The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is the significance of Lily Bart's changing attitude toward Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth?

Early in the novel, Simon Rosedale is described in simply stereotypical terms: He is a "plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes." Lily Bart finds him troubling at best: she feels "intuitive repugnance" toward him and senses that he is "not a factor to be feared—unless one put oneself in his power," as Lily has done by lying to him and refusing his help. The first time he asks for her hand in marriage, in Book 1, Chapter 15, Lily easily refuses him; then she lowers herself enough to suggest they do marry (she desperately needs the money), but toward the end of the novel they develop respect for each other. They are both outsiders to the society, after all. In Book 2, Chapter 10, Rosedale buys her tea when she is sickly and offers to help her. She speaks to him directly, and thanks him for his kindness, thinking that as she speaks to him, she is making "the first sincere words she had ever spoken to him."

What does it mean that Lily Bart imagines a baby sleeping with her when she dies in Book 2, Chapter 13 of The House of Mirth?

In Nettie Struther's kitchen, Lily realizes she has never had "such a vision of the solidity of life" before this time. Her parents moved from place to place and her mating rituals had not been about connection, but about wealth; her parents' marriage was not an example of love. In Nettie's kitchen, she has held a baby in her arms for the first time in the novel; it might be for the first time in her life. This holding and watching has awakened something in her, and helped her see that there is another kind of life possible in the world, and other joys for women. However, this glimpse of happiness also leads Lily to understand she will never experience it herself. When she imagines herself holding Nettie's baby in her arms as she dies, she is picturing an unconditional love that she knows she can never have.

How can The House of Mirth be characterized as a social satire, a novel of manners, and a romance?

The novel can be seen as all three. Certainly Edith Wharton satirizes the very wealthy, with lines such as "Mr. And Mrs. Wetherall's circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list" and the description of Aunt Julia Penniston, who "belonged to the class of old New Yorkers who have always lived well, dressed expensively, and done little else." She satirizes this upper society's frivolity, uselessness, snobbery, obliviousness, self-centeredness, and unkindness throughout the novel. The book is also a novel of manners: a work of fiction that recreates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society, that of New York City in the Gilded Age. The novel can also be seen as a romance in its focus on the relationship between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden. References to fairy tales, such as "society ... playing Cinderella," underline the romance between Lily and the man she should have married when she had the chance.

How does The House of Mirth compare to The Great Gatsby in its treatment of upwardly mobile people in high society?

Both novels paint pictures of groups of wealthy and immoral people living without a sense of consequence or conscience. Both Gatsby and Lily Bart are outsiders who work very hard to be part of a wealthy set, and both of them see entry into that society represented by a member of the opposite sex. Fitzgerald's novel is a critique of social climbing and of the lack of morality of the wealthy in the Jazz Age's 1920s; Wharton's novel is a critique of social climbing and the lack of morality of the wealthy in the Gilded Age's 1870s. Both involve romances as well as portraits of the insiders and outsiders of a society; both describe a world in which mores are changing.

How are Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Kate Chopin's The Awakening similar and different?

While The Awakening is about female sexuality, The House of Mirth is about money. While the main character of The Awakening is married, the main character of The House of Mirth would like to be married. But both are women seeking identity in societies that prevent women from finding their deepest selves; both are women who, finally, cannot find communion with anyone outside of themselves. For both women suicide is a kind of freedom, perhaps the only freedom women can find in the societies described in these two novels. Both are feminists in that they are presenting women trapped in misogynist societies.

How does The House of Mirth demonstrate the effect of class differences on women?

In some ways the poorer women in The House of Mirth are freer than the wealthy women. The wealthy women, consistent with Thorsten Veblen's ideas about the relations between the sexes in the "leisure class," are merely decorative, and have power, but, like most dependent people, only through manipulation. A person in Lily's position, without a husband, is particularly vulnerable and must perform for men in order to be invited to parties and gain approval, and perhaps a husband. Gerty Farish, one of the few women in the novel who does useful work, has her own flat and work that she values. She has "dinginess" but she has freedom. Edith Wharton's pictures of the working women talking together in the hat shop, and of the women on breaks for lunch, provide an image of a kind of camaraderie that she does not show the reader among the wealthy women. Still both poorer and wealthier women are dependent on men: Nettie Struther was very fortunate that the man she married forgave her for her indiscretions, and Lily, as a wealthy woman, needed that kindness from men as well.

What do cigarettes or the lighting of cigarettes signify in The House of Mirth?

In Wharton's time, cigarette smoking was conspicuously modern, and for a woman to smoke was taking a kind of freedom usually allowed only for men. Wharton links cigarette smoking to a commodity culture—a cigarette is bought and consumed or thrown away; it is a frivolous, addictive pleasure, like gambling or drinking. The character Ned Van Alstyne notes that "It would be a curious thing to study the effect of cigarettes on the relation of the sexes. Smoke is almost as great a solvent as divorce: both tend to obscure the moral issue." Lily Bart, as a woman, needs to smoke mostly in private, as she does with Lawrence Selden; their smoking cigarettes together becomes an intimate kind of gesture.

What is the significance of Lily Bart's meeting with Nettie Struther in Book 2, Chapter 13 of The House of Mirth?

The narrator observes that the "poor little working girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and built a shelter of them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence." Lily Bart sees in Nettie Struther's life evidence that connection may be more important than money. Nettie's life had a "frail audacious permanence," and the man in her life had "faith"; Nettie herself had "courage." Lily sees that Selden did not have that "faith" in her, or the understanding of her that Nettie's husband had ("he knew about me"). Lily's "first glimpse of the continuity of life" came to her in Nettie's warm kitchen. Compared to Lily, Nettie has a good life, with a husband who accepts her, a new baby, and work that gives her some dignity.

How does Lawrence Selden influence Lily Bart's thoughts and behavior in The House of Mirth?

Lily Bart loses her marriage prospect, Percy Gryce, because of an ill-timed flirtation with Lawrence Selden. Selden helps her when she is in need, such as when she is forced off the Dorsets' yacht, or by introducing her to his cousin Gerty Farish. However, Lily Bart leaves gainful employment with Mrs. Hatch because Lawrence Selden tells her to. In addition she doesn't use the letters against Bertha because she thinks Selden would not approve. She tries to live up to the impossibly high standards he has given her. She tells him she has tried to live up to his ideals. "I wanted to tell you that I have never forgotten the things you said to me and that sometimes they have helped me, and kept me from mistakes," Lily says. Lily envies Selden and glimpses his "republic of the spirit." But he himself does not make any spectacular, or even half-hearted effort to live up to them, and some critics have argued that the only way she can really satisfy his highmindedness is to die.

What are the models of working women depicted in The House of Mirth?

There are a few women who do work in The House of Mirth, depending upon how "work" is defined. One could say Judy Trenor "works," meaning she manages her homes and is a hostess of huge parties for people of her class. Carry Fisher works in a way we might find closer to what we now think of as work—she helps new people learn the ways of society, educating them about the correct clothes to wear, the right food to order, what to buy, how to have parties, and whom to associate themselves with. She is paid for this work by living with the wealthy people she is educating. What Gerty Farish does is even closer to what we consider work—she runs a charity at the Girls' Society, raising funds and helping the young working women who have come to harm. Grace Stepney seems to make her way by helping Aunt Julia Peniston. There are also the young women who work in Madame Regina's millinery shop, and finally Nettie Struther, the typist, who is kind to Lily.

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