(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The main theme that emerges from this social milieu involves the ethical conduct of life among the rich. There are basically two sets of characters: the rich and those who live off the rich. Old New York has all but vanished; the social scene is dominated by a new generation of speculators and entrepreneurs whose unscrupulous business practices are reflected in the crude way they conduct their personal lives. Those like Lily Bart who decorate their drawing rooms and sit at their card tables but who lack independent means in effect become their servants. Lily finds herself attracted to the silken softness of this world but repelled by the moral compromises she must make to assure herself a continued place there.

The story of Lily Bart also contains an aesthetic theme. Lily is a beauty, her natural assets entitling her to a place at the very center of society. Through the eyes of Lawrence Selden, Wharton celebrates Lily's beauty a number of times. In one episode where Lily appears as Reynolds's Mrs. Lloyd in a tableau vivant, Selden sees her "divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part." Unfortunately Lily is twenty-nine, a perilous age for an unmarried woman of scant means. Three months after the tableau vivant, Selden sees her once again in Monte Carlo, but in the interim her beauty has undergone a "process of crystallization." She is now in "that moment of pause...

(The entire section is 268 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Women’s Roles
As seen in The House of Mirth, women in early twentieth-century society had little chance to play any role other than wife and mother. The female leaders of society, Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset, derive their power and social standing from their marriages. The women who work as companions, such as Carry Fisher, have been married in the past. Lily’s only goal in life, the only “profession” for which she has been trained, has been to make a good marriage. When she fails to reach this achievement, she has no skills or even inner resources upon which to draw. Though she attempts to work, first as a professional companion and then as a milliner’s assistant, her attempts are woefully inadequate, and Lily sinks deeper and deeper into poverty.

Only a few women in the novel choose alternate paths. Nettie Struther, a working-class woman, works out of her home and cares for her baby and husband. The unmarried Gerty Farish finds professional fulfillment as a social worker. Notably, Gerty is one of the few characters in the novel who truly cares for Lily. Even though she is neither a mother nor a wife, she is best at fulfilling the typically female role of nurturer.

Betrayal is at the heart of The House of Mirth. At almost every turn, Lily’s friends and acquaintances betray her. Grace Stepney makes sure that Aunt Julia knows of Lily’s bad habits, such as playing cards for money, and informs Aunt Julia that rumors are flying about Lily and Gus Trenor. Other times, the novel presents chains of betrayal. For example, Lily accepts money from Gus Trenor, thinking he is investing her own money, when in reality he is giving her his money in hopes of making her his mistress. When Judy Trenor finds out about Lily’s acceptance of her husband’s money, she casts Lily aside. The most damaging act of betrayal is played out by Bertha Dorset, who deliberately and falsely accuses Lily of trying to seduce her husband. In addition, Bertha...

(The entire section is 823 words.)