it was for him to live quietly with the thought of Lily Bart. To hear that she was in need of help—even such vague help as he could offer—was to be at once repossessed by that thought; and by the time he reached the street he had sufficiently convinced himself of the urgency of his cousin's appeal to turn his steps directly toward Lily's hotel.”

And so we are presented with characters struggling not only with the novel’s big questions – such as whether or not one is to compromise one’s integrity in the search for security – but also with related, fleeting, moment-to-moment questions, such as whether or not to forgive a potential lover, or how to handle a conversation with one. These micro-conflicts urge us on from sentence to sentence and page to page as we wait for the other shoe to drop. We are swept inexorably forward to the next turning point in Lily’s customized road to perdition.

Micro-tension is different from what we might think of as dramatic conflict, those bread-and-butter scenes wherein, for example, characters with clashing desires confront each other, there is a struggle, and one character wins and the other loses. Micro-tension is inward looking and smaller in scale. Yet working in concert with the boldly drawn structural conflicts underlying the narrative, it makes the fabric of the story exceptionally compelling.  Regardless of how it works, this is powerful writing. And The House of Mirth is proof that contemporary novelists still have a great deal to learn from Edith Wharton.