The House of Mirth, Wharton’s second full-length novel, not only guaranteed her literary reputation but also established the setting and themes she would explore throughout her career. Set in the early twentieth century New York society with which she was so intimately familiar, the novel offers an angrier and more bitter condemnation of this social milieu than Wharton’s later work, which mellowed with the passage of time. Both a meticulously thorough examination of a complex social structure and a brilliant character study, it offers a compelling exploration of the effects of social conformity upon the individual.
As the novel opens, its heroine, twenty-nine-year-old Lily Bart, has achieved the height of her powers: Beautiful, intelligent, charming, and sought after, she has nevertheless reached a turning point, knowing too well that society has no place for an unmarried woman past her prime. Her parents having left her no legacy but an appreciation for the finer things in life, Lily occupies a precarious social position under the protection of her dreary, socially prominent Aunt Peniston, and she must rely on the favors of the wealthy ladies and gentlemen who find her company amusing.
Lily’s craving for the secure foothold that only marriage can provide cannot entirely overcome her distaste for the hypocrisy and insensitivity of her class. Hardly lacking for opportunities to marry well, Lily nevertheless manages to sabotage her best chances, as she does in bungling her courtship with Percy Gryce, an eminently eligible but overwhelmingly boring pillar of the community.
Lily’s unique place in New York society—simultaneously insider and outsider—makes her one of Wharton’s most fascinating creations and offers the reader a privileged perspective on this world. A product of her society, “at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine . . . [who] must have cost a great deal to make,” Lily is also “so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
Lily’s need to be surrounded by the beautiful things that only immense sums of money can buy and her distaste for the common and ugly...
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