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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How can The House of Mirth be considered a feminist novel?

In the world of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, women are commodities, valued for their beauty ("beauty is only the raw material of conquest") and for the way they can spend the money their husbands earn, to show how wealthy their husbands are. One of the reasons the women in the novel are so manipulative is that they are all dependent upon men for everything. There is no language in their world for serious conversation, or even honest conversation, from a woman—Lily Bart and the other upper-class women resort to artifice in order to get what they want and frivolous games to fill their time. The novel shows how Lily was created, trained only "to adorn and delight." The purpose of women in her society is "purely decorative." Lily openly yearns for the kind of freedom the men she knows have ("How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman!" Lily says to Lawrence Selden.) In the time and society in which Lily lives, women can gain respect and a measure of freedom or influence only through marriage. In this society it is impossible for women to be free. Wharton, a woman from the upper classes who wanted to have a life of use, as a writer, is clearly showing the complications and strictures such a society presents for an intelligent woman.

How does Lily Bart change and grow throughout the course of The House of Mirth?

The reader sees Lily Bart grow and change over the course of two years. At first she is intent on marrying well, rising up into the society of extreme wealth that she finds herself in. Still she cannot make herself marry a wealthy bore, or become the mistress of a married man, or marry someone who is wealthy but outside her society. As she "fails," going down on the social ladder—from Aunt Julia Peniston's house to Gerty Farish's house to a boardinghouse; from not needing to work except at finding a husband to doing the kind of work Carry Fisher does to working in a hat shop to being unemployed—she grows internally. She understands herself and how to behave in what she sees as a moral way and overcomes her "Furies." Her beautiful outside is finally matched by beautiful insides, a beautiful spirit inside a beautiful body. The act of burning Bertha Dorset's letters to Lawrence Selden is a highly moral act—the choice not to be helped by hurting others, even though she needs that help, and even though both Bertha and Selden have hurt her.

In The House of Mirth, how and why does Lily Bart turn away marriage to several wealthy men?

Lily Bart oversleeps at Bellomont when she could have gone to church and snared Percy Gryce for a husband; she refuses Simon Rosedale's request for her hand in marriage; and later she refuses George Dorset. The novel mentions other times Lily does this same kind of turning away—flirting with the stepson of the Italian prince just as he was about to marry her, for example. "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," Carry Fisher says. "Sometimes, I think it's just flightiness—and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for." One reason for her behavior could be her lack of a sufficient guardian. Without a mother, or perhaps even with the mother she did have, Lily simply has no guidance in the matter of matrimony, a very serious affair for women in the early 20th century. Another could be her own ineffable nature. She loves beauty and culture, but insists on their uselessness. The idea of beauty as a commodity repulses her, so the necessity of using her own beauty to snare a husband or of using her husband to gain beautiful things are repugnant. In the end this may be what Carry Fisher is rather clumsily trying to express.

When does Lily Bart consciously adopt a pose, to please an audience, in The House of Mirth?

Clearly during the tableaux vivants scene in Book 1, Chapter 12, Lily Bart adopts poses to please her audience, but she does this in encounters with men as well. When she pours tea for Percy Gryce in Book 1, Chapter 2, she poses as a maternal figure; she poses a little self-consciously before Selden about her eagerness to get to church at Bellomont in Book 1, Chapter 5. Until the end of the novel, Lily is aware of and working toward an audience, usually an audience of men, sometimes an audience of that "spectator" Selden. It is not until she makes her last movements—burning Bertha Dorset's letters, laying out her clothes, dreaming of the baby—that the only audience she is performing for is herself.

In The House of Mirth, why does Lily Bart not use Bertha Dorset's letters to regain her social standing?

Lily Bart has personal values her society does not possess. She wants to prove to herself she is more than the socially determined person she worries she is, and she wants to show her moral value if to no one else than to herself. In Book 2, Chapter 12, by burning the letters, and not using them as blackmail, not even allowing Lawrence Selden to see what she is doing, Lily shows that, as Simon Rosedale says, she truly is better than all of her peers. Her action is not self-serving or self-defeating; it is the expression of her true moral depths.

How do the tone and content of Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden's conversations change as Lily falls down the social ladder?

Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden have flirtatious, highly charged conversations in which they sometimes say things in coded, hidden ways. As they continue on, they are more and more open about their feelings for each other, culminating after Lily has shown herself in the tableaux vivants, when Selden kisses Lily, and Lily asks him to love her but not to tell her so. They are able to be silent comfortably with each other. Still Selden does not understand Lily, and after he mistakenly assumes she is having an affair, he does not visit her as he told her he would, and leaves the country. He remains in love with her, however, as he discovers when he sees her again in Monte Carlo. He tries to protect her, again, but is unable to. Their conversation at the Emporium Hotel is full of miscommunication and defensiveness; their earlier rapport has been severely strained. In their last conversation, Lily is impassioned, perhaps despairing, and honest. Selden is simply baffled. The next day he discovers something he needs to tell her, some "word." Lily has thought of a "word" she needs to tell Selden, too. Perhaps that word is "love," or perhaps it is "beyond!" Their conversation, however, is over, and readers never learn what the word might have been.

How does the title The House of Mirth relate to the characters in the novel?

The title of the novel comes from a phrase from the Bible's book of 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." Readers could legitimately see this quotation as saying that the people who are "mirthful" (a formal word for jolly or full of laughter) in this novel are fools. Certainly the frivolous people of New York's high society—the Trenors, the Dorsets, and their many hangers-on—are not presented as people one would want to emulate. Lily Bart's heart, perhaps, at least at the end of the novel, is in the "house of mourning," and she does seem to have become wise. Another way of looking at the relationship of this quote to the rest of the novel is to say it encourages the reader to ask a question—Does Lily's quavering belief in the standards of the superficial society she inhabits show that she has the "heart of a fool," or can we say that she is trapped by her upbringing and the values and strictures of her times?

How is the ending of The House of Mirth both surprising and not surprising?

In her autobiography A Backward Glance, Wharton wrote, "A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideas." It seems this is what Wharton is doing when she has Lily Bart die in Book 2, Chapter 13. Readers can argue whether Lily's death was accidental or deliberate. To read the death as a suicide suggests that Lily can find freedom only through action, even if it results in her own death. Either way Lily is kept from moral corrosion by her death. In this way the ending is not surprising. At the same time, Lily's death is surprising partly because so much of the novel reads like a romance, even a fairy tale. Lily is like a princess, Lawrence Selden a Prince Charming, and the obstacles that separate them—many of them psychological—have been overcome by the book's end. A "proper" romance would end with a marriage. But readers who see the novel as a romance have missed its nuances. Lily's independence of spirit, even when it vacillates, make her decidedly un-princess-like. And however tempting Selden's "republic of spirit" may be, his behavior is decidedly unchivalrous. Wharton's portrayal of both is naturalistic, depicting them as human beings caught between society and nature, destined to lose.

How does Lawrence Selden change in The House of Mirth?

Lawrence Selden is a spectator, and he sees himself perhaps proudly as a spectator, not a part of the "gilded cage" that the rest of his society lives in. He has "the Stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's pleasure in them." For instance he takes pleasure in owning good editions of only his favorite books. After his conversations with Lily Bart at his apartment, he seems to change such that he doesn't care whether Lily is living up to his ideals or not. He never understands Lily, but by the end of the novel he has "passed beyond all such conventional observances" and sees his own hypocrisy (his "spiritual fastidiousness"). By Book 2, Chapter 14, perhaps he even understands that Lily loved him, because he "sees deep into the hidden things of love." By the end of the novel he has grown somewhat more mature and self-aware.

What role does reading play in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth?

Most characters in this novel do not read. The library at Bellomont "was in fact never used for reading" but as a place for flirtation or smoking. Lily Bart herself "prides herself on her recognition of literature;" the reader sees her cutting the pages of a book and carrying a copy of Omar Khayyám in her traveling bag but never actually reading. Lily admires Lawrence Selden's "cultivation," which partly means his interest in books. Lily's mother disparages Lily's father for reading poetry. Other kinds of reading include reading gossip sheets ("Yes: lively reading that was," Ned Van Alstyne says about the write-up on Lily's tableau vivant performance). And Lily is otherwise "misread" throughout the novel.

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