(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The House of Mirth is written in third-person narration, largely but not exclusively from Lily Bart’s point of view. The narrator has a quick sense of irony, and irony pervades the work, both in its language and in the dramatic juxtapositions of its episodes. For example, the novel opens in New York’s Grand Central Station, with Lawrence Selden catching a glimpse of Lily. The narrator notes, “It was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation.” Wharton is playing ironically with all the meanings of the word “speculation.” Selden, like the reader, is speculating about what Lily Bart’s presence means at this moment. He is also, like the other men in the novel, speculating about her value and considering an investment. In a world in which money has such supreme importance, the concept of speculation introduces the range or ironies that the novel repeatedly brings into play.

The final irony may be that readers remain speculative about Lily Bart. The distant, sometimes witty narrator withholds clear judgment. Much of the critical response to the novel has focused on this question. How much is Lily to blame for her downfall? Is she a moral failure or a tragic heroine? Until her final weeks, she is consistently unable to choose between an immoral life of wealth and a rebellious life of morality and intellect, and the waffling costs her everything. Yet there is also some grandeur in her rise to moral superiority as she straightens out her affairs before her death, and critics have sometimes complained that the novel becomes positively sentimental in its closing pages.

One senses, however, that Lily is not fully to blame even for her worst lapses in vision: The choices available to her, as a woman, are few, and the chances to see beyond her world are nonexistent. As a woman in a rarified subculture, she has no opportunity to experience other ways of life and of thinking. Her failures, then, are also those of her culture.

It is a culture of speculation, in which money determines value and morality is confined to appearances. Wharton’s scathing critique of this social world did not make her well-loved in it, and it should not be surprising that after this novel’s immense success she chose to leave New York to live in Europe. Scarcely any...

(The entire section is 943 words.)