Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 702 words.)