Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth [1905] – ★★★★1/2

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes 7:4].

In this book, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, has reached her twenty-ninth year without finding a husband. Her beauty and financial resources declining, she notices changes in the society’s perception of her. Miss Bart, free-spirited, fun-loving, popular and, in her own words, “horribly poor – [but] very expensive] [1905: 12], soon faces an unenviable position worsened by the fact that she still loves shopping, jewellery and luxury. To what extent can she still count on the kindness of others to survive in the world that is increasingly becoming unforgiving and even hostile, full of social traps and intrigues? Considered scandalous upon its release, but converted Wharton into a successful author virtually overnight, this satire on New York City’s high society through the in-depth portrayal of a modern and increasingly fragile woman conveys the sheer pathos of a situation whereby individual willpower and the independence of spirit find themselves at odds with societal demands and expectations.

The House of Mirth’s main theme is probably the most “delicious” premise in fiction – “a socialite fallen on hard times”. It now reminds of a later published novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned [1922], where a couple who is used to the prestige and easy-life in the heart of New York City suddenly finds itself facing bankruptcy, waiting for their inheritance. Similarly, The House of Mirth presents Lily Bart who clings ferociously to a rich life-style while being reluctant to give up either her freedom or sense of independence. However, Edith Wharton goes further and shows the duplicity of New York’s elite, satirizing its greed, hypocrisy, corruption, and hasty judgments passed on others. With its self-interest and vanity to mind, it is no wonder it is prepared to eschew the basic principles of humanity, compassion, friendship and human understanding all in the name of obscure tradition, custom and prestige. Wharton’s high society is a society that can turn its back on a person at a moment’s notice and that does not forget no forgive the deviation from its rules.

Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart” [Edith Wharton, 1905: 3], so begins The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton excels when it comes to dissecting personalities in stories, character interactions and personal feelings. Her readers step into the minds of each of the characters, discovering a complex world there. The presentation of Lily Bart’s character sometimes reminds of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady [1881]. As in that novel, we have here one vivacious, intelligent and freedom-loving young woman who simply must find a husband because of her poor circumstances. Also, as in the Henry James novel, she starts to navigate a very complex society where everyone has an agenda of their own, where hidden traps are everywhere, and where stringent rules and customs can turn a dearest friend into a lifelong enemy. It can now even be said that there is a touch of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind [1936] in Lily Bart as they share many traits, including the love of money, prestige and fun – “to be poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace” [1905: 44], writes Wharton of Lily and it is equally applicable to Scarlett. Both can also be calculating or simply “lovely” as circumstances dictate: “She was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for squalid compromises of poverty: her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in” [Wharton, 1905: 33]; “The glow of the stones warmed Lily’s veins like wine. More completely than any other expression of wealth they symbolised the life she longed to lead, the life of fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail would have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting to her own jewel-like rareness” [Wharton, 1905:121].

There is some Balzacian pathos (Le Père Goriot [1835]) in The House of Mirth, with people being blinded by their passions and society fine-tuning its machinery of hidden oppression. Lily Bart’s increasingly precarious situation only gets worse as she persists in living in her blissful and wilful ignorance of what is to come. Soon, “[she] does not live, [she] visitsbeing entirely at the mercy of [her] friends and relations”, as Jane Austen wrote in Love and Friendship [1790], and visiting those social circles she never even imagined being associated with previously. Lily’s friend, Lawrence Selden, a lawyer, seems to be the only person who still has faith in her, while seeing through her; that “she was so evidently the victim of the civilisation which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” [Edith Wharton, 1905: 9]. The hint of love and romance between Lily and Lawrence is touching and heart-breaking.

The House of Mirth is not a perfect novel. There are numerous over-explained paragraphs in the book where Wharton repeats the same point numerous times but using different words, something which is not seen in her later books. Another problem is that, frankly, Lily Bart is not a sympathetic character and only becomes so towards the very end of the story, at a point when she is converted into something truly pitiful and imperfect. It is indeed hard to warm up to the main heroine for a greater part of the book, as Wharton undoubtedly intended her readers to do.

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which was published some fifteen years after The House of Mirth, is a more delicate, gentler and more focused novel with much more sympathetic main characters at its centre who have only the society and their social circumstances to blame for their personal tragedies and the failure to realise their most intimate and deepest desires. In contrast, The House of Mirth has bolder contours, over-explained passages and more direct messages. But where it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in the sheer drama, with its characters moulded to near-perfection. Moreover, it probably has one of the most powerful endings in fiction.

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13 thoughts on “Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

  1. I’ve read this novel several times, it’s not one of Wharton’s best but it really lingers in your mind after reading it. I agree that Lily is not a likeable character but you feel more sympathetic towards her as the story goes on. Wharton does put a lot of the blame on Lily’s upbringing but also the double standards of society. Have you seen the film?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I haven’t. I probably should. Somehow I don’t see Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart at all, maybe I am wrong. As with The Age of Innocence film, it appears to me that some characters in the film are caricatures, overblown and exaggerated counterparts of their respective book characters. Gillian Anderson appears to me that way here and Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence appears to me that way also (and The Portrait of a Lady film really deserves a special prize for this).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought the film was well done, Gillian Anderson is actually quite suited to the role I think. Characters in films are always going to be less subtle than their book counterparts. I have only seen The Age of Innocence once but I don’t remember being especially keen on it. I think I prefer the characters in The House of Mirth to those in The Age of Innocence.

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  2. I haven’t read the novel you mention in the end, nor “The House of Mirth”, but it seems to me that I would enjoy Lily’s character more. The ones who are victims of the society’s cruelty are very common, there stories are simply sad and provoke compassion, but since Lily is a victim of her own desires and inherited habits, she is much more interesting to me. While trying to stay herself when she has nothing, she becomes a tragic character of sort, slightly comic I might say, but still tragic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hadn’t paid much attention to this book before, although it has often passed my eyeline, but after reading Irene Nemirovsky’s Jezabel, I think I would love to pick this up and explore more.

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