The House of Mirth
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Fifteen years before her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton already had her sights trained on New York's gilded-age society. That earlier work is The House of Mirth, a devastating portrait, far crueler and more predatory than anything in her later book.
And in Lily Bart, Wharton has given us one of literature's enduring heroines. Lily, with her remarkable beauty and innate charm, captivates readers in the same way she captivates the characters within the novel.
Twenty-nine years-old and single, Lily is on the hunt for a husband. Money, not love, is the only prerequisite—and a great deal of money at that. It requires immense wealth to maintain the lifestyle desired by Lily.
But Lilly is a puzzle. Underneath her infuriating self-centeredness and singleminded devotion to pleasure, lies a keen intelligence. As a sharp observer of her milieu, Lily is perceptive enough to realize that fashionable society is nothing so much as a gilt cage.
How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality she knew the door...stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom.
Lily envies Lawrence Seldon, the only man of her acquaintance who has a foot in both worlds. He has "points of contact outside the great gilt cage" and has cultivated a level of detachment, which permits him to come and go, partake or refrain according to his whim. It is only with Seldon that Lily can be her authentic self. Yet sadly, for both, he is an inappropriate match—Seldon is without money.
We follow Lily on a tragic downward spiral as bit-by-stumbling-bit she descends farther down the social ladder. A combination of willfulness and naivete on her own part puts Lily at risk, while duplicity on the part of a rival finishes her off. In the end, Lily can save herself—she is offered a way out, twice, but each time at the expense of her own integrity.
No spoilers here—you must read for yourself. Suffice it to say, women have indeed come a long way. We all have.
The House of Mirth is a challenge, but Wharton's prose, with its subtle humor and irony, and her richly drawn characters make it worth the effort. And book clubs will have lively discussions parsing Lily's character and the social mores of the era.
See our Reading Guide for The House of Mirth.
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