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...
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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.
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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...
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New York City
The New York upper-class society of which Wharton writes in The House of Mirth could be characterized as one of affluence and relative ease. At the height of the social ladder were the aristocrats, such historical families as the Astors and the Vanderbilts. They came from old names and old money, and members of such families set the standards for other members of their social class. Arrivistes or the nouveau riche, people who had more recently earned their fortunes, also made up an important part of old New York society. Though they did not have a lustrous family history, they often held even greater wealth than the aristocratic families. The upper-class entertained themselves by attending the theater and opera; paying and receiving social calls; attending lunch, dinner, and house parties; traveling abroad; and summering in such fashionable spots as Newport, Rhode Island.
By contrast, New York was also associated with immigrants and poverty. Beginning in the mid-1800s, streams of immigrants, mostly from Europe, made New York their home. They sought opportunities for a better life, both economically and religiously, but many existed in miserable conditions. They lived in unhealthy, unsanitary, overcrowded tenement buildings. To earn enough money to survive, many families had to send their children to work as well. By the turn of the century, the percentage of the population living in poverty was swelling. In response to...
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Lily is the most potent symbol of The House of Mirth. Like the flower, her name signifies her to be a beautiful, delicate breed. Indeed, Lily’s uniqueness and exquisiteness is often noted by people around her. For instance, at the tableau party: “It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into Reynolds’s canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty by the beams of her living grace.” The guests at the party note as well the “noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, . . . [and] the touch of poetry in her beauty.”
Lily has a finer sensibility than those around her. While Lily often acts in accordance with the social mores of her class, her actions demonstrate a more stringent moral calling than any of the other people who populate her world. She refuses to give Bertha’s love letters to Selden to make her way back into the social scene, even though Bertha’s deceit is what leads to her ultimate ostracism. She insists on paying back Gus even though he deceived her as to what the “investments” were, and despite the fact that he gave her money so she would sleep with him—in essence, attempting to turn her into a prostitute.
Metaphor and Imagery
The metaphor of the sea and water is crucial to The House of Mirth. Lily uses a seal that reads “Beyond! beneath a flying ship” to close her letters. As Katherine Joslin writes in Edith Wharton, this...
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The House of Mirth is a traditional realistic novel. A carefully plotted work, much of the plot depends on coincidence and the misreading of appearances. For example, Lawrence Selden decides to propose to Lily Bart, only to see her leaving Gus Trenor's Fifth Avenue dwelling late at night. He assumes the worst about her and leaves for the Caribbean instead of proposing. Similarly, Lily comes to possess Bertha Dorset's love letters to Lawrence Selden because a cleaning lady saw her leaving Selden's apartment and assumed that she must be his mistress. Nearly every important twist in the plot depends on some remarkable coincidence and some significant misinterpretation of what someone is doing at a particular place at a particular time. While this technique recalls the artifice of nineteenth-century fiction and the well made play, it also helps define Lily Bart's world where appearance is often taken for reality.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
One issue for group discussion of The House of Mirth is how readers respond to Lily Bart. She may be seen as a victim of a cruel, acquisitive society, but the values she represents do not necessarily hold up under careful scrutiny. Some readers see her as better than the world she inhabits; others see her simply as insufficiently clever to take advantage of her best opportunities. One topic for group discussion might be an analysis of Lily's relationships with men, particularly Lawrence Selden, Simon Rosedale, Gus Trenor, and George Dorset, all of whom in one way or another appear to be unworthy of her.
In Edith Wharton's first major work of fiction, she carefully arranges scenes and meetings so as to facilitate the working out of a complicated plot. The novel abounds in coincidences and dramatic confrontations, complete with moments that look like they could be curtain lines on the stage. One might well ask whether the conscious theatrical art of this novel works for it or against it as a work of realism.
1. Does Lily Bart accidentally or deliberately botch her chance of marriage to Percy Gryce at the beginning of the novel? What does this episode indicate about Lily's strengths or weaknesses as a character?
2. Lily Bart gains possession of Bertha Dorset's letters to Lawrence Selden. Consider the different uses that she might have made of them. Is Lily's behavior here moral or sentimental?
3. Should Lily Bart be...
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In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton tells the story of the decline and death of Lily Bart a beautiful but impoverished socialite in turn-of-the-century New York. The novel is appropriately named, for the society of the rich is presented as a kind of floating pleasure dome cut off from lasting ties to the past. Lily Bart passes her days in a variety of settings ranging from a country house in Bellomont, New York, to a yacht off the coast of southern France where her primary duty is to swell the progress of the rich. Near the end of her brief life, she comes to recognize the inward poverty of her existence. She sees herself and her parents as "rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts." She recognizes that she belongs to a class that has cut itself off from the deepest human concerns. By following the dictates of an artificial, ephemeral society, Lily has lost any sense of the past — a past "made up of inherited passions and loyalties," which has the power "of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving."
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Compare and Contrast
1900: Forty-five percent of Americans live in urban centers. New York City’s population rises above 1 million. Department stores, skyscrapers, public parks, and museums are all part of the new landscape of the city.
Today: In 1990, 187 million Americans, representing about 75 percent of the population, live in urban areas. Conveniences and entertainment of all sorts can be found in modern cities, from shopping malls to IMAX movie theaters to countless museums.
1900: Members of America’s upper-class make up less than one-tenth of the country’s population, yet they control over two-thirds of the country’s wealth. The upper-class is essentially divided into two groups: old money and the nouveau riche. Members of the nouveau riche are known for their extravagance. For example, in 1897 one New York family spent close to $400,000 on a dance party. Some wealthy people, however, use their money to support social causes, giving money to art galleries, libraries, museums, universities, and cultural groups.
Today: In 1998, just over 145,000 American families comprise the top 5 percent of wealthiest families in terms of income. This 5 percent earns 20.7 percent of the country’s overall income. As at the beginning of the century, some families are from old money and some are selfmade. For example, the 1990s saw a rise in the number of people who became extremely wealthy through Internet companies. Some of...
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Topics for Further Study
Read another work by Wharton that takes place within old New York society, such as The Custom of the Country or The Age of Innocence, and write an essay comparing and contrasting it to The House of Mirth.
Research which professional opportunities were available to married and unmarried women at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. How do these opportunities compare to the opportunities women have today?
Do you think Lily should have used her knowledge of Bertha’s affairs to regain her place in New York society? Write an alternative ending to the book assuming Lily did use the letters in this manner.
People like the Trenors and the Dorsets spent exorbitant amounts of money on luxuries. Conduct research to find out about the disparity of wealth at the turn of the century. How did the lives of the upper class compare to those of the middle and lower classes?
Write an opening speech for a debate entitled “RESOLVED—Lily Bart’s death was a suicide.” Use details from the text to support or oppose this statement.
Wharton writes of Selden in the final chapter, “He only knew that he must see Lily Bart at once—he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said,” and later, “He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; in the silence there passed between them the word which made all...
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The House of Mirth belongs to the school of naturalism. In discussing the significance of the title, R. W. B. Lewis notes that the novel was "Edith Wharton's first full scale survey of the comedie humaine, American style." Honore de Balzac is a particularly important antecedent for this novel. Like Balzac, Wharton presents a spectrum of society from the poor to the rich. Like Balzac, she sees many of her characters controlled by greedy, acquisitive passions which belie the elegant veneer of their surroundings. Gary H. Lindberg sees Balzacian elements in Lily Bart's characterization: "Like Balzac, [Wharton] gives moral weight to her heroine by analyzing her under extraordinary pressures — financial need, vanity, ambition, impulse, social expectation — and she illuminates each stage of moral compromise."
Closer to home, Blake Nevius finds a trace of Theodore Dreiser's determinism in The House of Mirth, pointing to "the spectacle of a lonely struggle with the hostile forces of environment." Although most of Dreiser's work would appear later, Sister Carrie had caused considerable stir in 1900, five years before the publication of Wharton's novel.
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The House of Mirth was adapted for the stage by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch in 1906, a year after its publication. It was not successful. Wharton attributed the failure to a poor performance and the public's lack of interest in "unhappy" endings. R. W, B. Lewis attended a revival of the play seventy years later and found it lacking in "dramatic tension." He did find cinematic qualities in a 1981 television film made for PBS with Geraldine Chaplin as Lily Bart. The depiction of the different locales proved a felicitous subject for film even though the plot was difficult to follow.
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The House of Mirth was adapted as a film in 2000. It stars Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Ackroyd, and Laura Linney, and was directed by Terence Davies. It is available from Sony Pictures Classics on VHS and DVD.
The House of Mirth has been made available as an audiotape by several publishers in an unabridged edition.
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What Do I Read Next?
Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913) can be considered a companion piece to The House of Mirth. The novel chronicles the rise of Undine Spragg, a ruthless Midwesterner, up New York’s social ladder. Unlike Lily Bart, Undine cares nothing about the people she harms as she attempts to achieve wealth and social standing.
Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance was published in 1934, three years before the author’s death.
According to scholar Linda Wagner-Martin, Wharton took as a literary model the titular heroine of Henry James’s novella Daisy Miller (1878). Daisy, an American ingenue traveling in Europe with her mother, becomes compromised by her friendship with an Italian man. Her behavior alienates the American man who is courting her and alienates the other Americans living abroad.
Lost New York (1971), by Nathan Silver, describes old New York society and environs.
Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899) tells the story of a woman, Edna Pontellier, determined to choose the terms and conditions of her own marriage. Despite the morals of her Louisiana society, Edna escapes a dreary marriage through an adulterous affair.
In 1898 feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her nonfiction work Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. In this influential book...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ammons, Elizabeth, Edith Wharton’s Argument with America, in Edith Wharton, by Katherine Joslin, St. Martin’s Press, 1991, p. 137.
Howe, Irving, “Introduction: The Achievement of Edith Wharton,” in Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Irving Howe, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 1–18.
James, Henry, “Letters,” in “The House of Mirth”: A Novel of Admonition, by Linda Martin-Wagner, Twayne Publishers, 1990, p. 9.
Joslin, Katherine, Edith Wharton, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Meynell, Alice, in “The House of Mirth”: A Novel of Admonition, by Linda Martin-Wagner, Twayne Publishers, 1990, p. 9, originally published in Bookman (London), Vol. 29, December 1905, pp. 130–31.
New York Times Book Review, in Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by James W. Tuttleton, Kristin O. Lauer, and Margaret P. Murray, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 117.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson, “Edith Wharton,” in “The House of Mirth”: A Novel of Admonition, by Linda Martin-Wagner, Twayne Publishers, 1990, p. 11.
Review of Reviews, in Edith Wharton, by Katherine Joslin, St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 130–31.
Saturday Review, in Edith Wharton, by Katherine Joslin, St. Martin’s Press, 1991, p. 131.
Times Literary Supplement...
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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 Wharton’s relationships in life and her fictional characters.
Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of some of the pioneering essays on Edith Wharton. Irving Howe’s essay, “A Reading of The House of Mirth,” praises Wharton’s style though he regrets her somewhat overcharged rhetoric. Diane Trilling in “The House of Mirth Revisited” stresses the heroine’s moral ambiguity.
Lauer, Kristin O., and Margaret P. Murray. Edith Wharton: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990. A useful, extensive, and annotated bibliography of the criticism of Wharton’s...
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