Jason's Reviews > The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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Feb 16, 10

it was amazing
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Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton's stunning first novel, is introduced to the reader as a young woman traveling within high society. While her blood and wealth may place her on the fringe of that society, her "pale" beauty (as it is continuously characterized throughout the novel) elevates her within its ranks. Lily is marriage material. And within Manhattan's high society at the turn of the century, women are meant to marry; and in order to marry women are meant to maintain a reputation of "pale" innocence (indeed, they must).

Lily hesitates to question these two fundamental rules that bind her, save on rare occasion in conversation with Lawrence Selden, the man it seems she would marry if the choice were hers, and who stands far enough outside Lily's circle to critique that circle from an apparent distance. Selden, however, presents Lily with several problems. First, Selden himself is hardly able to separate himself from the rules of Manhattan society, even if he so desired to or so imagined the independence of his perspective. Second, Selden serves as preacher, counselor, and sounding post to Lily with respect to the pitfalls of high society, but while Selden's efforts to take high society off its pedestal strike a chord with Lily, and indeed echo many of her own thoughts, Selden never presents Lily with a viable alternative to the only circle (and the only set of rules) she knows.

The final problem that first emerges from the relationship between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden is the crux of the novel and the launching point for several shrewd insights Wharton compellingly places within the American cultural dialog, as extant within the novel. Lily couldn't marry Selden if the choice were hers. (And, perhaps ironically, she likely would not, in any case, as Selden lacks the most essential thing men in high society bring to a marriage -- money.)

Like any fully painted character in a great work of fiction, Lily Bart is a woman of substantial intellectual and emotional force. Indeed, given the degree the reader is aware of the goings on inside Lily Bart's head, it can be surprising to step back and remember the novel's narrated in the third person.

Lily, viewed in isolation, is more than situated to grab control of her life if that control were hers to grab. But because she does not live in isolation, control is not hers. Her will is usurped at almost every turn by the societal forces around her; which among other things make her will all but moot. While an argument could be made that Lily has a knack for making choices that reflect upon her poorly, she is defined nonetheless, and far more, by the perceptions of those around her than by any sense of self she seeks to, or by happenstance does, affirmatively present to the world. And in light of the rules that constrain her, her reputation -- never in her hands -- spirals downward as the novel progresses, most often, again, via external rather than internal forces. Absent her reputation intact, that Lily is meant to marry becomes meaningless. Her purpose and place within Manhattan's high society slip from her hands as, trying at least to retain her dignity, she chooses not to act on her own behalf when the opportunities are before her and otherwise, and perhaps always, lacks the choice to act on her own behalf as a byproduct of her social milieu.

The House of Mirth is remarkably tragic. At times, it feels as though too much is going wrong for Lily Bart a little too often. But the totality of the narrative, and Wharton's prose, combat what may be the novel's single shortcoming. Wharton's novel surfaces from many contexts. Two are telling, or at least were to me upon reading The House of Mirth. First, Lily Bart retains her outer beauty throughout the greater part of the novel, despite her internal struggle to maintain a grip in the face of near free fall. Her inner world, as she feels it, and as others perceive it, becomes dark as her "pale" beauty persists. Sadly, her inner life is all but wholly divorced from her outer reality. Thus, in Lily Bart's unfortunate transformation within the novel the saliency of maintaining superficial appearances is brought to the thematic forefront. A theme present in both The House of Mirth and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray -- cast differently, but not without similarities. Second, The House of Mirth shines a bright light of reality upon Transcendentalism. At minimum, Wharton illustrates that self-determination and self-reliance are one thing when you're living in a cabin in the woods, growing beans, and contemplating existence during solitary sojourns around Walden Pond, but quite another in the company of others -- particularly a circle of others fixated upon a set of mores or, more strictly, rules. Reaching further, perhaps, Wharton exposes a stark line between the wherewithal of men and women in American society to "go Thoreau". In other words, The House of Mirth may temper Transcendentalism by portraying the profound influence of the company one keeps on reaching into oneself and, beneath that, the harsh reality of being a woman within that company.

The House of Mirth is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Thank you for this thoughtful and layered review of the House of Mirth. I usually get tired of hearing authors or people blaming "society," constantly for all their ills, but it seems appropriate for this particular novel and Wharton does it so well I don't find it as irritating.

I think I'll re-read this soon.


message 2: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy Brand I saw things somewhat differently. I didn't find Lily's descent to be so much a free-fall. She seemed to have opportunities at every juncture to make different choices. To me, the tragedy seemed to be more about her own inability to commit to one world or another, one self or the other. Did she want to embrace New York society wholly, or did she want to carve out some independent path for herself? I felt like if she had been able to really make up her mind and commit either way, she would have been able to make things work. Yet, every time she seemed to make up her mind one way, she would waver, making a mis-step that revealed her inner ambivalence - almost like she was sabotaging herself.

But at the same time she isn't wishy washy or whiny. It's actually sort of remarkable that she's not. Wharton captures her complexity so wholly, that she is fully believable and sympathetic as a strong, likable, but flawed person. Pretty amazing.

I also that it was interesting that high society was mostly judged as morally skewed, while an independent path was the righteous one. But from my point of view neither path seemed inherently evil. I almost didn't care which path Lily chose. I just wanted her to make a CHOICE and stick with it, so she could come out on top in one way or another. She would have made a wonderful society wife. She would have made a wonderful... well whatever else she chose to be. But instead she just ended up dead. That's sad.


Suzanne I particularly like your comparison with Wilde and agree with it. Excellent review!


message 4: by s (new)

s excellent, jason, i agree!


Marisa Wow, this blows me away. I read this book maybe 7-8 years ago and recall being entirely immersed with both Lily Bart and Lawrence Seldon but couldn't remember the details...thank you for that. You nailed it when you said Lily measures her self worth by those around her rather than by herself as a person. A tragedy yes, but very much a part of reality as well....you teach people how to treat you.


message 6: by Gabriel (last edited Oct 31, 2010 12:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gabriel Oak Thank you for this most interesting essay. The House of Mirth is one of my favorite books. I just listened to a discussion on NPR comparing Edith Wharton and Candace Bushnell of "Sex and the City." It seems that the 20th century mores that Ms. Bushnell writes about and 19th century mores of Ms. Wharton are not dissimilar.


Jenifer I find myself halfway through and in need of some "bouying up". I needed a little perspective on what was going on to help me gain the momentum I need to finish. Thanks for your review!


message 8: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Hi, sorry to be critical, but I find the use of the first name for a female character and the surname for a male character, by the reviewer, somewhat (unintentionally, I'm sure) sexist. As I say, sorry to be critical, but I always find this annoying, and I think inappropriate. Thanks for hearing my point of view.


Jason Sorry Amy. I very, very rarely check the comments to my reviews, obviously. I agree with your take in large part -- that Lily Bart was in many ways the victim of a series of poor decisions. Where we perhaps differ is that I think these decisions were "presented" to Lily in a tainted fashion -- that a woman of her time in her station was not in a position to make truly free choices. New York society conventions all but made certain decisions for her, and to strike out on an independent path wasn't a clean, unladen option; it came with costs. Accordingly, I find it hard to "blame" her for the circumstances in which she ultimately found herself. She fell victim to a mix of factors; herself included.


Jason Sheila, this is a beyond-fair point, and thanks for making it. The reason I referred, in my review, to Lily Bart as "Lily" and Lawrence Selden as "Selden," is because this is the manner in which Wharton refers to them throughout the novel.


Jason Jennifer, I hope you managed to finish the novel. I think it's one of the greatest novels in the history of American literature. But with some novels I struggle to reach such a conclusion (if I do) despite, say, conventional wisdom. For instance, I could long never finish The Sun Also Rises and yet now think it's a masterpiece. I generally dislike Faulkner. And I find Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is . . . well . . . crap. :)


Susan Mountrey Just reread this novel and find your review remarkable. I love to read Wharton and I found retreading this after many years that this is one of my most favorite books of all time!


message 13: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Sheila, thank you for that comment - I did the same thing in my review of this book, horrors! I think, like Jason, I did it because that's how I'd come to know them in reading the book, which adds to the tragedy of Lily! uh, Bart!


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