The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (3)

Set in New York in the 1890s, the House of Mirth is an unflinching look at the ruthless exile of the doomed Lily Bart. Lily is an amazingly pretty and charming socialite. Because she has a taste for the finer things in life, but no means of attaining them, she plans to marry well. “I’m horribly poor—and very expensive,” she says. To this end, Lily, a master of grace and artifice, curries favor with the Fifth Avenue elite to attain wealth and power, comfort and ease. The House of Mirth displays Wharton’s incomparable gift for blending tone and subject matter, as well as her incisive yet sympathetic understanding of human nature and, in particular, the failure of imagination that often lies at the root of spiritual wreckage.

Name that tone

At times Wharton is wickedly satirical and belly-laugh funny, as she is here, describing Lily’s quest to marry Percy Gryce:

She must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.

But the real magic of Wharton’s tone is her dazzling ability to combine narrative objectivity with a real sense of feeling for Lily’s anguish. Because Wharton treats her characters with sympathetic detachment, we readers observe, like spectators enthralled, the vast social machinery and suffer Lily’s desperation and horror as her prospects are slowly threshed to nothing. Throughout The House of Mirth, Wharton’s prose sparkles with the “cold precision of a winter dawn,” to borrow one of her images.

Human nature

A testament to Wharton’s storytelling ability is her deft handling of Lily’s hopeful but ultimately fragile psyche. Wharton presents a self that contains many contradictory thoughts and feelings. Lily Bart is a deeply confused yet entirely human person, more human, in fact, than any character I can readily think of in literature, which goes a long way in explaining the grandeur of the novel. A bewildering complex of hope and fear, pride and shame, conscience and indignation, Lily self-consciously manipulates others’ egoism and vanity to advance her own position in society. She loves to be seen and heard, and thrills at the joy and pleasure she gives others by being a charming object of art.

Of course, when you live by appearances, you run the risk of dying by them, too. So when a manufactured scandal tarnishes her reputation, Lily is “unsphered in a void of social non-existence.” To her horror, she discovers a self without substance. She has no pieties or traditions to fall back on, no intimacy with nature to strengthen her, and precious few friendships to guide her. Worst of all, Lily lacks imagination. The devastating truth of Lily’s private life is that she is unable, not unwilling, but simply unable to reconceputalize her life along new lines. “The utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting.” Without the foundation of her usual life to support her, Lily loses footing, and we watch a slow-motion slide through nervous exhaustion to a kind of spiritual evacuation so complete that it doesn’t really matter whether she dies by accident or suicide. She was already long gone.


8 Responses to The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (3)

  1. Wonderfully perceptive review Kevin. This book so beautifully captures the clash between character and culture (aka society). I could read it a third time – very happily – though I’d have to steel myself for the emotions I will inevitably feel yet a again.

  2. Marianne Gubler says:

    Kevin has given us a keen analysis of the fascinating character of Lily Bart (and of Wharton’s gifts). Wharton’s story and Kevin’s insights makes one question what worldviews are holding us hostage.

  3. barbara neilson says:

    “Without the foundation of her usual life to support her, Lily loses footing, and we watch a slow-motion slide through nervous exhaustion to a kind of spiritual evacuation so complete that it doesn’t really matter whether she dies by accident or suicide. She was already long gone.”

    Kevin, for me Wharton’s irony dramatically increases if Lily’s death is accidental. Since she’s commenced her rebirth when she decides she can’t leave the Lily Bart that Selden knew WITH HIM. “She understood now she could not go forth and leave her old self with him.” This rebirth continues as the result of her sharing time with Nettie and her baby, and it strengthens as she, in her own bed, “cradles Nettie’s sleeping child on her shoulder.” Also, she tries to remember THE WORD and decides that “tomorrow would not be so difficult after all.” Thus, Lily is not “long gone.” She would have died if she had married Rosewood et al. She would have died if she hadn’t paid the $ to Gus Trenor. It truly is a “fleeting victory” for both Selden and Lily since they both discover THE WORD. If she has committed suicide, where is “the victory”?

    • Hi mom, it’s been a while now since I’ve read the book and wish I had more time to consult the text and engage your points.

      I think you see a good deal more in Lily’s “rebirth” than is actually there. Her realization that she can’t leave her old beautiful vital charming self with Selden says less about the start of a new beginning and more about the inescability of her past, the love she had trampled in him.

      Lastly, the great and gorgeous scene with Selden is tinged with the “presence of death,” with “foreboding” and “the blackness of shadows” and a figure – Lily’s – that “had shrunk to angularity.”

      Rebirth? No.

      As for whether Lily dies by suicide or accident, I’m an unrepentant agnostic. It’s impossible to tell from the story. There simply isn’t enough circumstantial evidence to point in either direction.

      Both seem plausible.

      Interestingly, a letter turned up in 2007 in which Wharton asks a doctor:

      “I have heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her…. What soporific, or nerve-calming drug, would a nervous and worried young lady in the smart set be likely to take to, & what would be its effects if deliberately taken with the intent to kill herself? I mean, how would she feel and look toward the end?”

      Full article here:,%20Edith?ref=edith_wharton

      That’s it from me. Talk on Sunday.


  4. barbara neilson says:

    On the other hand, Lily feels a lot like Carrie in Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie.” ….and both women feel so “heavy,” so weighted down with Naturalism and Determinism that I often felt neither Wharton nor Dreiser allowed their “puppets” to escape their fates. Certainly, Carrie doesn’t. I just prefer to read some hope into Wharton’s last chapter.

  5. barbara neilson says:

    I love Wharton’s light-dark symbolism throughout the book, with light emphasized in the last chapt. Upon arriving at lily’s boardinghouse, Selden observes the one darkened window in the building–Lily’s. Yet when he enters Lily’s room, “the irresistible sunlight poured a tempered golden flood into the room, and Selden saw a narrow bed (Lily’s death bed).” Next, he’s struck by “the extraordinary light in Gerty’s face.” Then “as Gerty spoke a light broke through Selden’s misery.”

    Also, I’ve had fun playing with Wharton’s characters’ names. Lily…purity, chastity, virtue pansies outside her window…merriment I haven’t taken the time to look up any of the names; those 2 I’m familiar with…but I bet Gertrude (Gerty) means steadfast. As for the following names, they “ring” of meaning: Lawrence=lawyer, Mrs Peniston= demands penance, Carrie=Cares abt others,

  6. […] I absolutely refuse to tell you my three favorite novels of the year. (The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Damn, I suck at […]

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