The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
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.
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.
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.
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
(The entire section is 145 words.)
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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 The House of Mirth we have to read of the fortunes of a woman full of desires and of self-love, but void of virtue, of passion, and of intellect; and round about her are only lovers of their own ease and supremacy; claimants to the right of a social contemptuousness towards other less fortunate egotists as the salt of life; and graspers of riches as its sweetness. To observe this horde without obvious irritation is a work demanding self-control, and Mrs. Wharton watches them from the sequestered bower of her fine art, taking wide views, keeping her own counsel. It seems strange to say of a novelist who has filled five hundred pages with chosen words that she keeps her own counsel, but it is none the less obviously true of the writer of...
(The entire section is 6689 words.)
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 were all impelled either to dramatize their own novels or to write original works for the theater. Unfortunately for both the authors and the theater, disappointment has frequently been the reward of such efforts.
That the novels of these writers are still being read, while the plays have been lost or retired to the library shelf, indicates that the dramas may have carried the seeds of their own destruction, rather than that hostile, unlettered audiences caused the failure of the plays by not recognizing the true genius of the playwrights. Analysis often reveals the would-be playwright's fatal misapprehension that a play is little more than a novel brought to life. Even this naïve view might not be so deadly, were the...
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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 earlier provisional titles also suggest something of the basic plight of the novel's protagonist and the general predicament of women in the society that Wharton portrays. Lily Bart, who has no fortune of her own, is defined by the monied aristocracy of fin de siècle New York primarily in terms of her potential as an ornament and as a beautiful setting for expensive adornments.2 As such, the duration of her season is, like that of a rose, definitely limited: unless a suitable marriage establishes her as a lady presiding over an establishment of her own, her existence is necessarily precarious. Her chief concern should therefore be to market, to her best advantage, her only asset—her flower-like beauty.
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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 number of years) as a mere exercise, the text itself reveals that she took pains to cater to an American audience, and she showed great interest in the mounting of the play for its brief, poorly received Broadway run.1 In 1906, while The House of Mirth still held its own as a national best-seller, Edith Wharton joined forces with Clyde Fitch, the master of well-crafted stage hits, to transform her novel into a highly emotional drama, a venture which fared no better than The Joy of Living, as she called her translation of Sudermann's play.2 Her special interest in the stage goes back somewhat further: R. W. B. Lewis notes that she was busy with two or three plays of her own, and with writing drama...
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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 itself from one point to another by leasing an independent line. At all striking periods of social development her status has its significance. In the age-long war between men and women, she is a hostage in the enemy's camp. Her fortunes do not rise and fall with those of women but with those of men.
—Emily James Putnam, The Lady (1910)
Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
—Sylvia Plath, “The Munich Mannequins”
At the beginning of Edith Wharton's first great novel, The House of Mirth (1905), the heroine, Lily Bart, is twenty-nine, the dazzlingly well-preserved veteran of eleven years...
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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.” …
“Pay up?” she faltered. “Do you mean that I owe you money?”
He laughed again. “Oh, I'm not asking for payment in kind. But there's such a thing as fair play—and interest on one's money—and hang me if I've had as much as a look from you—”
(Wharton, The House of Mirth 145-46)
The most brutal moment in The House of Mirth dramatizes not so much the centrality of sex as the centrality of exchange. Sexual favors are what Gus Trenor wants, but his demands are steeped in—and legitimated by—the language of the marketplace, the language of traded benefits and reciprocal obligations. Odious...
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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:
In the interest of … unity it is best to … let the tale work itself out from not more than two (or at most three) angles of vision, choosing as reflecting consciousnesses persons either in close mental or moral relation to each other, or discerning enough to estimate each other's parts in the drama, so that the latter, even viewed from different angles, always presents itself to the reader as a whole.1
This statement points directly to the source of ambiguity in The House of Mirth: the use of multiple points of view. Wharton believed that the individual exists only in relation to a complex and demanding social structure, one that allows little variance from convention. For this...
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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, where Law is dismissed.”
—Roland Barthes, Image Music Text
“This is to call for, then, a decentered vision (theoria) but a centered action that will not result in a renewed invisibility.”
—Nancy K. Miller, “The Text's Heroine: A Feminist Critic and Her Fictions”
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is a feminist novel comprising—perhaps by definition—at least two feminisms.1 The story may be read as a social fable that indicts fashionable, fin-de-siècle New York society for producing human feminine ornaments that it has no qualms about crushing. “In the first Donnée...
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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 work through their perceptive analyses, focusing particularly on Wharton's insights into the social structures of the early part of this century and the ways in which these structures influenced and limited women's lives.
Yet the work of these feminist critics also raises issues of the limitations, or perhaps blind-spots, of current feminist literary criticism, issues which go beyond their application to Wharton and her work. For instance, most feminist critics seem to imply that Wharton, though never one to ally herself with the feminist movements of her day, was a kind of inherent feminist, someone who both fought for and attained her rightful place as a novelist in a period when the novel was dominated by male authors and...
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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 James's fiction society is a generally diffused presence that never takes on the reality of a particular social milieu, in Wharton's work it assumes the specific historical shape of turn-of-the-century upper class New York. In The House of Mirth it is a fully realized character whose views at any given moment are as palpably presented as the furnishings of Mrs. Peniston's drawing room.
Reflecting a speech community that defines living well and dressing expensively as “inherited obligations,” the language of upper class New York society elevates the superficial and the frivolous to the level of seriousness. Elderly dowagers like Mrs. Peniston talk about matters of housekeeping, younger...
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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.”
“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.”
While most critics agree that Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is a novel about negotiation, about bargaining and compromise, interest and disinterest, exchange and profit, few have commented upon this thematics except as a thoroughly negative one, reflecting the author's political “bleakness of vision” in regard to “a totalizing system” (the marketplace) from which there is no escape.3 Indeed, Wai-Chee Dimock argues that “the power of the marketplace” in Wharton's novel
resides … in its ability to reproduce itself, in its ability to assimilate everything else into its domain. As a controlling logic, a mode of...
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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 incursion of this new society, “in a dollar world the biggest bank balance was bound to win.”1 Together with large amounts of money, a man needed the right woman to complete his move into the leisure class of late nineteenth-century America: “unless the rich man also accumulate[d] a woman, all his money and property and power d[id] not extend beyond the narrow mercantile world into the social realm, into the society at large. Therefore for a rich man, ownership of a woman [was] not a luxury, but a necessity.”2
Lily Bart, the central character in the novel, has many of the complementary qualities that would allow a man to move into the realm of the highest level of New York society. In Rosedale's words,...
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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 Lily Bart” (Wharton, Mirth [The House of Mirth] 131). Each person in this “house of mirth” is convinced that now he or she has had a vision of “the real Lily.” As readers, we, too, are eager to see just who Lily Bart really is. With raised expectations, we study the guests' reactions, hoping to find the key to this appealing but puzzling woman. Mr. Ned Van Alstyne, connoisseur of the “female outline,” sees Lily as the epitome of physical perfection. He can't hold back his exclamation of appreciation: “Gad, there isn't a break in the lines anywhere” (131). Lawrence Selden, cultivated authority on inner value, is struck speechless by the “noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace”; he...
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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, however, and indeed for the next half-century, shied away from an identification of these themes with literary naturalism. The fictional worlds of Norris, Crane, and Dreiser, the naturalists of Wharton's generation, appeared so distant from those of Wharton that the almost inevitable tendency of the literary historian, as revealed most notably in a well-known section of Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds, was to consider Wharton and Dreiser as antithetical tendencies in early twentieth-century American expression.
A notable attempt, however, to free Wharton criticism from this conventional assumption occurred in 1953, when Blake Nevius observed that Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth, is “as completely and...
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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 noted Gilded Age designer Ogden Codman, Jr. From that time forward Wharton's fine-tuned readings of interior space became a signature aspect of her writings. Edmund Wilson once called her, rightly, “not only one of the great pioneers, but also the poet, of interior decoration.”1 It is in The House of Mirth (1905) that her genius in this area is most compelling. Part of the triumph of The House of Mirth results from the pains Wharton took to correlate the character of the clearly beautiful and clearly flawed Lily Bart to her environment, an environment that consists chiefly of a sequence of interiors.2
The House of Mirth chronicles the efforts of Lily Bart, single, poor, and...
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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!
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 Society, the world she never completely discarded though she declared she had given it up. Henry James, while praising the historical reenactments and Italian setting of Wharton's first novel, The Valley of Decision, crisply advised her “in favor of an American subject.” The Master proposed that she “Do New York,” and Mrs. Wharton proceeded to deal it out to a society she understood to be a narrow slice of the American scene. From Lawrence Selden's opening encounter with Miss Lily Bart in Grand Central Station, we anticipate that the novel will occupy the familiar territory of custom and constraint that amused and angered Wharton. But the precision of Selden's view of Lily Bart “as wearing a mask of irresolution which...
(The entire section is 8731 words.)
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, the yours, the novelist's that it waits for. Do New York!” In his letter to her sister-in-law, Mary Cadwalader Jones, James warned, “she must be tethered in native pastures even if it means confining her to a backyard in New York.” As James confessed his desire “to get hold of the little lady and pump the pure essence of my wisdom and experience into her,”1 Wharton already was at work on a novel set in New York City and the rural estates of Long Island, but this early work, entitled “Disintegration,” would remain unfinished. Like her unpublished autobiography, “Life and I,” and in some ways like her highly autobiographical unfinished novel, Literature, “Disintegration” depicts a lonely child...
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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 has also been made of the consequent “oblong envelopes”—constant reminders of the price of fashion—that were “allowed to gather dust in the depth of a bronze jar” (44).1 But the invitation and the bill are not the only envelopes tyrannizing Lily's society. Fashionable New York is equally subject to the “tyranny of the stomach,” if less conspicuously so (309). Wharton's New York society in The House of Mirth is, without doubt, a consuming society, both figuratively and literally. As Ruth Bernard Yeazell and Elizabeth Ammons, among others, have noted, America's turn-of-the-century leisured class displayed its incomparable wealth by engaging in what Thorstein Veblen terms the “conspicuous consumption” of...
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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 of Mirth (1905) occurs during Lily Bart's second visit to Lawrence Selden's flat. Having decided to use Bertha Dorset's love letters to Selden as ammunition to regain her own social standing, Lily finds herself passing by Selden's building and is drawn to his “quiet room.”1 The flat seems to Lily a kind of domestic retreat; during an earlier visit it had struck her as “part of the outer world,” but “now the shaded lamps and the warm hearth, detaching it from the gathering darkness of the street, gave it a sweeter touch of intimacy” (305). The sense of privacy it conveys evokes a desire to reveal her true self to Selden, to make him “see her wholly for once, before they parted” (307). Yet the lawyer never does...
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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 the Invisible, argues that “we could not dream of seeing [things] ‘all naked’ because the gaze itself envelops them [and] clothes them with its own flesh” (1968, 131). Merleau-Ponty's conception of how the gaze works describes the ideological utility of the eyewitness gaze within the discursive system of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literary Realism.1 Indeed, narratives which articulate individual subjectivities within an ideology privileging universal reality often reveal the assumptions of the Realist aesthetic. The Realists depend on the mechanisms of the gaze to construct a realistic depiction of life, “clothing” or “enveloping” reality with the “flesh” of the gaze. Working from...
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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 very inconspicuousness of the act testifies to its moral significance. In “a world where conspicuousness passed for distinction, and the society column had become the roll of fame” (II, 3, 168), Lily unobtrusively destroys the evidence that would threaten her principal enemy with exposure—a parcel of adulterous love letters from Bertha to Selden that first came into her hands suitably wrapped in “dirty newspaper” (I, 9, 80). Though Bertha herself has dramatically staged Lily's expulsion from fashionable society in a “strident setting” illuminated by “a special glare of publicity” and duly recorded by “the watchful pen” of the gossip columnist (II, 3, 168, 169), Lily burns the letters in a tranquil room softly lit against...
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Howard, Maureen. “The Bachelor and the Baby: The House of Mirth.” In The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, edited by Millicent Bell, pp. 137-56. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Examines Wharton's mix of social realism and Victorian melodrama in The House of Mirth.
McIlvaine, Robert. “Edith Wharton's American Beauty Rose.” Journal of American Studies 7, no. 2 (August 1973): 183-85.
Discusses flower imagery in The House of Mirth.
Poirier, Richard. “Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth.” In The American Novel from James Fenimore Cooper to William Faulkner, edited by Wallace Stegner, pp. 117-32. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1965.
Poirier presents an overview of The House of Mirth, noting similarities between Wharton and other great female novelists.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Lily Bart and the Beautiful Death.” American Literature 46 (March 1974): 16-40.
Wolff examines parallels between Lily Bart's misguided attempts at self-definition and the art and aesthetics of her time period.
———. “Lily Bart and the Drama of Femininity.” American Literary History 6, no. 1 (spring 1994): 71-87.
Wolff explores Wharton's allusions to Edwardian theater...
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