The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Book 1, Chapter 1 of The House of Mirth, what does Lawrence Selden mean when he asks Lily Bart about marriage as a vocation?

"Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?" Lawrence Selden asks, amiably. In response Lily Bart sighs and says, "I suppose so. What else is there?" Selden, as an observer, sees that for single women of a certain social class, marriage is their "vocation"—their job. And he sees that it is because they were taught, culturally, socially, to be that way—they are all "brought " for it. Lily's sigh and her statement of "what else is there?" shows her disgust with her life, her inner critique of women's lot in her society. Her only useful skill is knowing how to handle and charm men.

How are Lily's physical and emotional qualities revealed in Book 1, Chapter 1 of The House of Mirth?

Lily's physical and emotional qualities are revealed in the chapter through Selden's thoughts about her, her actions and dialogue with Selden, and her own thoughts. Through Selden's thoughts, readers learn that Lily is beautiful. His eyes are "refreshed by the sight" of her; he had "never seen her more radiant;" she "was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveler." She is charming, and Selden, at least, sees her as a "highly specialized" section of womanhood. Through Lily's actions, readers see she is impulsive and spontaneous; she unthinkingly goes to Selden's rooms with him, not something a proper young woman should do. In her dialogue with him, she chafes at some of the restrictions society puts upon women, saying, "How delicious to have a place like this all to oneself! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman!" She also reflects openly on his lack of wealth. Finally her thoughts reveal Lily to be disdainful and a bit of a snob; she judges both the "poor" charwoman and Mr. Rosedale, a "plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type."

In The House of Mirth, why is it significant that Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart meet at a train station in Book 1, Chapter 1?

The period in which The House of Mirth takes place is a time of great change, dominated by industrial development, so it makes sense the novel's two main characters would meet at a train station. Not only were railroads a source of wealth to the affluent Gilded Age industrialists; a train station is a place of transience and movement, appropriate for these two unmarried characters. Later, when Lily and Selden speak intimately to each other, a train comes into view—a vision of metallic society approaching—and they break off their conversation. In an example of dramatic irony, in Book 2, Chapter 1, Selden tries to board a train in order to avoid Lily, whom he once greatly admired. However she's on the same train, going in the same direction he is going, and the meeting is unavoidable. The train is also symbolic of Lily's voyage through the novel. She is 29 and has been on the New York social scene for 10 years. In Chapter 1 she is in the midst of a train journey. Later trips and meetings with Selden will represent different stages of her life voyage.

Why is "Lily Bart" an appropriate name for the main character in The House of Mirth?

Some literary critics have commented that a lily is a pure, white flower, prized for its beauty and elegance—much like Lily Bart. The name may also be a reference to the biblical phrase, from chapter 6 of the book of Matthew, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin." Similarly, in the beginning of The House of Mirth, Lily does not work (toil or spin); she grows without work. The name "Bart" some have suggested could be a shortening of the word "barter," which is something Lily certainly has to do throughout the book—the ethic of the community in which she lives is all about giving in order to get something back, bartering a beautiful body for money, or a reputation for one moment of impulsivity.

What is the significance of mercenary language, or language about money, in Book 1 of The House of Mirth?

Economics plays a large role in the novel's plot and characterizations; Wharton uses mercenary language to show its importance. In Book 1, Chapter 1, Lawrence Selden thinks Lily "must have cost a great deal to make ... [W]as it not possible that the material was fine but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?" In Book 1, Chapter 2, Lily sees that she must "pay so dearly for her least escape from routine"; she also tells herself if she had let Simon Rosedale drive her to the station, "the concession might have purchased his silence." She further thinks that being seen with her would have been, for Rosedale, "money in his pocket." In all these examples social standing is equated with monetary value. In Book 1, Chapter 3, her mother sees Lily's beauty as "the last asset in their fortunes." Here, a woman's beauty directly equates to monetary value because it might allow Lily to marry well. In Book 1, Chapter 6, Selden says, "And so with your rich people—they may not be thinking of money, but they're breathing it in all the while," a statement that emphasizes the shallow values of the people in Lily's set.

What is the significance of the repeated references to "dinginess" in The House of Mirth?

The word dingy describes something that is dirty or shabby. Initially Lily is the opposite of dingy, and "dinginess" is the state she most wants to avoid. The word first appears in Book 1, Chapter 1, as Selden compares radiant Lily to "the dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood." In Book 1, Chapter 3, Mrs. Bart's dying words to her daughter are to "escape from dinginess." Lily hates dinginess "as much as her mother had," and means to fight against it "to her last breath." However, Lily's circumstances become increasingly desperate as a result of her poor choices and the limitations of her social world. In Book 2, Chapter 10, she realizes the danger of being overtaken by the "mounting tide of dinginess" her mother had warned her against. And just before she finally overdoses on chloral in Book 2, Chapter 13, she realizes that her inner destitution, the promise of a rootless, "shabby, anxious middle-age," is far worse than the "dingy communal existence" of the boardinghouse. It is as if the "mounting tide" has overtaken her, not from dingy surroundings, but from within.

In what way does the story of Lily Bart's father in Book 1, Chapter 3 prepare the reader for the lives of the men in The House of Mirth?

Wharton says that, for Lily, "the hazy outline of a neutral-tinted father filled an intermediate space between the butler and the man who came to wind the clocks." For many of the women in the novel, their husbands are about this important. Mr. Hudson Bart, Lily's father, always seemed old and tired to her, and she didn't see him in the daylight because he was so busy working. When she did see him, he seemed "effaced and silent." And about his death, Wharton writes, "To his wife he no longer counted: he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfill his purpose, and she sat at his side with the provisional air of a traveler who waits for a belated train to start." Many of the men in this novel—Gus Trenor and George Dorset are prime examples—are valued by their wives primarily, if not exclusively, for the amount of money they can generate. They seem to value themselves this way, too.

In The House of Mirth, what are some values Lily Bart learned from her mother and how have they affected her life?

Book 1, Chapter 3 explains that Lily Bart's mother taught her there are people who live like pigs "and their appearance and surroundings justified her mother's repugnance." Lily's mother overspends, but Lily "had been brought up in the faith that, whatever it cost, one must have a good cook, and be what Mrs. Bart called 'decently dressed.'" Mrs. Bart would ask Lily's father if he expected her to "live like a pig" and when Lily's father said "no," Mrs. Bart would buy new dresses from Paris. So Lily learned to value the things wealth can buy and did not learn much about how to save or keep orderly finances. Perhaps she learned that men's role is mostly to earn money. She certainly learned to look down upon people who could not afford to live as she did. She learned to abhor "dinginess."

In The House of Mirth, how is Lily Bart's beauty "commodified" by her mother in Book 1, Chapter 3?

To "commodify" means to make something into a product to be bought or sold. Mrs. Hudson Bart "commodifies" Lily Bart's beauty by seeing it as an object of hers to use to buy a better life. The narrator says of Mrs. Bart, "Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily's beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon ... It was the last asset in their fortunes ... She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian." Lily, as a result, sees her own beauty exactly has her mother did; she understands that "beauty is only the raw material of conquest."

What is "conspicuous consumption," and how is it evident in The House of Mirth?

Conspicuous consumption is a term introduced by the economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class published in 1899, shortly before Wharton's The House of Mirth was published. The term refers to consumers who buy expensive items to display their wealth and income rather than to cover their real needs. A "conspicuous consumer" buys objects to display wealth or social status. There are many examples of conspicuous consumption in The House of Mirth. One occurs when Lily Bart asks if her family can have lilies-of-the-valley for $12 every day so she doesn't have to look at faded flowers. Another is when Lily and Gerty Farish are looking at the gifts Gwen Van Osburgh has received at her wedding: "Oh, Lily, do look at this diamond pendant—it's as big as a dinner-plate!" But these are only two of many examples of conspicuous consumption in the novel—the descriptions of Bellomont, of the women's dresses, of the yacht, of the jewels, of Judy Trenor's life. Conspicuous consumption, buying as a kind of one-upping, seems to be what many of the characters in Lily's set live for.

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