The House of Mirth Essay - The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

Introduction

The House of Mirth Edith Wharton

(Full name Edith Newbold Jones Wharton) American novelist, short story writer, poet, memoirist, autobiographer, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Wharton's novel The House of Mirth (1905).

Wharton was the first American woman to receive some of the country's most distinguished literary awards—the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and an honorary degree from Yale University—and the most celebrated American female author of her time. Herself a member of New York's upper-class social scene, Wharton frequently wrote of its highly competitive and often devastating contradictory expectations of success and moral uprightness. Of all her novels, The House of Mirth (1905) perhaps illustrates this incongruity best, along with the tragic results of social pressures for women in particular.

Plot and Major Characters

Wharton's heroine in The House of Mirth, the dazzling Lily Bart, is a single twenty-nine-year-old woman with no money of her own to support herself—a disaster for women at that time. Yet Lily has a place among New York's upper class because of her family's social position prior to her father's loss of fortune. It is her attempt to maintain her social role despite her many small acts of rebellion—smoking, gambling, being seen in public with married men—and the rampant hypocrisy of her group around which the novel revolves. With Lily's father leaving behind heavy debt when he dies, her mother attempts to rescue her social standing using her daughter's beauty and desirability as a potential wife. Yet, despite her self-image as an object with nothing to offer but her looks, Lily's fledgling sense of moral respectability forces her to turn down marriage proposals she finds beneath her, until, at some point, the proposals simply stop coming and Lily's desperate attempts to salvage her reputation lead to scandal and tragedy. Setting off on her own with no inheritance and no family guidance once her mother dies, Lily finds herself at the mercy of the very group she wishes to join. Her one ally and potential mate, Lawrence Selden, is a morally waffling lawyer who loves Lily but is unwilling either to help her change her behavior or to marry her. Lily's other suitors are Simon Rosedale, a wealthy Jew that Lily cannot bring herself to marry because he is outside the social circle; Percy Gryce, a very wealthy young man whom Lily for a time schemes to marry until he hears rumors about her; and Gus Trenor, a vulgar married man to whom Lily appeals for financial help. Trenor accepts Lily's money—which she believes he is investing for her—to use as leverage to force her into providing him with sexual favors. When she realizes this, she tries to remove herself from the situation, but Trenor attempts to rape her. When news gets out of Lily's dealings with Trenor, her reputation is damaged. In the meantime, Lily becomes entangled in the extramarital affairs of her friends. She buys some love letters exchanged between Selden and the married Bertha Dorset from the charwoman in Selden's building in order to save Selden from scandal. She intends to destroy the letters but keeps them when she is reminded of her own failures. Eventually, the gossip about Lily, which is largely exaggerated and sometimes outright wrong, spreads until even Selden abandons her. Deeply in debt and disinherited by her wealthy aunt, Mrs. Peniston, Lily finds work in a millinery factory, intending to repay her ten-thousand-dollar debt to Gus Trenor; she refuses, however, to sell the love letters to improve her situation, and she also refuses Simon Rosedale's offer to let her borrow the money. Lily begins taking sleeping medication and is told by the pharmacist to use great caution, as too much can be deadly. Returning home one evening, she unexpectedly receives a check for ten thousand dollars from her aunt's lawyer. After writing out all her bills and cleaning her rented room, Lily takes some extra sleeping medication to avoid nightmares. Meanwhile, Lawrence Selden has had a change of heart and goes to Lily's room to propose to her. When he arrives, he finds her dead. Looking through her papers to make sure there is nothing that could further damage her reputation, Selden realizes the true nature of Lily's dealings with Gus Trenor and repents his part in her demise.

Major Themes

Wharton's main subject in The House of Mirth is the lengths to which women—even apparently privileged women—were forced to go to survive. Facing either poverty or personal and moral degradation, women like Lily Bart often had no choice but to essentially prostitute themselves to gain financial and emotional security. Related to this is Lily's view of herself as a decorative object rather than a complete human being. Raised and encouraged to think that beauty and charm were her only assets, a woman like Lily would become useless as she aged and her physical attributes faded. Lily's crisis, as an unmarried woman approaching thirty, is that, while she is exquisitely beautiful, her beauty is the one asset she will inevitably lose. And because of this focus on physical beauty rather than character, Lily is undeveloped as an individual; although she is highly intelligent, she has no useful skills to help her support herself and a somewhat loose moral code where social scheming is concerned. Combined with her society's hypocrisy, which allowed for extramarital but not premarital affairs and which cast a particularly harsh eye on single women who so much as seemed to step outside prescribed bounds, Lily has little choice but to do whatever she can to get by. Another of Wharton's concerns was the effect of the newly rich on the Old New York society to which she was accustomed. Many members of the “Old Money” society of New York resented the burgeoning wealthy class that came about at the end of the nineteenth century, considering them vulgar and insensitive. Wharton once called the members of this new economic class “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers.” Lily's lineage is of the older generation, and as such she is simply not equipped to confront the realities of life in the new order.

Critical Reception

The House of Mirth was first published in serial form in Scribner's Magazine to immense success. Upon its publication in book form in 1905 it became a bestseller and was hailed as one of the greatest novels ever produced in the United States. Although Wharton's works were overshadowed for a long period by those of her friend and contemporary Henry James, critical interest in her was renewed with the rise in interest in women's roles in society. Regarding The House of Mirth, critics have commented on Wharton's pessimism and her apparent naturalistic determinism; others have, however, asserted that the novel's tone is ironic, particularly the scenes that echo Victorian sentimentalism. In general, while critics admit that The House of Mirth is flawed, they also contend that it is one of Wharton's greatest achievements and a formidable work of American fiction.

Principal Works

Verses (poetry) 1878

The Decoration of Houses [with Ogden Codman] (nonfiction) 1897

The Greater Inclination (short stories) 1899

The Touchstone (novella) 1900; also published as A Gift from the Grave, 1900

Crucial Instances (short stories) 1901

The Valley of Decision (novel) 1902

Sanctuary (novel) 1903

The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1904

Italian Villas and Their Gardens (nonfiction) 1904

The House of Mirth (novel) 1905

Italian Backgrounds (memoirs) 1905

The Fruit of the Tree (novel) 1907

The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories (short stories) 1908

Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse (poetry) 1909

Ethan Frome (novel) 1911

The Reef (novel) 1912

The Custom of the Country (novel) 1913

Xingu and Other Stories (short stories) 1916

Summer (novel) 1917

French Ways and Their Meaning (essays) 1919

The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920

The Writing of Fiction (criticism) 1925

Here and Beyond (short stories) 1926

Hudson River Bracketed (novel) 1929

Certain People (short stories) 1930

Human Nature (short stories) 1933

A Backward Glance (autobiography) 1934

The Buccaneers (unfinished novel) 1938

Criticism

Alice Meynell (review date December 1905)

SOURCE: Meynell, Alice. “The House of Mirth.Bookman 29, no. 171 (December 1905): 130-31.

[In the following review, Meynell finds Wharton's moral stance lacking in The House of Mirth.]

Mrs. Wharton is essentially a moralist, albeit with the whole modern resolve not to declare herself. A Gift from the Grave remains her highest, most complete, and most commanding work, because, in a memorable passage she set her sail to a natural wind. Moral passion swept through the world of that book—direct grief, emotion close to the fact of life, love, indignation, remorse, dishonour, and honour; all the storms of breasts complex, civilised, but incorrupt. In...

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G. M. Loney (essay date September 1961)

SOURCE: Loney, G. M. “Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth: The Novelist Writes for the Theater.” Modern Drama 4 (September 1961): 152-63.

[In the following essay, Loney examines Wharton's dramatization for the stage of The House of Mirth and posits reasons for the play's failure with audiences.]

Although periodic grumblings from some critics, such as Yvor Winters, have intimated that writing for the theater is perilously close to literary prostitution, a number of American authors have not been able to resist the lure of seeing their fiction transformed into flesh and blood on the stage. Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Henry James, and William Dean Howells...

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Cathy N. Davidson (essay date fall 1979)

SOURCE: Davidson, Cathy N. “Kept Women in The House of Mirth.Markham Review 9 (fall 1979): 10-3.

[In the following essay, Davidson discusses the options for women, particularly of Lily's class, in early-twentieth-century American society.]

Edith Wharton, while writing her first major novel, contemplated calling that work either “The Year of the Rose” or “A Moment's Ornament” but finally decided on The House of Mirth.1 This choice, alluding to Ecclesiastes 7:4 (“the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”) and rich with metaphoric and ironic implications, is, as I will subsequently argue, clearly the wisest one. Yet the two...

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Bruce Michelson (essay date autumn 1984)

SOURCE: Michelson, Bruce. “Edith Wharton's House Divided.” Studies in American Fiction 12, no. 2 (autumn 1984): 199-215.

[In the following essay, Michelson observes the influence on The House of Mirth of the “well-made play.”]

It happens that in the unfolding of Edith Wharton's career, she wrote The House of Mirth in the midst of several ventures into stagecraft. In 1902 Edith Wharton published a thoughtful, competent translation of a play called Es Lebe das Leben by the then-fashionable Ibsenite Herman Sudermann, a play now faulted for mixing pat naturalism with trite histrionics. While she spoke of this translation (which sold well for a...

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Elaine Showalter (essay date winter 1985)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “The Death of the Lady (Novelist): Wharton's The House of Mirth.Representations 9 (winter 1985): 133-49.

[In the following essay, Showalter discusses the “crisis of adulthood” faced by Lily Bart and the nonfictional women upon which her character is based, who had to conform to the social expectation of marrying before the age of thirty or facing personal and economic disaster.]

The lady is almost the only picturesque survival in a social order which tends less and less to tolerate the exceptional. Her history is distinct from that of woman though sometimes advancing by means of it, as a railway may help...

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Wai-Chee Dimock (essay date October 1985)

SOURCE: Dimock, Wai-Chee. “Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.PMLA 100, no. 5 (October 1985): 783-92.

[In the following essay, Dimock examines the ways in which the society of The House of Mirth is based on terms of commerce.]

“… you got reckless—thought you could turn me inside out and chuck me in the gutter like an empty purse. But, by gad, that ain't playing fair: that's dodging the rules of the game. Of course I know now what you wanted—it wasn't my beautiful eyes you were after—but I tell you what, Miss Lily, you've got to pay up for making me think so.” …

...

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Roslyn Dixon (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Dixon, Roslyn. “Reflecting Vision in The House of Mirth.Twentieth Century Literature 33, no. 2 (summer 1987): 211-22.

[In the following essay, Dixon discusses how Wharton's use of “contrasting angles of vision” as a literary technique reflects her ideological perspective concerning the role of the individual within society, and uses this technique to evaluate the underlying ethical and social framework of American society in her novel The House of Mirth.]

When Edith Wharton outlines her theory on point of view in The Writing of Fiction, she also provides the key to the narrative structure in her novels:

...

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Frances L. Restuccia (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Restuccia, Frances L. “The Name of the Lily: Edith Wharton's Feminism(s).” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 2 (summer 1987): 223-38.

[In the following essay, Restuccia argues that part of Wharton's feminist position in The House of Mirth resembles later “humanist feminism” in its emphasis on the positive effects of femininity.]

“Lily … returned from her expedition with a sense of the powerlessness of beauty and charm against the unfeeling processes of the law.”

—Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

“Writing, space of dispersion of desire,...

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Julie Olin Ammentorp (essay date autumn 1988)

SOURCE: Ammentorp, Julie Olin. “Edith Wharton's Challenge to Feminist Criticism.” Studies in American Fiction 16, no. 2 (autumn 1988): 237-44.

[In the following essay, Ammentorp finds that Wharton's male characters in The House of Mirth suffer nearly as much as the women because of their society's expectations.]

In the past decade, feminist critics have done much to restore Edith Wharton to her proper rank among American novelists and to shed light on many aspects of her work previous critics had overlooked. Scholars such as Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Elizabeth Ammons, Judith Fetterley, and recently Wai-Chee Dimock have changed the understanding of Wharton's...

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Louise K. Barnett (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Barnett, Louise K. “Language, Gender, and Society in The House of Mirth.Connecticut Review 11, no. 2 (summer 1989): 54-63.

[In the following essay, Barnett posits that in The House of Mirth society functions as a character rather than simply a setting against which the story is told.]

Edith Wharton's novels, like those of her friend and predecessor Henry James, are always speech act dramas which turn upon what can and cannot be said according to the dictates of society: the code of verbal restraint that governs utterance is everywhere present. For both James and Wharton society is the coercive arbiter of individual behavior, but whereas in...

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Elaine N. Orr (essay date March 1991)

SOURCE: Orr, Elaine N. “Contractual Law, Relational Whisper: A Reading of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.Modern Language Quarterly 52, no. 1 (March 1991): 53-70.

[In the following essay, Orr discusses the world of The House of Mirth as a contractual milieu.]

“But you belittle me, don't you, … in being so sure.”

—Lily Bart1

“Must the multiple nature of female desire and language be understood as the fragmentary, scattered remains of a raped or denied sexuality? This is not an easy question to answer.”

...

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Christian Riegel (essay date autumn 1992)

SOURCE: Riegel, Christian. “Rosedale and Anti-Semitism in the House of Mirth.Studies in American Fiction 20, no. 2 (autumn 1992): 219-24.

[In the following essay, Riegel points out anti-Semitism in The House of Mirth, but notes that Wharton herself does not take an explicit stance in the novel.]

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth deals with the complex clash of old New York society, with all its inherent traditions and conventions, with the fast emerging and very wealthy new capitalist society. The new society, which Wharton termed the “invaders,” aspired to social acceptance by old New York. Although the old society resisted the...

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Carol Baker Sapora (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Sapora, Carol Baker. “Female Doubling: The Other Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.Papers on Language and Literature 29, no. 4 (fall 1993): 371-94.

[In the following essay, Sapora examines the conflict in The House of Mirth between the image of women as works of art or decorative objects and women's attempts at self-actualization.]

At Mrs. Wellington Bry's evening of tableaux vivants, when the curtain suddenly parts on a picture that is “simply and undisguisedly the portrait of Miss Bart,” we are told that the awed spectators pay tribute not to Reynolds's “Mrs. Lloyd” but to the “flesh and blood loveliness of...

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Donald Pizer (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Pizer, Donald. “The Naturalism of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.Twentieth Century Literature 41, no. 2 (summer 1995): 241-48.

[In the following essay, Pizer examines The House of Mirth for its elements of literary naturalism as well as Wharton's apparent ambivalence to this possible interpretation at the end of the novel.]

Edith Wharton's effort in The House of Mirth to excoriate the nexus between sex and money in turn-of-the-century upper-class New York life and to reveal the tragic effects of a society of this kind upon a sensitive young woman has been recognized from the publication of the novel in 1905. Criticism of the day,...

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John Clubbe (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Clubbe, John. “Interiors and the Interior Life in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.Studies in the Novel 28, no. 4 (winter 1996): 543-64.

[In the following essay, Clubbe draws upon Wharton's interest in interior design to discuss her correlation in The House of Mirth between Lily's interior physical environments and the struggling development of her inner life.]

No American author has written with more understanding and artistry about the interplay among character, social history, and domestic esthetics than has Edith Wharton. In 1897 she established herself as an authority on interiors with The Decoration of Houses, written with the...

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Maureen Howard (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Howard, Maureen. “On The House of Mirth.Raritan 15, no. 3 (winter 1996): 1-23.

[In the following essay, Howard discusses The House of Mirth as a turning point in Wharton's artistic and intellectual development.]

What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature!

—Charles Darwin

It is just over ninety years since Edith Wharton made her agreement with Scribner's Magazine to finish and publish in serial form a work which she had found troubling. The House of Mirth is a novel of New York...

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Candace Waid (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Waid, Candace. “Building The House of Mirth.” In Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk, pp. 160-86. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Waid traces the publication history of The House of Mirth from its origin as a serial in Scribner's magazine.]

In 1902, after reading The Valley of Decision, Edith Wharton's two-volume novel set in eighteenth-century Italy, Henry James advised the beginning novelist to devote herself to “the American subject.” He insisted: “Don't pass it by—the immediate, the real, the only,...

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Bonnie Lynn Gerard (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Gerard, Bonnie Lynn. “From Tea to Chloral: Raising the Dead Lily Bart.” Twentieth Century Literature 44, no. 4 (winter 1998): 409-27.

[In the following essay, Gerard argues that Lily's death provides a break from Wharton's naturalism throughout The House of Mirth to allow for a moment of individual self-determination.]

“Gad! what a study might be made of the tyranny of the stomach—”

The House of Mirth (309)

Much has been made of the “square envelopes” fashionable society “showered” upon the “hall-table” of young Lily Bart's New York home (44). Much...

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William E. Moddelmog (essay date June 1998)

SOURCE: Moddelmog, William E. “Disowning ‘Personality’: Privacy and Subjectivity in The House of Mirth.American Literature 70, no. 2 (June 1998): 337-63.

[In the following essay, Moddelmog examines Wharton's narrative strategy of demonstrating the difficulties inherent in portraying female subjectivity by distancing herself, her other characters, and her readers from Lily's inner life.]

What is one's personality, detached from that of the friends with whom fate happens to have linked one?

—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

The pivotal moment of Edith Wharton's The House...

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Gary Totten (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Totten, Gary. “The Art and Architecture of the Self: Designing the ‘I’-Witness in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.College Literature 27, no. 3 (fall 2000): 71-87.

[In the following essay, Totten suggests that Lily's one genuine moment of subjectivity happens when she constructs herself as the aesthetic figure of Mrs. Lloyd.]

“If, then, design is inevitable, the best art must be that in which it is most organic, most inherent in the soul of the subject.”

(Wharton 1914, 229-30)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, writing of the ideological force of the gaze in The Visible and...

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Ruth Bernard Yeazell (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “The Conspicuous Wasting of Lily Bart.” In New Essays on “The House of Mirth,” edited by Deborah Esch, pp. 15-41. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Yeazell examines the milieu of appearances and consumption in which Lily must navigate and which ultimately leads to her downfall.]

Few fictional heroines have been as consistently under observation as Lily Bart, and few heroes have proved such consistent observers as Lawrence Selden.1 Yet he scarcely registers her most notable performance. Indeed, by the time that Lily drops Bertha Dorset's letters into Selden's fireplace, the...

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