The House of Mirth – Book Review

“Ah, there’s the difference – a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” She surveyed him critically. “Your coat’s a little shabby – but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like; they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop – and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.” – from House of Mirth, page 10 –

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth follows the ill fated life of Lily Bart, a girl from a poor family who aspires to be a member of old New York high society. She moves in with her wealthy aunt and establishes herself among the elite – dining with them, gambling with them, and ultimately being undone by them. Lily is naive and beautiful and depends on others to provide for her financially. She overspends and finds herself continually in debt. Her answer to this problem is to work at snagging a rich husband. Her fear of living in poverty makes her resistant to love with the sincere, yet poor Mr. Selden and so Lily finds herself enmeshed in manipulations with men of means who expect a sexual return on their investments. When Lily’s rich society “friends” and family betray her, however, Lily finds herself penniless and lonely with little hope for the future of which she dreamed.

As with many of Wharton’s novels, The House of Mirth is a cynical and harsh look at New York society where one either fits in with the masses, or is shunned. The superficiality of the wealthy is revealed, along with their infidelities and secrets. The rich characters in House of Mirth are mostly lacking in morality…shallow people who are concerned with their own desires and are quick to do what it takes to protect themselves, even if it means betraying their friends.

Wharton’s view of women’s friendships in the novel is one of petty jealousies, gossip, and betrayal. Nearly every friend Lily has betrays her at some point – if not in action, then in thought. When lies about her surface, Lily is shunned by those who previously opened their arms to her. Only her financially poor cousin Gerty and Carry Fisher (who has also been the victim of vicious gossip) stand by her.

You asked me just now for the truth; well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. – from House of Mirth, page 238 –

The women in the novel are typically portrayed as weak and needing the help of men to survive. When faced with financial peril, Lily considers marriage to a man she finds repugnant rather than curbing her spending or adjusting her lifestyle. Elevating oneself in society appears to be the most important goal.

Her vulgar cares were at an end. She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free forever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. – from House of Mirth, page 50 –

Lily sadly faces only scandal, distrust, betrayal and ultimately total ruin in her search for a place among the elite.

Wharton focuses a sardonic eye on the wealthy of society…and demonstrates their weaknesses and immorality. Her writing is sharply observed and her characters are meticulously developed. Lily Bart is a silly, superficial girl…and yet, the reader grows to empathize with her plight and hopes for a good end for her. At its core, The House of Mirth is a tragedy. Instead of making a good life for herself, Lily Bart becomes the victim of fate and gossip – the result of seeking a life with little meaning.

The House of Mirth is one of Wharton’s most popular novels and is a good representation of her work. Readers who love classics and want to read a character-driven novel of drama, love and tragedy will find The House of Mirth a good choice.


To read other reviews of this book as part of The Classics Circuit tour for Edith Wharton, follow the links below:

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  1. I read this book ages ago, which probably why I don’t remember that much about it. After reading your review, I think I should probably revisit it at some point.

  2. I just finished this book a few weeks ago, and watched the (admittedly awful) movie Monday night. I had only a passing acquaintance with Wharton prior to this, mostly in college survey courses, but I have to say that I love her writing. It’s so descriptive and subtly critical that she really was a woman ahead of her time.

    Thanks for the review!

    • Wendy on January 27, 2010 at 10:52

    Serena: There are so many classics I read years ago which I now have little recall of…it makes me want to revisit many of them.

    Michelle: I haven’t seen the movie (sounds like I could safely skip it!). I read another of Wharton’s books which is probably my favorite: Ethan Frome (here is my review of that one)…you are so right about her being ahead of her time. Her history is really interesting.

    • Valerie on January 27, 2010 at 13:28

    I read this one years ago, and I still remember the basic storyline and its’ ending. If a book can do that to me after all those years, it’s a good one!

  3. I have been enjoying Wharton lately- read Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and House of Mirth toward the end of last year. Age of Innocence is my favorite so far, but I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her novels.

    • Teddy on January 27, 2010 at 22:38

    Great review Wendy. I prefer Age of Innocence to House of Mirth, but you have made some good points.

  4. I too found this quite sad. I think you liked it more than I did but I do enjoy Wharton’s “sardonic” look at the world.

    • kailana on January 29, 2010 at 19:32

    I can’t believe I have never read this or anything else by her before…

    • Wendy on January 31, 2010 at 10:08

    Valerie: I agree – I think that is truly what makes a book a “classic,” don’t you?

    Carrie: You’ve read the same ones as I have – I am also looking forward to reading more of Wharton’s work…

    Teddy: Funny – I actually enjoyed this one more than The Age of Innocence *laughs* I always wonder how much my mood at the time of reading a book influences my feelings for it!

    Rebecca: *nods* I’ve read some mixed reviews of the book –

    Kailana: I recommend Ethan Frome as a first look at Wharton’s work – it is more of a novella and so well written…

  5. I came out of this book with just a slightly different read on Lily Bart. I consider her one of the most complex heroines I have ever encountered. It seems like a lot of her difficulties came about because she couldn’t be stupid, shallow, or “immoral” enough. Whenever the social ladder opened in front of her, she just couldn’t pull the trigger, even after all her work to get to that point. I’ve heard it described as making all the right choices at all the wrong times.

    I can totally see your take as well, and I would consider the different interpretations to be a compliment to Wharton’s writing. I loved her style and am itching to read more.

    • Wendy on May 9, 2010 at 08:48

    Ms. Smartypants (love the name!): I love hearing different perspectives on books and characters, so thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Wharton is one of my favorite classic writers!

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