Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The House of Mirth is a work of social realism that criticizes a very specific world—that of wealthy, nineteenth century New York society—yet it is also much more than that. It is a moral fable with timeless insight into the problem of finding and keeping clarity of vision in a corrupt culture. The novel also reflects aspects of the feminine experience that are common, in one form or another, to modern Western culture. Lily Bart’s moral failures are those of the world in which she lives. Edith Wharton leaves little doubt about her condemnation of that world. She does, however, leave some doubt about her protagonist.
From the very start, Lily both attracts and repels the reader. Her keen sense of independence, her astuteness about what motivates other people, her desire to rise above the petty concerns of those around her—all make her seem like a sound heroine. Yet repeatedly, Lily Bart disappoints the reader by making foolish choices that she seems not to have thought through. She cannot bear to plunge into the values of her social world, blinding herself to their stupidity, but she also fails to pull away from them altogether.
The reason for that failure is basic: money. Having grown up with luxury, with no real sense of how to manage money but a clear sense of how much power comes with having it, Lily wants badly to have a large fortune at her disposal. She has always been led to believe that her beauty alone will suffice to secure her the right marriage proposal, that she need only play the game right. Repeatedly, in the novel, one finds her on the brink of receiving a proposal; each time, she dodges it by committing some minor indiscretion that makes the match impossible....
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The House of Mirth was an immediate success when it was published in 1905. It remained on the best-seller list for four months, and its sales became the basis for Edith Wharton’s independent fortune. Readers immediately recognized the novel’s attack on Old New York. Although some believed that the critique was unjust, more were concerned, ultimately, with its aptness as a subject for art. Despite its commercial triumph, the novel was not viewed as a real aesthetic success. Wharton was viewed as a poor imitation of Henry James, despite all the ways in which she deliberately distances herself from his art. She was also criticized for adopting too high a moral tone and for killing her heroine unnecessarily—two contradictory criticisms, it must be admitted.
Not until after her death in 1937 was Wharton’s body of work, and especially The House of Mirth, taken seriously as the complex work of art and meditation on modern values most consider it today. It can be seen now as a kind of early feminist response to both James and Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary (1857) it resembles in certain ways. The House of Mirth represents most astutely and sympathetically the dilemmas of a woman living in a culture that does not permit her to work and that views her body and her sexuality as her most important capital.
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Grand Central Station
*Grand Central Station. Major railroad terminus in New York City. The first scene in the novel is set in the afternoon rush at Grand Central, but there is much more significance to this railroad station. Trains play a large part in Lily Bart’s life: They are the means of transportation to and from the country houses where she spends her weekends and where she is supposedly seeking a husband. The train is also an apt metaphor for Lily’s life: a journey with a number of stops along the way, but generally headed downhill socially and economically.
Benedick. Apartment house near Grand Central Station. When Lily meets Lawrence Selden at the station, he invites her to tea at his apartment at the top floor of a building fronted by a “marble porch and pseudo-Georgian façade.” Benedick means “bachelor,” and it is a perfect name for Selden and his lodgings for he is confirmed in his single state. Lily meets Sim Rosedale, the owner of the Benedick, on her way out and lies to explain where she was. This is the first in a series of untruths which help propel her journey downward.
Bellomont. Country home of the Trenors, located on the Hudson River several miles north of the city. Most of the upper-class characters in The House of Mirth maintain apartments in the fashionable sections of New York City but also have country homes a few miles outside the city. Lily exists on the edge of this society: She lives at the home of her wealthy aunt and is dependent on the hospitality of friends for her social life. Lily’s beauty and charm are apparently...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bendixen, Alfred, and Annette Zilversmit, eds. Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Essays on various aspects of Wharton’s art. In “Reading Mrs. Lloyd,” Judith Fryer analyzes the cultural significance of the tableaux vivants with illustrations of the paintings that Lily Bart enacted. Elaine Showalter, a feminist critic, in “The Death of the Lady (Novelist)” sees the death of the “lady” necessary for the birth of the woman artist.
Goodman, Susan. Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990. A study that moves back and forth between...
(The entire section is 350 words.)