House of Mirth (Wharton)

The House of Mirth 
Edith Wharton, 1905
~360 pp. (varies by publisher)

A literary sensation when it was first serialized in Scribners magazine in 1905, The House of Mirth quickly established Edith Wharton as the most important American woman of letters in the twentieth century.

The first American novel to provide a devastatingly accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy, it is the story of the beautiful and beguiling Lily Bart and her ill-fated attempt to rise to the heights of a heartless society in which, ultimately, she has no part.

Wharton’s dark view of society, the somber economics of marriage, and the powerlessness of the unwedded woman in the 1870s emerge dramatically in this tragic nove. Faced with an array of wealthy suitors, Lily falls in love with lawyer Lawrence Selden, whose lack of money spoils their chances for happiness together. Dubious business deals and accusations of liaisons with a married man diminish Lily’s social status, and as she makes one bad choice after another, she learns how venal and brutally unforgiving the upper crust of New York can be. (Adapted from Penguin Classics edition and Barnes & Noble versions.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 24, 1862
Where—New York, NY
Death—August 11, 1937
Where—Paris, France
Education: Educated privately in New York and Europe
Awards—Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, 1921,
   French Legion of Honor, 1916

One of America's most important novelists, Edith Wharton was a refined, relentless chronicler of the Gilded Age and its social mores. Along with close friend Henry James, she helped define literature at the turn of the 20th century, even as she wrote classic nonfiction on travel, decorating and her own life.

Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family's return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith's creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, and (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton's novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton's first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable Literary Success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton's reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.

In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 — the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.

• Surprisingly, in addition to her career as a fiction writer, Wharton was also a well-known interior designer. Her book, The Decoration of Houses was widely read and is today considered the first modern manual of interior design.

• Upon the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905, Wharton became an instant celebrity, and the the book was an instant bestseller, with 80,000 copies ordered from Scribner's six weeks after its release.

• Wharton had a great fondness for dogs, and owned several throughout her life. (From Barnes and Noble.)

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Book Reviews
(Classic works have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

Mrs. Wharton's serial in Scribner's [magazine], "The House of Mirth," develops in a rather grim fashion.... Nevertheless, we must be grateful for these glimpses of the inner social circle, given by one who has the magic password. "The House of Mirth," indeed, must be accepted as a "document" and it's descriptions of the functions and foibles of "our best society" will surely be treasured by historians as testimony.
New York Times (4/1/1905)

Lily's rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner's assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. —Melanie Rehak
Editors -

Book Club Discussion Questions
1. Wharton took the title for her novel from a verse in Ecclesiastics—"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in The House of Mirth." Does Lily Bart's allegiance to the follies and superficialities of society mean that she has the "heart of a fool" or is she trapped by the dictates of her upbringing and the expectations of the times?

2. What does Wharton mean when she describes Lawrence Selden as a man with "the stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's delight in them" [p.152]? Are his scorn and aloofness attitudes only a man could assume in the society Wharton depicts? How genuine are they? Does his readiness to attend certain social events and to indulge in gossip and flirtations with Lily belie his chosen role as a "spectator"?

3. The people in Lily's circle disdain the "new" millionaires who acquired their money in business rather than through inheritance, yet in many ways their social world is predicated on a business ethic. How does the language of the novel reflect this? In what ways do the social "exchanges" among the characters mimic business dealings, even when they don't involve the actual exchange of money?

4. Lily rejects both Sim Rosedale, a fabulously rich man of "unacceptable" lineage, and Selden, a man she clearly admires who cannot support her in style. Do these rejections represent an unrealistic, perhaps inflated, view of her own worth and potential? Are they purely selfish or do they reflect an underlying sense of morality on Lily's part?

5. Even early in the novel, Wharton offers hints that foreshadow Lily's public humiliation by the Trenors and the Dorsets, her abandonment by Carry Fisher, and her aunt's decision to disinherit her. What events alert you to the true nature of the other character's feelings and attitudes toward her? Is Lily too naive to grasp the significance of these events? Does she genuinely misunderstand her financial arrangement with Gus Trenor or simply choose to ignore its "obvious" implications? When she agrees to accompany the Dorsets on the cruise, is she unaware of her role as a mask for Bertha's affair with Ned Silverton?

6. What does Lily's great success in the tableaux vivants symbolize within the context of the novel? Does it reveal, as Selden believes, "the real Lily Bart"? [p. 134] Why does Lily respond to his enthusiasm and his confession of love afterwards by saying, "Ah, love me, love me—but don't tell me so"? [p. 138] What other examples are there of Lily's consciously adopting a pose, either literally or figuratively, to please an audience?  

7. Both Lily's cousin, Grace Stepney, and Selden's cousin, Gerty Farish, live in genteel poverty on margins of society. How are their attitudes about their positions reflected in the way they treat Lily?

8. Lily and Selden have five intimate conversations: at his apartment in the opening chapter; at Trenors' country home, Bellomont; at the Brys after Lily's stunning performance in the tableaux vivants; in Mrs. Hatch's hotel room; and once again at Selden's apartment, on the day before Lily dies. How do the tone and contents of their conversations change as Lily's circumstances change, and what does this reveal about their feelings for one another? Are either of them really capable of loving and being loved?

9. Are all the women in the novel passive "victims," dependent on the power and money of men? Who really creates the rules in Lily's circle and how do they wield their powers? Why does Rosedale ultimately turn Lily away, despite his previous persistence in courting her and his aggressiveness in making his way into society? Is he right in believing that his money alone is not enough to rescue her reputation?

10. Is Lily's descent inevitable? What opportunities does she have to turn things around and why does she reject them? Does her decision not to use Bertha Dorset's letters to regain her social standing make sense in society that unquestioningly accepts the manipulations of Gus Trenor, Carry Fisher, and Bertha herself?

11. Edith Wharton wrote "A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideas." Do you think The House of Mirth is primarily a portrait of the frivolous and corrupt social world of New York or is it the story of Lily Bart's personal tragedy?
(Questions issued by Penguin Group; cover image, top-right.)

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