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.