On the Lack of Mirth in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

Sometimes referred to as a “novel of manners” Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth was serialized in 1905 in Scribner’s. It quickly became a bestseller; it was the novel that made Edith Wharton famous, though The Age of Innocence is her magnum opus (click here to read my reflections on The Age of Innocence as part of my Pulitzer Prize review project). The House of Mirth is another wonderful and wholly complete novel by Edith Wharton. The more I read of Edith Wharton the more I am convinced she is an under appreciated talent in the American pantheon of great writers. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize no less than three times (in 1927, 1928, and 1930).

Ironically, in The House of Mirth there is very little mirth at all. The title comes from the Hebrew Bible: “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). Lily Bart is a tragic character confined by circumstances, stifled by Gilded Age society, entrapped by gossip and misunderstanding. At the age of twenty-nine Lily is unmarried and thus approaching the age of scandalous loneliness. She is a pretty woman but she grows increasingly impoverished and indebted -the ultimate sin of “dinginess” according to her late mother. Lily spends much of her time at the Bellomont, a luxurious and opulent Gilded Age estate outside New York City. Lamentably, she gambles away much of her lingering wealth on idle bridge games with other New York aristocrats. Her money comes in regular payments from her aunt, Mrs. Peniston.

Lily is a woman caught between social conventions. In Part I we are introduced to her highest aspirations as she desperately tries to climb the social ladder, and in Part II we witness her extraordinary decline and demise. Her goal throughout the novel is to secure both marriage and wealth, however the two do not often meet and in the end she achieves neither. Her true love, Lawrence Selden, is unfortunately not wealthy enough for her ideal marriage. Thus Lily pursues wealth on her own through another man of Bellomont, Gus Trenor, who offers to invest Lily’s money in the stock market. When it yields magnificent returns, Lily correspondingly spends lavishly however she is not a moderate soul and as a consequence she is taken advantage of by many. Despite feeling independent, Lily actually becomes indebted and dependent. When the house of mirth is revealed to be nothing more than a house of cards, Gus Trenor says he has not been investing Lily’s money in the stock market but rather he has been simply giving Lily his own money in the hopes of a future romantic liaison. When Lily denies Gus and tries to flee to Europe she is forced into a hapless situation that forces unfounded rumors upon her character. In the end she loses her true love, her wealthy suitors, and her aunt writes Lily out of inheritance. Lily is disgraced and rejected by her former circle of elites such that she joins the working class and subsequently dies of a sleeping pill overdose (whether or not it was a deliberate suicide is left somewhat ambiguous). The next morning Lawrence strolls to her apartment to propose marriage but he is sadly too late. He lays in bed next to her lifeless body for a moment as the novel ends.

Lily’s tragedy is her own pretense -she pretends to be something that is inauthentic and in doing so she is held captive by those around her, especially her nemesis Bertha Dorset, or her one-time marriage prospect Percy Gryce, or the exploitative Gus Trenor who hopes to exchange money for romantic favors from Lily. Her quest for elevated social status ends in her own cultural demise. Part of the problem is that when asked by Lawrence Selden what success is Lily cannot say. However, the force of the novel comes from the upper-crust frivolity of New York’s high society, whose zeitgeist is buttressed by an uncanny ability to destroy its own. The power of the neo-Victorian Gilded Age was in its capacity to destroy people like Lily Bart.

In 2000 a film version was made of The House of Mirth starring Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart. I hope to watch it in the near future.

Below are some notable quotations I found while reading The House of Mirth:

“Why must a girl pay so dearly for her escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse! This one at any rate was going to cost her rather more than she could afford” (14).

“The afternoon was perfect. A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it” (51).

“She could not herself have explained the sense of buoyancy which seemed to lift and swing her above the sun-suffused world at her feet. Was it love, she wondered, or a mere fortuitous combination of happy thoughts and sensations” (52).

“All her life Lily had seen money go out as quickly as it came in, and whatever theories she cultivated as to the prudence of setting aside a part of her gains, she had unhappily no saving vision of the risks of the opposite course” (88).

“Lily, who considered herself above narrow prejudices, had not imagined that the fact of letting Gus Trenor make a little money for her would ever disturb her self-complacency. And the fact that in itself still harmless enough; only it was a fertile source of harmful complications” (101).

“He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear” (258 -closing lines).

Below is a section from a review of The House of Mirth in The New York Times in 1905:

“We Americans are a great people, beyond doubt, but among our many qualities we do not number that of a dignified acceptance of merited censure. So much of the criticism which has been leveled at us from distant shores has been unjust and absurd, that we have acquired the habit of indignantly rejecting all criticism and making a fresh catalogue of our virtues each times we are assailed. But now from our own ranks has risen an artist who, with consummate skill and power, has drawn a life picture which we can well afford to thoughtfully consider. We have had good reason of late to realize that the green bay tree of our unparalleled prosperity bears some curious fruit on its topmost branches. Mrs. Wharton exhibits to us some other phases of the same lack of moral fibre in high places.

Let not the prophet be without honor in her own land, and if our flamboyant patriotism must find expression, we may well count among our causes for self-congratulation the fact that this gifted writer is our countrywoman.”

The New York Times, December 30, 1905

Wharton, Edith. Three Novels of New York: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence. Penguin Classics; Deluxe, Anniversary edition, February 29, 2012.

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