The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In The House of Mirth, how genuine are Selden's aloofness and scorn for society?

Lawrence Selden prides himself on being aloof from everything—he sees it as a kind of "personal freedom." However, as Lily Bart points out, Selden spends "a good deal of time in the element [he] disapproves of." And he has had an affair with Bertha Dorset, which suggests, at least, that he is engaged in intimate activity with some members of the society he criticizes. In fact during the novel, Ned Silverton is in the same relationship to Bertha as Selden once was. It's also true that—at least where Lily's concerned—he agrees with and enacts the double standards of the society in which he sees himself as merely a "spectator." He certainly judges Lily by them sufficiently often to make the reader question his stated attitudes.

How are images of the theater and theatrics used in The House of Mirth?

Wharton both compares the characters' social world to theater and compares their activities to theatrics. Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart, in particular, compare society to the theater: "The queer thing about society is that the people who regard it as an end are those who are in it. It's just the other way with most shows—the audience may be under the illusion, but the actors know that real life is on the other side of the footlights." In addition the parties these characters give are a form of theatrics. In the tableaux vivants, women are performing for an audience at a dinner party. The Gormers are described as having a "continuous performance of their own, a kind of social Coney Island."

How does The House of Mirth comment on marriage within upper-class society?

Edith Wharton presents marriage in this social group as one of convenience, as another way of gaining money and social status. Clearly the relationship of Lily Bart's parents was not one of love—her father overworked himself to keep pace with his wife's spending, and he died when his business failed. Lily's mother showed only impatience as he was dying. Bertha and George Dorset's marriage is clearly not one of respect, at least from Bertha's side, as she deceives her husband, has affairs with other men, and treats her husband shabbily. Judy Trenor says that Bertha "delights in making people miserable, and especially poor George." Judy's husband, Gus Trenor, has affairs easily, too—Simon Rosedale says to Lily that Gus "doesn't always" think (of Bertha), and we know of two affairs Bertha has had, with Selden and with Ned Silverton. Husbands are described as valuable purely for the amount of money they make ("You know they say he has eight hundred thousand a year—and spends nothing"). The marriage between Nettie Struther and her husband, George—a much lower-class marriage—is the only fully positive image of marriage in the book.

In The House of Mirth, why does Lawrence Selden decide not to ask Lily Bart to marry him—or even to visit her—a day or so after the tableaux vivants?

In the evening Lawrence Selden has gone looking for Lily Bart at Carry Fisher's party and discovers that she has left to go to the Trenors' house. There is much gossip about this from the men at Carry's party. Then, along with Ned Van Alstyne, he sees Lily speaking to Gus on the doorsteps of the Trenors' house. The narrator says, "For an immeasurable second the two spectators of the incident were silent, then the housedoor closed, the hansom rolled off, and the whole scene slipped by as if with the turn of a stereopticon." The two men's vision has become one. Van Alstyne whistles, and asks Selden not to say anything about what he has seen. We know enough about his character to know that Van Alstyne has assumed the worst. It is evident from his actions that Selden has, too.

Is Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth a stereotypical character or a more complex one?

Initially Simon Rosedale is described in simply stereotypical terms: He was a "plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes." He, the owner of the Benedick, is buying up New York real estate in ways that people of Wharton's class were worried that Jewish people were doing at that time. In the beginning of the novel, at least, he is a flat, steretypical character who exemplifies the worst values of the society Lily Bart travels in. One of the markers of Lily's descent is her relationship to Rosedale. She becomes more accepting of him as she becomes more humble. And Rosedale turns out to have a directness and honesty about the way he lives his life that none of the people who have lived in "society" for a long time have. Rosedale speaks the truth to Lily, in a direct way which is rarely used by anyone in the novel. He openly states the unspoken codes by which everyone in this society lives. He shows respect to Lily, which many other men in the novel have not. He also sees that Lawrence Selden is not worthy of Lily's kindness to him. In the end Rosedale is a complicated, moral character who shows both respect and consideration for Lily.

What is the effect of gambling on the characters in The House of Mirth?

Gambling, or card playing, in The House of Mirth is both real and symbolic. The gaming tables are central to the novel, and they are a central cause of Lily Bart's downfall (and also, later, of Ned Silverton's). In New York, gambling is a game for the wealthy leisured classes, while in Monte Carlo it is the fuel of the whole economy—and people have committed suicide there because of their debts. For Lily gambling began as one of the "taxes she had to pay for [society's] prolonged hospitality." Then it became an addiction, "And since she had played regularly the passion had grown on her." Gambling is about luck, leisure, the future, control, and chance. Religious and righteous Protestants believed that money came from hard work; the people in The House of Mirth are far from that Protestant ethic, as shown by their love of the thrill of card playing. The presence of gambling in the novel is also a statement about addiction and its relation to over-consumption, and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy.

In The House of Mirth, how does tea link Lily Bart to both men and women?

Tea invigorates the characters in the novel and serves to both connect and separate the characters. When Lily pours tea for Percy Gryce on the train, she sets up a kind of performance of femininity for him, creating a sense of domesticity and ease. Later Gerty Farish prepares tea for Lily, and her performance is indicated by a sense of "ministry"; Gerty now performs the role of hostess better than Lily did, which is in part a mark of Lily's slide down the economic ladder. Tea is also used as a marker between classes. Toward the end of the novel, Lily sits in a room full of working class women at lunch, "all too much engaged in the rapid absorption of tea and pie to remark her entrance." These women drink tea to fuel their efficiency, and like them, sleepless Lily needs her tea now; it helps her tired brain feel clearer, just as before it was a sign of her luxurious free time.

What is the significance of the scarcity of children in The House of Mirth?

Bearing and raising children has usually been a central part of a woman's life, particularly in the period described, but the women in The House of Mirth do not have children, for the most part, or children with whom they are involved. This is perhaps another sign of the uselessness and frivolity of the lives of the women of the upper classes. In Book 2, Chapter 13, When Lily Bart goes to Nettie Struther's apartment and sees mother and child, she may be seeing how a woman's life can be useful, conducting a kind of work that ties her to a "central truth of existence," a "continuity of life." She has never seen this in her own society—or, tragically, in her own upbringing.

How important is the setting of New York City to the novel The House of Mirth?

Most of the novel, and especially the first book, takes place in the particular streets of New York City: Lily Bart walks along Madison Avenue with Lawrence Selden, sees him in old Grand Central Station, and visits her friends who live on Fifth Avenue. The House of Mirth is a story of New York because Edith Wharton grew up there and knew the city intimately. But it is also a story of New York because the city was home to many of the industrialists, such as Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose wealth helped to create the Gilded Age.

What can be considered Lily Bart's greatest flaw in The House of Mirth?

One of the reasons Lily Bart is such a compelling character is that she is far from perfect. She is self-absorbed, ambitious in her way, and mercenary. She has been spoiled—she wants $12 flowers at her table every day—and she's a snob (her attitudes toward the charwoman and Simon Rosedale at the beginning of the novel). She is artificial, using her charms to manipulate men into doing what she wants them to do, and she gambles more than she can afford to lose. And yet she's aware of her superficiality and willing to grow. As the reader watches her move down in the social world, she becomes a more thoughtful and moral person. Her greatest flaw may be her indecision and inability to choose.

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