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
House of Mirth is a masterpiece of characterization because Bart has two or three intersecting and conflicting desires and traits. Wharton keeps us hanging on with this frustrating, vain, and yet at times admirable woman who learns too late too late to not be controlled by the materialistic, vapid society into which she is born and expected to be nothing more than “ornamental.”
Lily is a remarkably beautiful New York socialite in the Gilded Age. However, at 29 she hasn’t managed, despite her beauty and charm, to snatch the rich husband she (thinks) she so desperately wants and even more, deserves. She’s had opportunities, but for some reasons she hasn’t figured out—or has and doesn’t want to admit to—she makes crucial mistakes in this game-playing of getting a rich husband. This game is the main occupation of the women in her society. And what society is this—Gilded Age New York, where there is old money and new money. Which kind of money does Lily want? Does she really want it?
Yes, she really does. One of Lily’s tragic flaws is love of comfort, beauty, new gowns, being admired by men, having a maid, sleeping late, bridge gambling, parties, weeks at country homes. As the novel opens, she has her sights set on an intensely boring, securely rich, and mother-controlled book collector named Percy Gryce. And she can have him, except that her on-again, off-again relationship—more of a friendship—with attorney Lawrence Selden keeps getting in the way..
Selden is not a lover, and never is in the book. He is a friend, and the book does allow for this man and woman to converse as equals. As equals, but not as successful communicators. They keep misunderstanding each other, making judgments of each other, dismissing each other’s attempts to find love with each other.
Lawrence Selden, however, is not wealthy. He gets by enough to hang on to the same society crowd—“set” is the word Wharton uses—as Lily. When we first meet him, he’s coming off a long affair with a married woman, the antagonistic Bertha Dorset. Bertha always has a man on the side but gets to keep her rich husband because she knows how to play the game.
Lily and Lawrence and Percy are all guests, with others, at the country home of Gus and Judy Trenor. Judy is Lily’s best friend. After conniving to meet Percy on the way back from the church service—conveniently allowing herself to skip worship—Lily decides, impulsively, to spend time with Lawrence when they run across each other (perhaps intentionally) on a path to the church. Good-bye to her chance with the rich but tiresome Percy, who within months finds another young wife.
This early scene of Lily’s unsuccessful attempt to trap Percy sets the chain for the rest of the book. Lily has no lack of admirers, but they range from married men to the Jewish investor and social climber, Simon Rosedale. Intertwined with her flirtations with these men is her need for more money to live at the standard to which she has become accustomed and which her “set” operates. She gambles at bridge and falls into debt. Gus Trenor offers to invest her money for her, but only gives her money, making her in more debt that she doesn’t even know about.
Of course, rumors surround her. She is too beautiful for the other women not to feel threatened. Slowly everyone starts to abandon her, or worse, to turn on her. Although she is invited to accompany friends to Europe for several months, it is ultimately to be a foil in one of Bertha Dorset’s affairs.
Bertha doesn’t know, however, that Lily possesses incriminating letters to Bertha from her lover. The only trouble: the lover is Selden, whom Lily cannot implicate and betray. The money she could use, unethically, to free herself from debt, she cannot bring herself to use the letters to obtain.
When the hoped-for inheritance from her aunt doesn’t come to her, but instead to a rival cousin, Lily’s life, now an out-cast from her “set,” moves toward its tragic end. She, being raised for ornamental purposes, can’t really work and support herself. She deals with the stress and anxiety of creeping poverty by taking an opiate to sleep, but its effects are lessening. She meets with Selden off and on but her independence and pride keep her from letting him help her or from taking his advice.
Some of the key questions I had as I read were:Does Lily have any agency? Does she get it, but too late? Why doesn’t she? Is all her agency, her ability and power to make intentional choices, used only for her own hurt? Is Edith Wharton’s heroine a symbol of women in her own day only or in all time, even today? Who is the real bad guy here? Trenor, Bertha Dorset, Selden, Rosedale, or the amorphous “society” she is ensconced in?
Does Lily really want to marry? I don’t think she does. She wants her independence more. She may feel so unappreciated by men as anything but beautiful that even the one she could have a true relationship with is off-limits to her.
These are just a few questions about this insightful look into a social class and a woman’s place in it. I have not read enough criticism to understand it all, but I think I would prefer to read the book itself again in about a year. The confrontational experience of literature—and House of Mirth is really a confrontation—is better than those who write through a lens to support an argument about their lens. Edith Wharton did not write to support someone’s bid for tenure. She wrote because she had a clear-eyed but brutal view of her environment and the women in it—and the men. The book may be as much about men as it is a woman.