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