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The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
1905

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

While The House of Mirth was only Edith Wharton's second novel, Cynthia Griffin Wolff points out in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, with it Wharton "emerged as a professionally serious, masterful novelist." Published in 1905 it had the fastest sales of any of its publishing house's books at the time. The novel, as well as many of Wharton's other works, continues to enjoy great success to the present day.

In The House of Mirth, Wharton explores the status of women at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century; indeed, Wolff believes that the novel "echo[es] the many dissatisfactions Wharton felt at this time." Heroine Lily Bart is a beautiful woman who has been brought up to achieve one goal: marry a wealthy, well-placed man. Although Lily, twenty-nine when the novel opens, has had opportunities to do so, her spirit has always recoiled from taking the step of marrying for money. However, the fate dealt to Lily in life is not spinster-hood but a fall from grace, that is New York's social circle, which comprises the only world Lily has ever known.

Over the past century, scholars and readers alike have applied numerous interpretations to this complex novel. Upon its initial publication, many readers saw it as a critique of the so-called marriage market. Contemporary scholars, however, have tended to read the novel, and Lily's actions, with a feminist slant. As Linda Wagner-Martin writes in her study The House of Mirth, "[It] is a key example of a woman's voice exploring signif-icant women's themes in a covert manner: fiction as disguise."

Author Biography

Edith Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones) was born on January 24, 1862, to a wealthy and well-connected New York family. After the Civil War ended, however, Wharton's parents were hit hard by inflation. To save money the family lived and traveled throughout Europe until Wharton was about ten years old, by which time she spoke five languages. After the family returned to the United States, Wharton embarked on a program of self-education, primarily fostered by her extensive reading. Just before her fifteenth birthday, Wharton finished her first creative work, a novella entitled Fast and Loose, which did not see publication until 1977. She also had a poem published in the Atlantic Monthly and two published in the New York World before her eighteenth birthday.

After her first engagement was broken, Wharton married Theodore Wharton in 1885. Soon thereafter she began to write stories, which she sold to popular magazines. Her first short story appeared in 1891, when she was twenty-nine years old. Wharton, independently wealthy, did not depend on writing for a living. Only after her first collection of stories, The Greater Inclination, was published in 1899 did Wharton wholeheartedly throw herself into her work and recognize herself as a professional writer. Around this time Wharton also developed a lasting friendship with the writer Henry James. He served as her mentor, and critics have often compared the works of these two writers. Between 1900 and 1914 Wharton produced almost fifty short stories as well as some of her finest novels, including The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. A later work, The Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

In 1909 Wharton returned to France, where she had spent several winters. The next year, she made France her permanent residence, and in 1913 she divorced her husband. Throughout the next two decades, with the exception of the war years, Wharton traveled extensively throughout Europe, returning to American only once, in 1923, to be the first woman awarded the Doctor of Letters degree at Yale University.

In 1934, three years before her death, Wharton published her memoirs, A Backward Glance, which gracefully evoked old New York and its in-habitants. Wharton was at work on The Buccaneers when she died of a heart attack on August 11, 1937, in St. Brice-sous-Foret, France. Her biographer, R. W. B. Lewis, believed this novel to be her finest piece of work from the 1920s onward. The novel was completed by Marion Mainwaring and published posthumously.

Plot Summary

Lily in the United States

The House of Mirth opens in New York City as Lily Bart misses the train that was to take her to a house party hosted by her friends Judy and Gus Trenor. She runs into longtime acquaintance Laurence Selden and, despite the impropriety of such actions at the time, accompanies him back to his apartment for a cup of tea. When she finally gets on the train, Lily sees Percy Gryce, who is an imminently marriageable, but dull, man. She pays him a great deal of attention both on the train and at the Trenors. However, just as Percy is on the verge of proposing marriage to her, Lily neglects to keep an engagement with him. Instead, she chooses to take a walk with Selden, who has come down to Bellomont specifically to see her. Selden and Lily are attracted to one another, and Selden makes her feel that her intentions to marry Gryce—indeed, her intentions to marry wealthy—are "hateful." Lily returns to New York after asking Gus Trenor to help her invest her small income.

Trenor's financial help pays off immediately for Lily. She earns $10,000 in a short period of time. However, along with Trenor's financial help come his unwanted attentions, and after he lures Lily back to his house under the pretense of seeing Judy, Lily unhappily discovers that he has been giving her his own money with the expectation that she will have an affair with him. Lily vows to return Trenor's money, though she does not know where she will get it, as she recognizes the danger of compromising her reputation.

Meanwhile, Lily and Selden have been growing fonder of each other, despite the fact that Lily has come into possession of love letters that Bertha Dorset previously sent Selden. However, the night before Selden's engagement to see Lily, and perhaps ask her to marry him, he spies Lily fleeing the Trenors' home. He immediately assumes the worst, that Lily is having an affair with Trenor. Instead of keeping his appointment with Lily, Selden sails for Europe, which Lily later reads in the newspaper. Simon Rosedale pays her a visit to ask her to marry him, but Lily refuses. After Rosedale leaves, Lily receives a phone call from Bertha, inviting her on a trip to the Mediterranean.

Lily in Monte Carlo

Lily accompanies Bertha and George Dorset on a tour of the Mediterranean. Lily has been asked along primarily to keep George busy while Bertha carries on an affair. In Monte Carlo, Lily encounters Selden, who begs her to leave the Dorset's yacht, but Lily declares she cannot leave her friend. One night Bertha does not return to the yacht until the morning hours. George finally realizes what is going on, and he decides to see Selden (a lawyer) to begin divorce proceedings. However, Bertha shifts the blame to Lily, claiming that she compromised herself and George by not waiting for Bertha at the quay that would take them out to the boat. By that evening, George has decided not to go through with the divorce and he follows his wife's lead in chastising Lily. At a dinner, Bertha humiliates Lily in front of everyone by announcing that Lily will not return to the yacht with them, implying that Lily tried to seduce George.

Lily in New York

Lily returns to New York upon the death of Aunt Julia. Although everyone, including Lily, expected her to inherit Aunt Julia's estate, Lily is only bequeathed $10,000, which must be used to repay Gus Trenor. The bulk of the estate goes to Lily's cousin Grace Stepney. Meanwhile, Bertha, who returned to New York ahead of Lily, has been spreading rumors about Lily, and Lily's former friends roundly snub her. Carry Fisher comes to Lily's aid, procuring her work as a companion to nouveau riche families (families who have recently acquired fortunes, as opposed to those with "old money"). Carry also encourages Lily to marry George Dorset; she believes that if George had proof of his wife Bertha's infidelity, he would divorce her. In fact, George asks Lily to help him prove Bertha's infidelity, but Lily refuses. Somewhat desperate, Lily acquiesces to marry Rosedale when he pays her a visit, but he no longer wants to do so. Lily understands that he has changed his mind because she is no longer valuable to him since she has lost her reputation. He urges her to give Bertha's love letters to Selden to fight Bertha and rehabilitate herself in New York society, and says if Lily uses these letters to implicate Bertha, he will marry her. Again, Lily refuses.

Media Adaptations

  • The House of Mirth was adapted as a film in 2000. It stars Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Ackroyd, and Laura Linney, and was directed by Terence Davies. It is available from Sony Pictures Classics on VHS and DVD.
  • The House of Mirth has been made available as an audiotape by several publishers in an unabridged edition.

Lily obtains a position as a personal secretary to Mrs. Hatch. While in Mrs. Hatch's employment, Selden begs Lily to leave as he finds Mrs. Hatch to be an unsavory character, but Lily says she will not leave and the two part angrily. However, shortly thereafter, Lily quits Mrs. Hatch's employ and goes to work in a hatmaker's shop. She is ill equipped for such a job and is fired. Later that day Lily runs into Rosedale, who takes her to tea and then accompanies her home. Rosedale is appalled by the circumstances in which Lily now lives. He offers to lend her the money to repay Trenor, purely as a business arrangement, but she tells him she is unable to accept his offer. She does not wish to compromise herself again.

Lily makes up her mind to use the letters to blackmail Bertha. On her way to the Dorset's home, however, she decides to visit Selden. The two speak of their past affection for each other, and Lily implicitly asks him for help and love, but Selden refuses to acknowledge her entreaties. Lily secretly burns Bertha's letters in his fireplace. That night Lily receives her legacy from Aunt Julia and immediately writes Gus Trenor a check in the amount of $10,000. Lily then takes an overdose of sleeping medication. The next morning Selden rushes to Lily's boarding house. He has finally "found the word he meant to say to her." It is, however, too late; Lily is dead.

Characters

Lily Bart

As The House of Mirth opens, its heroine, Lily Bart, is an unmarried woman in her late twenties. Though Lily was born into New York society, the financial ruin of her father brought to an end her world of ease, luxury, and social stability. While she enjoys the comforts of home afforded by her wealthy Aunt Julia, Lily lacks the means to keep up with her circle of friends, who enjoy the finest objects and entertainment their wealth can bring them. As Lily scrambles to keep up with her mounting bills, she knows that her only hope to maintain her social position is to marry and marry well.

The House of Mirth traces Lily's course as she unsuccessfully attempts to fulfill this goal. She is unable to marry any of the men who offer their hand because of her own ambivalence. Every time Lily comes close to winning a husband, such as Percy Gryce, she finds herself unable to follow through on her plan. Her attraction to Laurence Selden is partly responsible for her changes of mind, but so is her own recognition of the coarseness, dullness, and pettiness that inhabit many of her acquaintances. In marrying for money, Lily would join their ranks, and a stubborn core prevents her from doing so. Lily continues to maintain hold of her finer spirit by refusing to use Bertha Dorset's love letters to Selden to blackmail her way back into society, and by denying herself a means to live by using her inheritance to repay Gus Trenor.

Although the book opens with Lily at the peak of New York society, by its end she has descended into its depths. She has been ill-used by her so-called friends and cast out of their society. Her attempts to earn a living fail miserably, for as she tells Selden in her final days, "I have tried hard—but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person." Alone and penniless, Lily turns to Selden, who once loved her and who she once loved, but when he fails her, she takes an overdose of a sleeping draught. She dies the victim of a society that does not value a woman who plays by a more noble set of rules.

Bertha Dorset

Once Lily's friend, Bertha becomes her worst enemy. Bertha is a married woman, who in the course of the two years the novel takes place, has several affairs, including one with Selden. In the midst of an affair and needing to keep her husband George occupied, Bertha invites Lily to accompany the couple on a trip to Europe. When her husband discovers the affair, Bertha sacrifices Lily to save herself by implying publicly that Lily has attempted to seduce George. Not content with destroying Lily's reputation in Europe, Bertha also spreads rumors and gossip in New York, to the extent that Lily is completely cast aside by her former friends. Unbeknownst to Bertha, Lily holds power over her in the form of love letters that Bertha sent Selden. Lily refuses to capitalize on these letters, and when she burns the letters and dies, Bertha's secret is destroyed at the same time.

George Dorset

Cuckolded husband George Dorset is married to a woman who disrespects him and is unfaithful to him. After he finds out about his wife Bertha's affair in Monte Carlo, he turns to Lily for help. He asks her to help him prove Bertha's unfaithfulness, and says if she does so, he will marry her, but Lily refuses his request.

Gerty Farish

Considered to be drab and colorless, Gerty Farish is a social worker. She represents the "new woman" of the early twentieth century with her economic independence and career. Although she enjoys an enriching career, Gerty is unable to find romantic fulfillment. She devotes herself to Lily as she would devote herself to any of the other poor people to whom she ministers. As society abandons Lily, Gerty tries to help her. She obtains a job for Lily at the millinery shop and begs Lily to turn her back on her former way of life.

Carry Fischer

Carry Fischer, a divorcée, is a professional companion to wealthy society women. She befriends Lily after Lily's trip to Monte Carlo and tries to set Lily up in a profession similar to her own back in America. She also urges Lily to marry either George Dorset or Simon Rosedale.

Mattie Gormer

Mattie Gormer is a nouveau riche woman (meaning her fortune was recently acquired, as opposed to being "old money") who Lily meets through Carry Fisher. Lily travels as a companion to Mattie after her return from Monte Carlo, but once Mattie becomes friendly with Bertha Dorset, Lily's presence is no longer welcome.

Percy Gryce

The shy, dull Percy Gryce is one of Lily's suitors. Ignored by Lily, he marries a wealthy young woman instead.

Norma Hatch

Lily obtains employment as secretary to Norma Hatch, a rich woman from out West who has no place in New York society. Mrs. Hatch and her friends are conniving to get a young wealthy New Yorker to marry an older woman, and Selden, aware of Mrs. Hatch's unsavouriness, begs Lily to leave her employ. However, Lily does not leave until she is already implicated in the unsuccessful plan.

Aunt Julia Penniston

Aunt Julia, with whom Lily lives, helps out her niece with some bills like the dressmaker's, but does not provide any regular allowance. She is dismayed by some of Lily's behavior, such as her gambling, about which cousin Grace informs Aunt Julia. When Aunt Julia learns of Lily's adventures in Monte Carlo, she disinherits her. Aunt Julia dies before Lily returns to the United States, having left Lily only $10,000.

Simon Rosedale

Simon Rosedale is an interloper in New York society. Not only is he nouveau riche, he is Jewish. He speaks coarsely and uncouthly, yet at the same time he is one of the few people who show sensitivity to Lily's plight. For instance, he recognizes the difficulties foisted upon her by lower-class life. At one time Rosedale wanted to marry Lily, believing she would win him entry into New York aristocratic society. Later, when Lily wants to marry him, he refuses since her social banishment has stripped her of value.

Laurence Selden

Laurence Selden is a lawyer who inhabits the same circles as Lily. Like Lily, he is not wealthy but because he is a man, he is able to work at a profession that allows him economic and social independence. Selden and Lily have been acquaintances for close to a decade. The two are attracted to each other, yet Selden does not have the financial means to marry Lily, nor is he convinced that he would like to do so. However, it is Selden's voice and opinions that continually prevent Lily from following through on her plans to marry a wealthy man. In a sense, Selden acts as Lily's moral arbiter. For example, he implores her to leave the Dorset's yacht and Mrs. Hatch's employ. At the same time, Selden is unable to offer Lily any support other than words, and, more importantly, fails Lily by believing the worst about her, such as that she had an affair with Gus Trenor. Before she takes the fatal overdose, Lily turns to Selden, looking for the love he felt for her in the past. Selden allows Lily to leave that night, but he goes to visit her the next day, for "he had found the word he meant to say to her." It is too late, however; Lily is dead.

Grace Stepney

Cousin Grace Stepney makes sure that Aunt Julia knows of Lily's "bad" habits, like playing cards for money, along with the rumors society is spreading about Lily and Gus Trenor. After Lily is disinherited, Grace becomes the inheritor of Aunt Julia's estate. When Lily approaches Grace, desperately seeking money, she turns her down.

Nettie Struther

Nettie Struther is a former prostitute to whom Lily once gave money. She reemerges at the end of the novel, married to a man who accepts Nettie's past and the child she bore out of wedlock. Nettie runs a slum kitchen.

Gus Trenor

Judy's husband Gus develops an infatuation with Lily. Asked by Lily to help with her investments, he deceives her by giving her his own money. However, Lily does not learn of this deceit until much later. Gus attempts to use his financial power over Lily to make her his mistress. She refuses, but feels that she must pay him back the $10,000 he has already given her.

Judy Trenor

Judy Trenor is a force in New York society. As Lily notes, "Where Judy Trenor led, all the world would follow." After Lily's return from Monte Carlo, and after Judy learns that her husband has given Lily money, she cuts her former friend out of her life.

Themes

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.

Topics for Further Study

  • Read another work by Wharton that takes place within old New York society, such as The Custom of the Country or The Age of Innocence, and write an essay comparing and contrasting it to The House of Mirth.
  • Research which professional opportunities were available to married and unmarried women at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. How do these opportunities compare to the opportunities women have today?
  • Do you think Lily should have used her knowledge of Bertha's affairs to regain her place in New York society? Write an alternative ending to the book assuming Lily did use the letters in this manner.
  • People like the Trenors and the Dorsets spent exorbitant amounts of money on luxuries. Conduct research to find out about the disparity of wealth at the turn of the century. How did the lives of the upper class compare to those of the middle and lower classes?
  • Write an opening speech for a debate entitled "RESOLVED—Lily Bart's death was a suicide." Use details from the text to support or oppose this statement.
  • Wharton writes of Selden in the final chapter, "He only knew that he must see Lily Bart at once—he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said," and later, "He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear." What do you think this word is and why?

Betrayal

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 actively sets out to ruin Lily's reputation and new acquaintanceships, to the extent of seeking out a friendship with Mattie Gormer, even though she occupies a lower rung on the social ladder, simply because she has employed Lily as a companion.

Ironically, Lily has at her disposal tools to betray her former friend in turn. She possesses Bertha's love letters to Selden. The public revelation of these love letters could bring about many different outcomes. She could give them to George Dorset, who would use them to get his much-wanted divorce, and then Lily could marry him. She could use them to force Bertha to befriend her again, and then reenter society as Simon Rosedale's wife. Lily, however, refuses to betray Bertha, even though her betrayal would be based in reality, not a lie. If she betrayed Bertha, Lily feels she would be betraying herself.

Appearances

Much is made of Lily's beauty throughout the novel, and this fixation on the physical body implicitly points to one of the novel's themes: the mutability of appearances. Lily's physical beauty leads men to desire her, but none of these men, including Percy Gryce and Gus Trenor, actually have any interest in knowing the "real" Lily Bart. They only want to possess her beauty. Selden, on the other hand, gets to know Lily better than almost anybody else. He learns that she feels conflicted both about marrying for money and the whole social milieu in which they move. However, when he sees things that look suspect, such as Lily leaving Gus Trenor's home, he immediately believes the worst of her, never troubling himself to look into the circumstances and discover the truth.

The appearance of impropriety is also key to Lily's situation and eventual downfall. From the opening chapter, when she is seen by Simon Rosedale leaving the lobby of Selden's apartment building, to the final chapter, when Selden views the letter she wrote to Trenor, she is constantly putting herself in positions where, without careful investigation, she could be judged harshly. At these times she is usually found wanting in propriety, even though in each case she has done nothing wrong. For example, she is accused of attempting to seduce George Dorset, an accusation that can be upheld because she was on the Dorsets' yacht alone with George. New York society also believes that Lily connived to marry one of their wealthy young men to an arriviste (a person who has recently attained high social status without merit) divorcée, a belief that can be upheld because Lily was in this divorceé's employ. In both of these instances, Selden begs Lily to leave her situations prior to the implications of her wrongdoing, but Lily, lacking the capacity to understand how deeply people can ill use others, refuses to do so.

Style

Symbolism

Lily is the most potent symbol of The House of Mirth. Like the flower, her name signifies her to be a beautiful, delicate breed. Indeed, Lily's uniqueness and exquisiteness is often noted by people around her. For instance, at the tableau party: "It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into Reynolds's canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty by the beams of her living grace." The guests at the party note as well the "noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace,… [and] the touch of poetry in her beauty."

Lily has a finer sensibility than those around her. While Lily often acts in accordance with the social mores of her class, her actions demonstrate a more stringent moral calling than any of the other people who populate her world. She refuses to give Bertha's love letters to Selden to make her way back into the social scene, even though Bertha's deceit is what leads to her ultimate ostracism. She insists on paying back Gus even though he deceived her as to what the "investments" were, and despite the fact that he gave her money so she would sleep with him—in essence, attempting to turn her into a prostitute.

Metaphor and Imagery

The metaphor of the sea and water is crucial to The House of Mirth. Lily uses a seal that reads "Beyond! beneath a flying ship" to close her letters. As Katherine Joslin writes in Edith Wharton, this seal "symbolizes an impossible quest, the romantic flight to another world." Joslin points out how Wharton uses sea metaphors and imagery to depict Lily's plight as well as the environment of old New York. The world that Lily inhabits is one where the "new people" in society "rose to the surface with each recurring tide, and were either sub-merged beneath its rush or landed triumphantly beyond the reach of envious breakers." When Selden envisions rescuing Lily from marrying for money, he sees himself as dragging her back to land from a dangerous ship. He must carry her, not through "a clear rush of waves," but through "a clogging morass of old associations and habits." In many instances, Lily takes action that has a serious effect on her future, as when she neglects Percy Gryce at Bellomont. That day, the authorial voice notes, "She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides, and today the whole current of her mood was carrying her toward Lawrence Selden." At other times, without money or a husband, Lily feels herself to be in the "dark seas," but when she feels safe again, it is as if she had "enough buoyancy to rise once more above her doubts."

Notably, the trip that Lily takes on the literal seas aboard the Dorset's yacht is what brings about her eventual downfall. After her return to New York, Lily continually perceives her position through water imagery. Unable to repay her debt to Trenor, she thinks about confiding her troubles in Selden, a thought that "became as seductive as the river's flow to the suicide. The first plunge would be terrible—but afterward, what blessedness might come!" After she is snubbed by Judy Trenor, she "had the doomed sense of the castaway who has signaled in vain the fleeing sails." Water imagery is not used in Lily's final moments, but when Selden finds out that she is dead, and how wrongly he judged her, the "bitter waters of his life surged high about him, their sterile taste was on his lips."

Pacing

The first half of The House of Mirth details Lily's travails at a leisurely pace. The reader follows Lily in her attempts to make a good marriage within the New York social milieu and her overall dealings with society members. Life seems at Lily's fingertips; she can marry Percy Gryce if she so desires, she is making money from investments, and she is growing closer to Selden. Despite her "advanced" age of twenty-nine, she is still the belle of New York.

The second half of the book moves at a much quicker pace as it chronicles Lily's ejection from society because of rumors spread by her "friend" Bertha Dorset. After this treachery, Lily's downfall is swift. She is disinherited, forced to sell her services as a companion to the nouveau riche, and even fired from her apprenticeship as a milliner. The end of the novel finds Lily in far distant circumstances from where she was as its beginning. She occupies a dingy little room that she cannot even afford and finds herself cast out of her former circle. Alone and friendless, she dies, perhaps committing suicide. The pace of the writing in this half of the book fairly jumps from one terrible event to the next, an apt stylistic decision as it reflects the feelings of being unable to escape that which engulfs Lily. As the writing demonstrates, Lily is quickly drawn from one bad situation to a worse one. The pace of the book is perhaps nowhere as tellingly demonstrated as when Lily works for Mrs. Hatch: within the space of one chapter, Lily is exposed to an immoral circle that hopes to marry off a wealthy young bachelor to a much-older divorcée, is implicated by her role in this affair, and is accordingly ill judged by society.

Historical Context

New York City

The New York upper-class society of which Wharton writes in The House of Mirth could be characterized as one of affluence and relative ease. At the height of the social ladder were the aristocrats, such historical families as the Astors and the Vanderbilts. They came from old names and old money, and members of such families set the standards for other members of their social class. Arrivistes or the nouveau riche, people who had more recently earned their fortunes, also made up an important part of old New York society. Though they did not have a lustrous family history, they often held even greater wealth than the aristocratic families. The upper-class entertained themselves by attending the theater and opera; paying and receiving social calls; attending lunch, dinner, and house parties; traveling abroad; and summering in such fashionable spots as Newport, Rhode Island.

By contrast, New York was also associated with immigrants and poverty. Beginning in the mid-1800s, streams of immigrants, mostly from Europe, made New York their home. They sought opportunities for a better life, both economically and religiously, but many existed in miserable conditions. They lived in unhealthy, unsanitary, overcrowded tenement buildings. To earn enough money to survive, many families had to send their children to work as well. By the turn of the century, the percentage of the population living in poverty was swelling. In response to such problems, reformers worked to clean up the city. For example, a law passed in New York in 1901 required that all new tenement buildings have an open courtyard to let in light and air.

The End of the Victorian Age

At the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, "the cult of true womanhood" or "the cult of domesticity," still dictated the roles that women played in society. It was widely believed that a woman should devote herself to her family and the home. Women had almost no external personal identity; their social positions were primarily determined by their husbands' achievements and social status. A woman's role in life was to be a homemaker, and her single-minded purpose was to make a good marriage.

With the death of Britain's Queen Victoria in 1901, the Victorian era came to an end in Britain and the United States. Gradually women took on greater roles outside of the home. Wealthy women traveled, attended plays and concerts, became patrons of the arts, and joined service clubs that were a driving force behind the reform movements of the day. Women began to take up activities, such as smoking or gambling, which had previously been forbidden to them.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1900: Forty-five percent of Americans live in urban centers. New York City's population rises above 1 million. Department stores, skyscrapers, public parks, and museums are all part of the new landscape of the city.

    Today: In 1990, 187 million Americans, representing about 75 percent of the population, live in urban areas. Conveniences and entertainment of all sorts can be found in modern cities, from shopping malls to IMAX movie theaters to countless museums.
  • 1900: Members of America's upper-class make up less than one-tenth of the country's population, yet they control over two-thirds of the country's wealth. The upper-class is essentially divided into two groups: old money and the nouveau riche. Members of the nouveau riche are known for their extravagance. For example, in 1897 one New York family spent close to $400,000 on a dance party. Some wealthy people, however, use their money to support social causes, giving money to art galleries, libraries, museums, universities, and cultural groups.

    Today: In 1998, just over 145,000 American families comprise the top 5 percent of wealthiest families in terms of income. This 5 percent earns 20.7 percent of the country's overall income. As at the beginning of the century, some families are from old money and some are self-made. For example, the 1990s saw a rise in the number of people who became extremely wealthy through Internet companies. Some of these people practice philanthropy, but in 1998 households with an income of $100,000 and greater only gave 2.2 percent of their income to charities, averaging $2,550 per family.
  • 1900: By 1900 more than 90 percent of all American women are married. By the mid-1900s, about one in ten marriages end in divorce. Women initiate the great majority of divorces.

    Today: In 1990 there were 1,182,000 divorces among the American population—4.7 per 1,000. If this trend continues, younger Americans marrying for the first time have a 40 to 50 percent chance of divorcing in their lifetime. Still, Americans continue to wholeheartedly support the idea of marriage. Ninety-six percent of Americans express a personal desire to marry, and only 8 percent of American women would prefer to remain single rather than marry.

Working Women

By the close of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of women, primarily members of the working class, were taking jobs outside of the home. Single women began to flood the workplace, often taking jobs as nurses, teachers, or childcare workers. Married women might also be employed as clerical workers or as sales clerks in department stores. However, many married women had difficulty obtaining employment. Some people refused to hire them at all, while others forced female workers to resign upon marriage. Women also worked in factories and sweatshops, often under dangerous conditions. They labored long hours for little money. In response, some reformers fought for laws that would limit work hours for women and increase their wages. In the first few decades of the 1900s, many individual states passed such laws.

Critical Overview

The House of Mirth, Wharton's second novel, was published in 1905 to immediate critical and popular acclaim. Her editor at Scribners noted that it enjoyed the publishing house's quickest sales of the time. In comparing the novel to Wharton's earlier works, many critics found its complexity, characterization, and emotional resonance to show her important advances as a writer. The New York Times Book Review praises Wharton as the "most scholarly and distinctive writer of fiction of the day," while the Saturday Review notes that it is "one of the few novels which can claim rank as literature." Review of Reviews has extremely high praise, announcing that The House of Mirth is "worked out in a manner to stamp the writer a genius, and give her name a place in the history of American literature." Writers as celebrated as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Dean Howells, Sinclair Lewis, and Joseph Conrad all valued The House of Mirth, which was recognized even in its day as Wharton's breakthrough novel.

The Times Literary Supplement commends Wharton's "trenchant knowledge of the human spirit and its curious workings," which is perhaps seen most clearly in Wharton's depiction of Lily Bart. As Henry James astutely comments, Lily was "very big and true—and very difficult to have kept big and true." One reviewer, Alice Meynell of London's Bookman, focuses her attention on Lawrence Selden, finding him the spokesman for a "better" world and thus the novel's important character.

At its publication, there were a few naysayers who responded to the moral purpose of Wharton's novel. As summed up by Linda Wagner-Martin in her book-length study The House of Mirth, these critics "claimed that unpleasantness was not the province of fiction, that by stressing the 'sordid,' Wharton did not only her work but her reader a grave disservice."

The House of Mirth has remained an important piece of literature through the years since its initial publication. In the 1960s, Irving Howe wrote in his introduction to Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays that with this novel, "Mrs. Wharton composed one of the few American novels that approaches the finality of the tragedy." In the 1970s, feminist scholars found interest in The House of Mirth, along with Wharton's other novels. Some scholars examined characters such as Lily Bart in light of the male-dominated society in which they lived. In Edith Wharton's Argument with America, Elizabeth Ammons writes of American culture as Wharton saw it:

[It] offers them [young women] no means of realizing their dreams. Lily Bart, [and others] … all end up in bondage to the past not because Edith Wharton was cruel but because the liberation, the 'progress,' that America boasted of for women was, in her view, a mirage.

Since the 1970s, interest in Wharton's work has grown tremendously, as testified by the numerous books, essays, and studies published on her writing. As long ago as the 1920s, Arthur Hobson Quinn wrote in a pamphlet, "Which of us are truly alive as Lily Bart [and other Wharton characters]? And which of us will live as long?" The ongoing popularity of The House of Mirth bears out Quinn's prophecy.

Criticism

Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, Korb explores the types of power that Lily Bart holds and does not hold.

In the first scene of Wharton's masterpiece The House of Mirth, Laurence Selden queries Lily Bart, "Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?" Lily replies with a sigh, "I suppose so. What else is there?" This brief, simple exchange underscores one of the most crucial truths to the tragedy of Lily Bart. As the characters who populate Lily's world accurately understand, a young woman's sole calling at the turn of the century was to marry, and in Lily's case, to marry well. In this era the country was firmly entrenched in "the cult of true womanhood," which called for a woman to devote herself to her family and her home. On the whole, Americans had little use for an unmarried woman nor did they see reason why she should enjoy any measure of that which is so important to Laurence Selden (Lily's male counterpart): "personal freedom." Note that the only major female character who deviates from this pattern is Gerty Farish, for whom Lily feels pity.

In Lily Bart, however, Wharton creates a woman with sensibilities far more modern than those of her environment. Lily refuses to wholly submit to society's gender roles, and is unable to marry a man who is beneath her simply to fulfill her expected purpose. Such incendiary behavior does not go unpunished, and Lily is ejected from society. However, she has been trained for no other direction in life than to ensnare a husband, and Lily comes to believe she has no options. She frankly tells Selden on the last day of her life, "I am a very useless person…. I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else." Rather than model herself after other women she knows, perhaps Gerty Farish or even Nettie Struther, Lily chooses to give herself up to a deep sleep—which notably is the only place where she allows herself to give in to the "the soft approach of passiveness"—that becomes her final sleep.

Unlike traditional protagonists, Lily lacks the power to create her own life. She is not unusual in this respect, for Wharton clearly shows the reader a society in which women only hold power through the men they marry. Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset are both paradigms in society, but their power derives from their husbands' wealth, not through any intrinsic value of their own. As the authorial voice notes, "Bertha Dorset's social credit was based on an impregnable bank-account." In addition to grasping power through financial prowess, power for women may be obtained through personal connection. This method is epitomized through the character of Mattie Gormer, an arriviste to old New York who nevertheless is able to ascend the social ladder through her friendship with Bertha.

For Lily, an orphan with little money of her own, marriage remains the sole means to obtain a firm place in New York society and become powerful in her own right. The only tool at her disposal is her uncommon beauty, whose value was exalted by her mother Mrs. Bart, a woman who, after her husband's financial ruin, regarded Lily's beauty as "the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian." Thus, while still in her formative years, Lily became a prisoner of her own body. Further, when Mrs. Bart looked at Lily's beauty she also saw a force of destruction, "some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance" against the society that did not accord her enough respect because of her lack of great wealth. Although Lily also recognized her unique physical attraction, she "liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste." Unfortunately, Mrs. Bart's belief system reflected that of the world around her; since her debut at the age of eighteen, Lily had several chances to wed wealth, but as she reveals to Selden, a marriage such as her mother envisioned is, at its very core, "disagreeable."

The novel introduces Lily to a series of men whom she might marry, none of whom are Lily's moral equal but all of whom carry far more weight in society. Lily, however, cannot bring herself to make such a marriage. Lily recognizes the inadequacies of the men: the dull Percy Gryce, who wants to collect a beautiful wife the same way he collects Americana; the frank-talking Simon Rose-dale, who wants a wife with social standing who will move him up the New York social ladder; and the pathetic George Dorset, who allows himself to be bullied and cuckolded by his wife. Even Laurence Selden, as summarized by Linda Wagner-Martin in her study The House of Mirth, has "a history of affairs with married women, a love of rhetorical games and flirtations, a tendency to make pronouncements and give orders, and a history of running away from confrontation." Indeed, Selden, whom Lily believes to be her one chance at love matched with happiness, shows little true regard for her happiness or even fundamental welfare.

Lily cannot marry any of these men, or such types of men—which is all society offers her—because she holds a power that is rendered useless by her shallow society: the power to make superior moral judgments. She is unable to ignore this quiet, ever-present inner voice, which alerts her to the banality, tedium, or downright distastefulness of these men and all that they offer. At Bellomont, after practically guaranteeing herself a wedding proposal from Percy Gryce, Lily suddenly looks at these people who would forever populate her world in a different light: "That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities;… [now] Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement." Lily blames Selden for forcing her to acknowledge the ugliness of her marital intentions. "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me?" she asks him at Bellomont. In truth, she functions as her own moral arbiter, for it is only Selden who is confident that wealth and social standing are the only things Lily cares for. Lily's actions—or her inaction when it comes to men—show that for all her talk, she cannot simply marry to reach those goals.

Because Lily aspires to a higher value, even though she fails to acknowledge it consciously, she sacrifices her other form of power: the power over other's reputations. Despite her lack of wealth or social standing, Lily holds power over Bertha Dorset in two ways, through Bertha's love letters to Laurence Selden and through knowledge of the affair that Bertha engaged in aboard the Dorset's yacht. These love letters are key to Lily's ability to dethrone Bertha and take her place in society by marrying George Dorset, or at the least, force her former "friend" to stop the malicious slander that has caused everyone in their circle to forsake Lily. Yet, Lily refuses to use either of these tools to unmask Bertha.

Many people encourage Lily to stoop to Bertha's level of blackmail and malicious talk. George Dorset pleads with Lily to save him from his loveless, miserable marriage: "'you're the only person'—his voice dropped to a whisper—'the only person who knows…. I want to be free, and you can free me.'" Carry Fisher, who becomes one of Lily's closest friends by the end of the novel, urges Lily to take up George's plan, provide the proof that Bertha was unfaithful so he can divorce and then become his wife. "He wouldn't stay with her ten minutes if he knew," Carry says. Lily lies to both George and Carry, claiming she knows nothing, thus preserving Bertha's reputation and extending the opportunity for Bertha to cause more damage to Lily's reputation. Simon Rosedale also knows that Lily has Bertha's letters. His words to Lily, "I know how completely she's in your power," emphasize that by taking up the devious tactics employed by others in their New York circle, Lily will assure herself a place within it. He proposes that Lily use the letters to force Bertha to let her back in society, and then he will marry her.

Such encounters make Lily comprehend that she actually holds power. George's pathetic demeanor and his obvious desire to divorce Bertha make it clear to Lily that it is within her power to marry him. Such ability, however, is hardly very far removed from the power that her beauty afforded her in the days before she was ousted from society, when she could have married Percy Gryce. Much more importantly, Lily's knowledge gives her the power to enact "revenge" against Bertha and attain "rehabilitation" into society. Although "there was something dazzling in the completeness of the opportunity," Lily refuses to follow such a course of action, even though holding on to such high standards holds no value in New York. Indeed, as Lily acknowledges in thinking over Rosedale's offer of marriage, "What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial?" It is no coincidence that Lily dies the night she burns Bertha's love letters. She deprives herself of the last material representation of power and her primary means to regain a place in society. That evening, she takes a few extra drops of her sleeping draught, and as it takes effect, as "gradually the sense of complete subjugation came over her," she gives up her will to live and sinks into her final sleep.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The House of Mirth, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Julie Olin-Ammentorp

In the following essay, Olin-Ammentorp challenges traditional feminist interpretations of Wharton's The House of Mirth.

In the past decade, feminist critics have done much to restore Edith Wharton to her proper rank among American novelists and to shed light on many aspects of her work previous critics had overlooked. Scholars such as Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Elizabeth Ammons, Judith Fetterley, and recently Wai-Chee Dimock have changed the understanding of Wharton's work through their perceptive analyses, focusing particularly on Wharton's insights into the social structures of the early part of this century and the ways in which these structures influenced and limited women's lives.

Yet the work of these feminist critics also raises issues of the limitations, or perhaps blindspots, of current feminist literary criticism, issues which go beyond their application to Wharton and her work. For instance, most feminist critics seem to imply that Wharton, though never one to ally herself with the feminist movements of her day, was a kind of inherent feminist, someone who both fought for and attained her rightful place as a novelist in a period when the novel was dominated by male authors and when upper-class women were taught, as Wharton was, to be more ornamental than intellectual. Moreover, these critics point out, Wharton protested the treatment of women through her portrayals of women caught in the inescapable bonds of social constructs. These points are fundamentally correct; Wharton was and did all these things. Yet in focusing only on these aspects of her life and career feminist critics overlook the Edith Wharton who, despite her mature anger over the random education her parents gave her, wrote that

I have lingered over these details [describing the cooking she enjoyed as a child and young woman] because they formed a part—a most important and honourable part—of that ancient curriculum of house-keeping which … was so soon to be swept aside by the "monstrous regiment" of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen and the linen room, and to substitute the acquiring of University degrees for the more complex art of civilized living … I mourn more than ever the extinction of the household arts. Cold storage, deplorable as it is, has done less harm to the home than the Higher Education.

One point where feminist criticism seems particularly weak is in its treatment of the men in Wharton's fiction. This is particularly true in criticism of The House of Mirth, probably the best-known as well as the most astutely criticized of Wharton's novels. Judith Fetterley has claimed that in Wharton's novels, social waste is female; when one uses this as the guiding principle in reading The House of Mirth, the novel becomes the story of a young woman's destruction by a social system that maintains that upper-class women are meant to be ornamental, even while it forces them to prostitute themselves on the marriage market. A woman like Lily, Fetterley argues, has to accept her status as "a piece of property available for purchase by the highest bidder." Elizabeth Ammons joins Fetterley in arguing that power in the novel is patriarchal, pointing out that men are the makers of money in the novel and, thus, as the novel focuses on the economics of marriage, the source of all power. These points are important and undeniably true and help to explain the social structure in which Lily moves.

But a re-examination of Wharton's fiction in general, and of The House of Mirth, in particular, demonstrates that the social structures of Wharton's fictional world cause male waste as much as female. As Dimock has noted, "the actual wielders of power in the book are often not men but women," indeed, women like Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor are hardly subservient to their husbands, despite their economic dependence on them; both of these women seem to have more freedom and power than their spouses. At no point does Wharton suggest that they warrant pity nor that they are victims of the system in the way Lily is. Lily herself is eager to grasp the money that could make her as great a social force as either of her friends, as is implied by her successive evaluations of the personal and economic attractions of men as different as Percy Gryce, Sim Rosedale, and Lawrence Selden. Women in this novel spend at least as much time assessing men as men do evaluating women. Despite the weakness of Wharton's males—a weakness that has become almost proverbial among Wharton critics—Wharton presents her male characters as meriting as much (or perhaps almost as much) sympathy as her female characters.

Three of the men most important to this novel, Gus Trenor, George Dorset, and Lawrence Selden, have been pretty much dismissed as a brute, a spineless coward, and a coward who should have known better, who should, in fact, have come to Lily's "rescue." Yet to re-examine these characters within the social context that Wharton so carefully establishes is to see that they cannot be judged quite so simply. Gus Trenor, despite his attempt to rape Lily as a way of making her "pay up" for the money he has given her, verges on the pathetic at moments. Not only is he ugly in a society which, as Wharton says in her autobiography, had "an almost pagan worship of physical beauty," but he is aware that his wife uses him as a pawn in the socio-economic system. Indeed, Judy Trenor values him only for his wealth while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the costs of running a household or building a ballroom. Although Gus' violence in demanding that Lily "pay up" is in no way excusable, it is perhaps understandable in the context of a social system that views him primarily as a workhorse.

George Dorset may be Wharton's most pointed example of a man diminished by the social system. Early in the novel Judy Trenor remarks to Lily that the dyspeptic George "is not as dismal as you think. If Bertha [his wife] didn't worry him he would be quite different." As the novel develops Wharton reveals the uneven nature of the Dorsets' marriage: Bertha, "out of a job" when her affair with Selden ends, takes up with Ned Silverton, while George becomes increasingly dismayed. Rather than accusing Bertha of unfaithfulness and demanding her fidelity or, alternately, divorcing her, George allows Bertha to blackmail him into silence. At the same time he begs Lily to help him, telling her that she is the only one who can "save" him. When Lily refuses even to acknowledge that she could help George, he sinks into apathy. That Lily feels she cannot help George makes a double point: that the system of marriage wastes male potential as it does female, and that the Dorset marriage, although it continues, is a failure from every point of view except that of Bertha, who happily goes on spending George's income. Moreover, Lily's inability to "save" Dorset also has important implications for Lily's own need to be "saved."

While George Dorset and Gus Trenor have received their share of critical scorn, Lawrence Selden has received the brunt of critical wrath. Claiming that Lily is solely "victim" within the system, many critics have argued that Lawrence Selden, despite his relative moral attractions, is to be condemned for his failure to "save" Lily. Though not necessarily someone who would identify himself as a feminist, R. W. B. Lewis established the normative view of Selden in his biography of Wharton. Selden, Lewis argues, "is the one human being who might have supplied" a "viable alternative life for Lily." Lewis continues, "Selden himself, as she [Wharton] told Sara Norton, was 'a negative hero,' a sterile and subtly fraudulent figure whose ideas were not much to be trusted." Cynthia Griffin Wolff claims that "far from being Wharton's spokesman, Selden is the final object of her sweeping social satire." Similarly, Wai-chee Dimock believes that Selden "remains, to the end, a closet speculator … The 'republic of the spirit' turns out to be less a republic than a refined replica of the social marketplace, of which Selden is a full participating member." Three fundamentally faulty assumptions about Wharton's novel underlie such judgments of Selden. First, readers assume that Selden could have "saved" Lily and thus is culpable for not having done so; second, they judge Selden by a standard far harsher than that they use to judge Lily; and third, their expectations that Selden "save" Lily at all are problematic in terms of the novel as a whole.

First of all, readers and critics alike cannot assume fairly that Selden could have saved Lily. Whatever the limitations of Selden's heroism, Lily herself hardly makes the path to complete rescue an easy one. Selden, after all, proposes to her repeatedly in the novel, but she is as imbued with the idea of marriage for money and power as Selden is with the notion of romantic love. In addition, her inability to govern her own life stems from a fundamental indecisiveness, the result of the values inculcated in her by her culture, that prevents her from developing either a firm friendship or a love relationship with Selden. Finally, Wharton stresses repeatedly the social indoctrination that has made it almost impossible for either Lily or Selden to break through their carefully-cultivated emotional reserves. It is extremely problematic to fault Selden for not "saving" Lily; she will not permit herself to be saved.

Second, it is important not to set up a reverse double standard for judging Selden. While feminist critics see Lily generally, and correctly, as a product and a victim of society, they conveniently ignore Wharton's hint that "in a different way, [Selden] was, as much as Lily, the victim of his environment." They somehow expect Selden to transcend the codes of his class and place. It is generally understood that Lily's reluctance to wed is an expression of her "repugnance toward a relationship in which a woman is powerless" and a result of her examination of the hatred and hypocrisy in the marriages of her friends; yet the same considerations and observations are somehow supposed not to concern Selden. There may, indeed, be some grounds for judging Selden by standards different from those used for Lily: the stakes are different for the two of them. Because of her extreme specialization, Lily must "go into partnership"—that is, marry—in order not to "drop"; by comparison Selden's implied return to books and his law practice looks fairly comfortable. Nevertheless, these disparities do not justify condemning Selden for the same responses that are respected in Lily.

The novel as a whole reveals that such condemnations are in themselves wanting. Despite their efforts to live independent of the standards of their class, both Selden and Lily are limited by these standards: Lily cannot teach herself an independent existence, and Selden, although he is somewhat independent of others, cannot see the system in which both live as wholly as readers can. Readers, after all, have the advantage of Wharton's narration and of extended exposure to Lily's consciousness; by comparison, Selden's knowledge is extremely limited. Moreover, moral cowardice—of which both Selden and Lily have their share—is hardly a disgrace in Wharton's novel. It would take an almost superhuman effort to break out of a system so rigid and yet so flexible that it can, for instance, maintain with perfect equanimity that marriage is a romantic connection while demonstrating over and over that it is an economic relation. Irving Howe's relatively early (pre-feminist, one might say) remark on Wharton's work may still stand among the most perceptive summaries of her stance toward such characters as Lily and Selden:

Mrs. Wharton understands how large is the price, how endless the nagging pain, that must be paid for a personal assertion against the familiar ways of the world, and she believes, simply, that most of us lack the strength to pay.

Lily finally manages to "pay up" her debt to Trenor, but this payment robs her of any further strength. In spite of his relative independence of social standards, Selden as well "lack[s] the strength to pay" for his release from the social system. Wharton's point is not that Lily is victim, Selden victimizer, but that in spite of their different standings within the system, both are pitiable in their entrapment.

In planning her novel, Wharton wrote that the most difficult obstacle to overcome was determining how to give "a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers" the "typical human significance which is the story-teller's reason for telling one story rather than another." The solution, she discovered,

was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.

It is with such remarks in mind that feminist critics have claimed, as Fetterley has, that "social waste is female" in The House of Mirth. But in context, Wharton's remark is almost synecdochic: Lily Bart represents not just herself, not even her sex, but the whole group of women and men destroyed by a grappling and vicious social system which they are intelligent enough to understand but too weak to change.

In this way, Lily herself—along with Ned Silverton, who once aspired to writing epics, and Lawrence Selden, with his passion for the beautiful—can be seen as failed Edith Whartons: all fail to find a channel into which they can direct their creative energies productively. Wharton's portrayal of Lily's defeat and death suggests not only Wharton's appreciation of the binding force of social norms, but perhaps as well—and more disturbingly—a certain acceptance of these norms.

Indeed, if one accepts the notion that Selden as well as Lily may be a sympathetic character, one faces once again the problem of interpreting the novel's conclusion. It is entirely possible that Wharton intended the conclusion to be read as it is written—that, in fact, "in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear." As much as Wharton regrets the waste implied in Lily's life and death, she may reconcile herself to it as well. For Wharton constructs her novel to imply the impossibility of one individual saving, or even helping, another; this is clearest in Selden's failure to help Lily but is reinforced as well by Lily's refusal to save George Dorset by supplying him with the information he needs to divorce Bertha.

Wharton may in fact have accepted her status as what Adrienne Rich has described as a "token" or "special" woman. Speaking to a group of women at the Modern Language Association, Rich noted that she, like Virginia Woolf addressing a women's college, was

aware of the women who are not with us here because they are washing the dishes and looking after the children … We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn't threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us and our work according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be.

Surrounded by Henry James and a host of other admiring men, Wharton was clearly in the situation that Rich describes, that of the special woman who accepts her own success as something due to her, something she has earned. Wharton saw herself as someone who had made it on her own, through hard work and will power, and who—despite her compassion for those like Lily Bart—seems fundamentally to accept the failure of others as the natural result of social Darwinism. Other women, she implies, should not bother to educate themselves, much less write; they should instead learn the arts of household management. Despite her gratitude to those (all men) who helped her develop her intellect and her skill as a writer, Wharton prefers to ignore the possibility that women could benefit from systematic education or the cultivation of their potential as artists, as full human beings. Her attitude toward others seems, in short, to be a version of the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" approach, one which most feminists now find somewhat wanting, given that society may leave some individuals with bootstraps that are very short, or even non-existent.

Yet this view of Wharton, too, is limited. Like both Woolf and Rich, Wharton was aware of the women who were in fact "washing the dishes and looking after the children." In The House of Mirth, Wharton portrays not only the Olympian heights of social glitter but also the wrong side of the "social tapestry", the lives of the numerous women who suffer that a few might be wealthy: charwomen, girls working long hours at an overheated and underlit milliner's shop. Wharton herself is something of an enigma when it comes to issues both of class and of self-perception. The professional writer every morning, she emerged meticulously, fashionably coiffed and clad, every noon to take over the role of the perfect hostess. Nor, apparently, did she see any contradiction between these roles, nor between the little girl who early experienced a love of fine clothing and admiration and the society that so long kept that girl from attaining her potential as a thinker and a writer. Similarly, Wharton was reputed to be unusually kind to her servants—a trait she passes on to Lily Bart—and she worked long hours to help relocate refugees from Belgium during World War I. Yet it appears that she never questioned her right to ask a dozen individuals to run her household. She was, perhaps, aristocratic ("special" in Rich's terms) in the way that Woolf was as well: She saw no problem in preventing others from developing their potential so that she might develop her own. At the bottom of this is a certain classism that is, or so one would hope, inimical to feminism in the 1980s.

Edith Wharton's challenge to feminist criticism is the challenge created by historical distance and by shifting definitions of feminism itself. Many feminist critics seem to have expected Wharton to be fifty years ahead of her time; further, they have shaped a Wharton who conforms to such expectations. In doing so they have oversimplified the complexities of Wharton's personality and times; they have brilliantly represented and respected a part of her genius, but they have detached it from the woman as a whole.

Source: Julie Olin-Ammentorp, "Edith Wharton's Challenge to Feminist Criticism," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 2, Autumn 1988, pp. 237-44.

James W. Gargano

In the following essay, Gargano considers faith and social futility in Wharton's The House of Mirth.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Wharton's novel The Custom of the Country (1913) can be considered a companion piece to The House of Mirth. The novel chronicles the rise of Undine Spragg, a ruthless Midwesterner, up New York's social ladder. Unlike Lily Bart, Undine cares nothing about the people she harms as she attempts to achieve wealth and social standing.
  • Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance was published in 1934, three years before the author's death.
  • According to scholar Linda Wagner-Martin, Wharton took as a literary model the titular heroine of Henry James's novella Daisy Miller (1878). Daisy, an American ingenue traveling in Europe with her mother, becomes compromised by her friendship with an Italian man. Her behavior alienates the American man who is courting her and alienates the other Americans living abroad.
  • Lost New York (1971), by Nathan Silver, describes old New York society and environs.
  • Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening (1899) tells the story of a woman, Edna Pontellier, determined to choose the terms and conditions of her own marriage. Despite the morals of her Louisiana society, Edna escapes a dreary marriage through an adulterous affair.
  • In 1898 feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her nonfiction work Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. In this influential book Gilman states that women's dependence on men is neither natural nor beneficial. She claims that wives, like prostitutes, trade sex for economic stability.

Almost inevitably, critics of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth focus their comments on the "moral" vitality of its social criticisms. Clearly, the novel's scenic art and the author's pointed intrusions into her narrative justify this critical emphasis. It is true, as Irving Howe asserts, that "the meanings of the book emerge through a series of contrasts between a fixed scale of social place and an evolving measure of moral value." In one of the most original essays on the novel that I have encountered, Diana Trilling ends up by seeing the heroine's fate in sociomoral terms: "Like the old Bolshevik who confesses to uncommitted crimes in attestation of the superior moral authority of the state, Lily affirms the absolute power of society over the life of the individual by her demonstration that she is finally incapable of effective action on her own behalf." Though he dwells primarily on the "naturalistic" aspects of the novel, Blake Nevius describes its theme as "the victimizing effect of a particular environment on one of its more helplessly characteristic products." Even Richard Poirier, whose brilliant analysis of The House of Mirth is almost a last word, finally traces Lily's doom to the absence in her society of "an ordering principle for her good impulses."

I believe that in the curiously didactic last chapters of the novel, Mrs. Wharton reached beyond her immediate social concerns toward a larger, perhaps ultimately philosophical vision. She permits her two sympathetic characters, Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden, to come into triumphant possession of a secret that reconciles Lily to death and Selden to life. This secret, contained in a "word" never divulged by the author, endows the seeming absurdity of existence with sanctity and ultimate grace. It affirms that a force of mysterious origin and sanction is to be found at the center of all life. Because Lily and Selden hear and finally respond to this word, their lost opportunities result in discovery rather than in waste and futility. Lily makes her clarifying discovery of the word on her deathbed. What might appear to be the tragic consequence of a misguided life is suddenly transformed into self-fulfillment. Her last struggle begins as a crisis of hope:

As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered vague and luminous on the far edge of thought—she was afraid of not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well.

For a moment, the thought of the word fades and she relapses into terror and loneliness. Then, the word becomes flesh as she feels a baby lying in her arms. Once again, she suffers misery and shock as she loses "her hold of the child." In her dying seconds, however, "the recovered warmth flowed through her once more, she yielded to it, sank into it, and slept."

In the last chapter of the novel, the word that consoles Lily is almost mystically transmitted to Selden. In a setting romantically appropriate to his mood, he acts with a kind of morning vigor and a spontaneous disregard for social ritual. Hurrying to see Lily at an unconventionally early hour, he is liberated and excited because "he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said." Amazed that he has not spoken it sooner, he now regards it as proclaiming a new day, as establishing a new order. Joyfully, he treats the word as if it were revelatory and revitalizing: "It was not a word for twilight, but for the morning." Although his commitment to the word is checked by Lily's death and by a brief resurgence of cynicism, he struggles past doubts into an enduring faith in it. The novel concludes, not with the naturalistic or moral harshness usually imputed to it, but with the serenity of a religious affirmation: "He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear."

None of the critics I have mentioned appear to take the ending of The House of Mirth seriously. None of them ask what the redemptive word is, and, finally, none of them try to determine the extent to which it attenuates Lily's tragedy. It seems advisable, then, to begin a critical quest for the meaning of Mrs. Wharton's novel with a search for the word and its implications.

The quest can appropriately begin with a look at the society in which Lily Bart schemes for success. Uninspired by the "word," the social circle derisively pictured in The House of Mirth rarely rises above elegance and comfort and often descends into sordid conniving and petty Grundyism. Money assures privilege, but privilege, too cheaply construed, dissipates into an expense of spirit and a waste of shame. Mrs. Wharton's smart set and its wealthy hangerson are curiously mindless and soulless, and those seeking entrance into the charmed circle wish to be assimilated into an expensive but not very expansive culture. The few old families not drawn into luxurious frivolities and vices derive their immunity from narrow imaginations and pinched spirits.

Mrs. Wharton exhibits her world in all its negative indifference to thought and idealism. She shows Lily's nascent hope blighted and Selden's life in the "republic of the spirit" reduced to a sterile posture. The calculating Bertha Dorset holds on to her fortune and her cowed husband, and the Brys and Rosedale are ready to pump their newmade millions into the perpetuation of a system that cruelly snubbed them. Goodness and the freedom to achieve it are commodities too fragile to survive in such a civilized social state; indeed, if one disregards the crucial last chapter of The House of Mirth, one may feel that the author is attempting to expose the existence of a social conspiracy against creative and moral impulses.

Nevertheless, despite her lively perception of human stupidity and weakness, Mrs. Wharton does not intend her novel to be misanthropic or merely satirical. Her theme, instead, insists that personal integrity represents an act of faith in a spiritual order beyond the of the world of appearance. In other words, Lily's worldly mistakes are disguised blessings: her final inability to marry Percy Gryce, after all her preparations have been seductively made, stems from an innate trust in something less musty than a moneyed imbecile. In addition, in refusing to be self-serving by helping herself to Bertha Dorset's husband or Rosedale's fortune, she actually serves a higher concept of self. In spite of her banalities and excesses, Lily finds it impossible to commit a final act of self-desecration. She renounces the prizes she was trained to seek and hearkens to Selden's timid confidences about the republic of the spirit. She knows that she cannot be saved by a society which in one way or another, can only destroy as it gratifies: to be a Judy Trenor is to be a comfortable lost soul, to be a Bertha Dorset is to be a desperate one. To initiate the newlyrich into society's inner sphere as Carrie Fisher does, is to live as a parasite in a well-furnished vacuum. Though Lily shares the vices and follies of all these women, she differs from them in possessing a vision, at first disquieting but ultimately consoling. Her apparent social descent is—besides being the frightful thing that haunts the critics of the book—largely a subconscious search for meanings fixed beyond the flux of wealth and social status.

What permanent truth embodied in what "word," it might be asked, does Lily discover? I cannot agree with Mrs. Trilling that Edith Wharton intends her heroine to acknowledge the tyrannous primacy of the "state." Indeed, Mrs. Wharton seems to be saying that from a spiritual perspective, society, considered as the supreme lawgiver, is an illusion or a downright fiction. It is an arena of distraction, a kind of Vanity Fair. What The House of Mirth asserts is that no life possesses spiritual vitality until it is motivated by belief in its own significance. Obviously, the enigmatic and revelatory word that Lily does not achieve until the end of her life is "faith". Only with it can a successful quest be pursued against all the equivocating counterclaims and inducements of society, against the ostensible absurdity of life itself. Lily's persistent problem is that she lacks conscious faith even while she evades evil: of course, she resists grossness, but she is on good terms with the spiritual compromises that grow into horrors. In short, she will not allow her spiritual possibilities to be more than a polite conversation piece between herself and Selden. The shock of Gus Trenor's abortive sexual assault awakens her to the ugly possibilities of life: "Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always in the dark corner, and now they were awake and the iron dang of their wings was in her brain." Even the visitation of the Furies and her loss of Selden, however, do not significantly change her life: she soon invites disaster by slipping all too easily into an arrangement to distract George Dorset's attention from one of his wife's infidelities. Lily's major weakness, then, is the weakness of Denis Peyton in Sanctuary, of Glennard in The Touchstone, and of so many other characters in Mrs. Wharton's novels—a lack of faith in the "reality" and fundamental necessity of the spirituallife.

Faith, as Edith Wharton defines it, is no generalized and temperamental optimism; it is, instead, an almost mystical assurance that only moral action can save the ever-threatened continuity of human existence. Beset by dangers inherent in social arrangements, man clings to survival by the thread of his moral instincts; he is, at his best motivated by what Mrs. Wharton calls, in Sanctuary, "this passion of charity for the race." In other words, goodness is useful, and men and women must, under pain of extinction, bequeath it to their children. At one of her "grandest" moments, for example, Kate Orme in Sanctury is overwhelmed by "mysterious primal influences" and by a "passion of spiritual mother-hood that made her long to fling herself between the unborn child and its fate." Although Lily never worries about future generations, her casual generosity to Nettie Struther saves the "poor working girl" and enables her to marry and have a child which—almost as an unmerited reward or rather a visitation of grace—teaches Lily "the central truth of existence." After holding the baby in her arms, Lily sees the courage and primal trust in Nettie's precarious new life: "It was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird's nest built on the edge of a cliff—a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss."

For Edith Wharton, the abyss is an everlasting peril, and the "frail audacious permanence" at times seems merely frail and futile. The "noble" act, in Lily's case a renunciation of personal advantage, does not conspicuously alter the way of the world: the Trenors, Dorsets, and Brys—with the addition of Rosedale, the Gormers, and "Mrs. Norma Hatch, Emporium Hotel"—will continue their anarchic existence in an atmosphere of gold dust. Yet, Nettie Struther's and Lily's affirmations make a difference because they spring from depths of "faith," the first and most important of all words. After everything else has been said, Mrs. Wharton declares, it is necessary to believe in the meaning and utility of spiritual action. In Sanctuary, Kate Orme attains the vision of the continuity of life in a "mystic climax of effacement"; engulfed by an anguish which is also joy, she experiences a "surge of liberating faith in life, the old credo quia absurdum which is the secret cry of all supreme endeavour." Lily, too, stares into the absurdity and the abyss, and she is forced to acknowledge that she had not risen to the occasions when "Selden had twice been ready to stake his faith on Lily Bart." She has not attained the faith of Nettie's husband, who knowing of the girl's premarital freedoms, had nevertheless believed in her essential goodness. As Lily recalls Nettie's happiness, she struggles toward her own credo: "Her husband's faith in her had made her renewal possible."

The "word" that reverberates through the last two chapters of The House of Mirth cannot be anything but faith. It is the word that keeps Lily from the abyss; it is the word Selden must discover and treasure. In spite of her comparatively favorable portrait of Selden, Mrs. Wharton does not minimize his lack of faith, his timidity and subjection to appearances. All too ready to accuse Lily of self-interest, he suffers from a sort of moral snobbishness and aloofness that turn his republic of the spirit into an exclusive island for dilettantes. Even after he prides himself on having found out the "essential" Lily, he mistakenly assumes that she has made a clandestine visit to Gus Trenor's house. During her last conversation with him she tells him, "I needed the help of your belief in me"; yet, he cannot act because his "faculties seemed tranced, and he was still groping for the word to break the spell." For all his intelligence and discrimination, Selden cannot be simple enough to surrender to faith; he cannot rely on naive trust (which, for Mrs. Wharton, may be the highest perception) to clear the debris of suspicion and fear from his mind. The word itself evaporates as, in Lily's death chamber, he finds her compromising check made out to Gus Trenor. Only with an effort, perhaps like that of Kate Orme, can he reject the ambiguous appearances that induce cynicism. When faith returns to him, however, he sees that "though all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart," he can rejoice that he had come to her "willing to stake his future on his faith in her."

The House of Mirth, it should be added, does not conclude with sentimental éclat, Lily's search for the knowledge contained in the word is built into the structure of the novel. All of her disappointments lead, however painfully, to a clarification of her baffling inconsistencies, her aversions, and her tortured waverings. It takes her a whole ambivalent life to evolve and possess a belief that dissolves the omnipresent and clamorous absurdity of her own, and the human, condition. But she does finally arrive at the credo quia absurdum that, for Mrs. Wharton, inspires all supreme endeavor.

Source: James W. Gargano, "The House of Mirth: Social Futility and Faith," in American Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1, March 1972, pp. 137-43.

Sources

Ammons, Elizabeth, Edith Wharton's Argument with America, in Edith Wharton, by Katherine Joslin, St. Martin's Press, 1991, p. 137.

Howe, Irving, "Introduction: The Achievement of Edith Wharton," in Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Irving Howe, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 1-18.

James, Henry, "Letters," in "The House of Mirth:" A Novel of Admonition, by Linda Martin-Wagner, Twayne Publish-ers, 1990, p. 9.

Joslin, Katherine, Edith Wharton, St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Meynell, Alice, in "The House of Mirth:" A Novel of Admonition, by Linda Martin-Wagner, Twayne Publishers, 1990, p. 9, originally published in Bookman (London), Vol. 29, December 1905, pp. 130-31.

New York Times Book Review, in Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by James W. Tuttleton, Kristin O. Lauer, and Margaret P. Murray, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 117.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson, "Edith Wharton," in "The House of Mirth:" A Novel of Admonition, by Linda Martin-Wagner, Twayne Publishers, 1990, p. 11.

Review of Reviews, in Edith Wharton, by Katherine Joslin, St. Martin's Press, 1991, pp. 130-31.

Saturday Review, in Edith Wharton, by Katherine Joslin, St. Martin's Press, 1991, p. 131.

Times Literary Supplement (London), in Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by James W. Tuttleton, Kristin O. Lauer, and Margaret P. Murray, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 117.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, "The House of Mirth:" A Novel of Admonition, Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, "Edith Wharton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945, edited by James J. Martine, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 126-42.

Further Reading

Dwight, Eleanor, Edith Wharton, An Extraordinary Life, Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

This work is an overview of the life and times of Wharton. It includes personal correspondence and photographs.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Edith Wharton, Chelsea House, 1986.

Bloom offers a collection of critical essays on the works of Wharton.

Lewis, R. W. B., Edith Wharton, A Biography, Harper & Row, 1975.

Lewis provides a comprehensive work about the life and literature of Wharton.

Lewis, R. W. B., and Nancy Lewis, eds., Collected Letters of Edith Wharton, Scribner's, 1989.

This important collection of annotated letters provides four hundred of Wharton's letters.

McDowell, Margaret B., Edith Wharton, Twayne Publishers, 1991.

McDowell's text is a critical overview of Wharton's writing.

Nevius, Blake, Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction, University of California Press, 1953.

Nevius discounts prevailing critical thought and presents insightful criticism of Wharton's work.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wolff's book presents a psychological biography of Wharton, as well as criticism.

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