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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Context


The Second Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age

The House of Mirth takes place between 1870 and 1900. The period coincided with part of the Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914), when the industrialization that had begun during the Civil War caused the U.S. economy to boom. This was a time of unprecedented technological innovation, mass immigration, and new wealth. In the East, wealthy industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Mellon, who made their money in steel, oil, railroads, shipping, and banking, had extreme power. Sometimes called "the robber barons," they exploited the working classes to become wealthy despite the rise of unions. Wharton wrote about this period of economic extremes, which was given its name by Mark Twain in his book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Twain described the Gilded Age as an era of serious social problems hidden by a glitter of economic wealth. Wharton did not write about the lives of the majority of people, but about the wealthiest people in the nation, a people she was well equipped to criticize, being one of them herself.

Upper Society and "Conspicuous Consumption"

Wharton had grown up in wealthy society, so she knew it well: her relatives were the Joneses about whom the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" was coined to describe the practice of using one's neighbors as points of comparison and contrast for determining social status. Wharton was from "old money," that is, from wealth that had been handed down through the generations. One of the conflicts within Wharton's novel The House of Mirth is between people of old money and people like Simon Rosedale and the Wellington Brys, the "nouveau riche," or the newly rich, who do not have the same manners and social standing of those who have been born into wealth.

Wharton clearly found the American society she described in The House of Mirth—her own—petty and mean. Thorstein Veblen's sociological work The Theory of the Leisure Class had been published in 1899. A criticism of the conspicuous consumption in American society of that time, it may have influenced Wharton as she wrote The House of Mirth. Veblen used the term conspicuous consumption to refer to the practice of buying expensive items or luxuries not because they are needed, but as a way to display wealth and income to enhance one's social standing. Still Wharton wrote in 1905 that she did not want The House of Mirth to be seen merely as a sociological study of superficial people, and that she wanted to invest in the "tragic implications" of a society with "no inherited obligations" by concentrating on "what its frivolity destroys." She also wanted her book to be both a novel of distinction and one that sold well; her biographer writes that Wharton had the same ambivalence about "self-marketing" that her heroine Lily Bart did.

Naturalism, Realism, and Feminism

Though The House of Mirth satirizes a trivial society, describes a romance, and is in some ways a novel of manners—in that it centers around the social mores, conversations, and small details of the life of individuals in a particular social group—its conclusion is more typical of the "naturalist" or "realist" social writing of Zola, Hardy, and Dreiser, a type of writing that was in ascendance at that time. Realist works present everyday life truthfully and objectively. Naturalist writing does so in a way that acknowledges humanity's connection with an oftentimes inhuman, even cruel, natural world.

The House of Mirth can also be seen in retrospect as a feminist novel. Wharton described her main character, Lily, as a person of great intelligence who, because of the era and her social standing, was trained only in making herself marriageable, and who valued herself primarily for her beauty. In the novel society places restrictions on Lily that she tries to escape but finds she cannot.

Society Scandal

The House of Mirth was enormously successful, partly because of its scandalous subject matter. The novel had been serialized in Scribner's Magazine in 1905, and as wealthy New Yorkers read its chapters they recognized their elite world. In fact the character Judy Trenor and her home Bellomont are said to have been modeled on the ambitious socialite Mrs. Ruth Livingston Mills, whose husband, Ogden, owned a large estate, a mansion on the Hudson River, called Staatsburg, which Mrs. Mills wanted to make into a sort of Society White House. As a hostess, some said Mrs. Mills was the head of a "cult of rudeness." Wharton's parents belonged to the same clubs as the Millses.

Wharton was appalled by Scribner's advertisement for the book, which said, "For the first time the veil has been lifted from New York society." She insisted that Scribner's remove the ad. Nonetheless the publisher sent newspapers information about Wharton's high society life, which kept her and her book in people's minds and associated her life with her art. Some readers saw the book as juicy and scandalous because its main character, a woman from their own world, ran up gambling debts, wore rouge, smoked, and went to a bachelor's room without any chaperone. By 1936, in an introduction to a reprint of the novel, Wharton could be amused that her character Lily Bart—who never has sex, blackmails no one, and pays off her debts—should scandalize so many.

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