The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Mirth, noun: gladness or gaiety as shown by or accompanied with laughter

[amazon_link asins=’0140187294′ template=’RightAlignSingleImage’ store=’rebereid06-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’09ffaf72-17f4-11e7-81e6-99323011447d’]If you are looking for “mirth,” The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is not the book for you. The House of Mirth is about a woman searching for happiness where true happiness will not to be found: through money and a life of materialism. While I did not enjoy reading The House of Mirth as much as I enjoyed reading Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, I did like Lily Bart and I sympathized with the frustrations she felt as a single woman in the repressed early 1900s New York City.

In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s life as a turn-of-the-century New York socialite is nearly perfect. She is attractive and expert at living the life of luxury. She faces one problem: her mother and father’s death have left her virtually penniless and living on her aunt’s good graces, and as a near-30-year-old woman, she must soon marry, and marry well. Lily is determined to avoid “shabbiness” and knows she must play her cards carefully to win the perfect husband, even if that means spurning true love for marriage of luxury.

Unfortunately, Lily is figuratively horrible at playing cards and loses every hand. Throughout The House of Mirth, Lily struggles to find redemption from the shabbiness she so despises.

Lily’s declining circumstances and rapidly receding choices were incredibly depressing. And yet, as Lily made aggravating choice after aggravating choice, I recognized the repression she faced as a single woman in early 1900s New York City. Lily could have chosen better, and yet, her upbringing and circumstance to some extent shaped her into the woman she became. The choices she made were reflexive of her limited role as a woman, to some extent. While others may despise Lily for her greedy materialism, I could not help but feel bad for her declining situation, despite the fact that her foolish choices had obviously compounded her problems.

I will not reveal whether or not Lily discovers redemption in true happiness: you must read it to determine that. Suffice it to say that despite the depression I felt while reading The House of Mirth, I enjoyed the glimpse into a woman’s challenging life, and I am all the more grateful to live in an age of relative freedom. I am also more aware of the foolishness of tying my personal happiness to material wealth.

After reading The House of Mirth, I read a review that quoted Ecclesiastes 7:4:

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

I certainly believe that Edith Wharton considered this scripture as she created the character of Lily: Lily was a fool seeking for mirth rather than a wise woman who allowed herself to mourn and adjust her life as her circumstances changed.

If you’ve read The House of Mirth, I’d love to know what you think: was Lily making choices based on her limited freedom as a woman, or was she simply a fool?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. You’ve written an excellent review of this novel, which I read and studied rather extensively for my college senior thesis. The thesis was based on looking at women’s role in the history of American society as portrayed in American literaure. Since I was writing it in the late early 1980’s it was weighted on the side of feminism, and so I came down quite heavily on the societal limits to women’s freedom. I should go back and re-read this book again, with the perspecitve of 25 years, and see if my views have changed.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie. Gillian Anderson sold me on it, but it was far from mirthful, too. I haven’t picked up the book mainly for that reason. It sounds like I’ve made the right choice. Great review. Like Becca said, I think you captured the essence of the novel. I really enjoyed your discussion about that Bible verse.

  3. While I sometimes felt sorry for Lily, I felt she made dumb decisions constantly. She also had a terrible sense of timing. I reviewed this one just last year. Not a happy book but I loved Wharton’s writing.

  4. Hi Rebecca – I haven’t read this one yet but my classic lit book club is going to be reading this for our October selection. Honestly, I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. I can’t remember if we read Edith Wharton or just watched movies based on her books in high school, but I remember being very bored either way. The prose is supposed to be tough in this one, and it’s in a time period that I don’t often enjoy, so I’m leery but definitely willing to give it a try. i was really leery of Grapes of Wrath as well, and it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. So you never know, right? In the next couple months I should have my own review out for this one.
    -Amanda

  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Great book and great review.
    I think you might also be interested in my memoir, “Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal,” which just won the 2008 Indie Award for Excellence in Memoir.

    It is a quick read and also highly recommended for book clubs as there is a Reader’s Guide available on-line.

    Cheers,
    Diana
    http://www.dianaraab.com

  6. @Becca: I like Age of Innocence so much better for the societal constraints, though. This one was more a balance between society’s constraints and Lily’s own foolish choices. At any rate, that sounds like an interesting thesis. I’ll bet reading the novel so many years after such intense study would be interesting.
    @Literate Housewife: I don’t usually read other reviews of books I’m about to review, but I did and saw the Bible verse. I hadn’t realized Wharton had taken her title from it, but I’m sure now she had!
    @Chris: yes, Lily was so dumb most of the time. If you love Wharton’s writing, I’d say give Age of Innocence a try. I loved that one and thought it was more beautiful than depressing….
    @Amanda: I guess I can see how the prose would be difficult, but at the same time, it’s not that bad. I wouldn’t say this is the best Wharton novel, though. But I’d be really interested in a group discussion about it. I hope the reading goes well for you!
    @Diana: thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Great review! I love the satire of the title.
    I very much felt that Lily was a victim of her circumstances and that if she had been brought up in a different time or place, she would have been an intelligent, productive member of society. Her choices were so limited, that I think she couldn’t help but make stupid ones–she was trapped.

  8. @Chain Reader: I was torn between thinking Lily was stuck in her circumstance and thinking she should just stop being greedy and settle for shabbiness, as had Gerty Farrish. Did you think Gerty Farrish was similar to Lily, or was she a different social class? I guess I have a hard time understanding the repression of the time because “social class,” especially for single woman, isn’t the same anymore.

    I agree that it was just wonderful characterization! I loved that!

  9. I read this maybe four years ago, but I remember thinking she was a fool. Her materialism didn’t really bother me, but I read Vanity Fair around the same time, so compared to Becky Sharp Lily was an angel, lol.

  10. Oddly enough, I didn’t catch the “playing cards” symbolism until I went back and re-read your review just now! I blame my complete ignorance on the sinus infection, haha. 🙂 But seriously, that’s a really good parallel and theme that goes through there, I’ll definitely have to bring it up when we meet on the 11th.

  11. I have read The House of Mirth for an American Lit/History course I am doing. I agree with all the comments so far, I can only add that this book covers all aspects you can ever want in a book. Lily’s circumstances and her need to marry well. I don’t think she was materialistic really she needed to marry money to keep her standard of life. In those days society was all that mattered, for this class of people. All in all I think in life we have to look after ourselves. Lily did that.

  12. Averil Osborne, Well, but did she need to keep that standard of life? To me, she was expecting too much and living the high life when she was no longer in that social class. She should have adjusted, even if it was hard for her to do. I thought she was wasting her money foolishly.

    It seems you really liked this book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  13. I think that just viewing Lily as a foolish woman is a rather narrow interpretation. While the individual cannot be absolved of culpability for his/her actions, it is also true that Lily is a product of her environment and upbringing that have shaped her views on what to expect from life and how to acquire it. In that respect she is a prisoner to the mores of her class and the times. Could a woman of stronger will and character have defied these and avoided Lily’s follies? Absolutely. Lily does lack these qualities. However, she (at least subconsciously) is never fully subservient to the social mores she lives by (in fact, if she had, she might have ended up getting married to Percy Gryce or some other such suitor and been a *success* as per the superficial definitions of her circle); this is indeed the redeeming quality that (in my opinion) elevates her character to that of a true tragic heroine. As Carry Fisher puts it:

    “That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”
    Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. “Sometimes,” she added, “I think it’s just flightiness–and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”

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