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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Themes


The major themes in The House of Mirth focus on the importance of money, the place of marriage in upper-class society, the revivifying qualities of beauty, the conflict between self and society, and the difficulty of following society's rules.

Money versus Morality

The importance of money to society, the kind of culture a wealthy group of people have created, the ways different characters value money, and the impact of money on characters' ethics are major themes. The language of finance is often used to describe characters, especially women, who are seen as commodities on the marriage market. Readers can discern the ways in which different characters think about life based on how they use money.

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen developed the ideas of "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous leisure" as demonstrations of wealth and social status. In The House of Mirth, the upper-class people have both. Lily Bart is trapped between her desire to maintain her role in upper-class society and her own moral core. Ultimately she is too ethical to survive in a world in which everything—all friendships, exchanges, parties, visits—has a clear if negotiable market value.


Few marriages in The House of Mirth are based on love. Men make the money and marry beautiful women who throw parties, fix up their houses, and go on European tours to use the money in ways that make their husbands look good. It is an age of conspicuous consumption, and the wealthy women do not work but are trophies for their husbands. For women marriage means being owned, but also it means security, possibly wealth, boredom, and frivolous living. For men marriage seems to mean being used financially and perhaps betrayed sexually by their wives. Edith Wharton's cynical critique of the marriages of the upper classes was seen as scandalous in her own era and was one reason the novel became widely popular when it was first written.


Lily Bart has a highly toned aesthetic sense: she loves beauty, she needs to be around beauty, and she appreciates culture, feelings that do not necessarily come naturally with wealth. Lily has a fear—almost a horror—of "dinginess" and has vowed to keep it from her life. Readers see numerous examples of how drabness makes her sick while beauty revives her. In one way Lily's aesthetic sense sets her apart from the merely wealthy society crowd that surrounds her; in another it proves to be her downfall. Wharton herself cultivated beauty, developed a large house with many gardens, and wrote two books about architecture and house decoration. Her knowledge informs the descriptions in the novel.

Woman versus Society

Lily Bart is torn between what her inner self seems to want and what the society around her expects her to want. She may be made of fine material, as Selden thinks, but she has been fashioned to trivial purposes by the society she lives in. Can there be a self not shaped by society? Lily has the greatest difficulty making decisions when she is alone. The novel forces the reader to question whether Lily's failure to survive independently is her own fault or the fault of those who trained and raised her.


Lily Bart is almost always performing for an audience, usually an audience of men. Men are always watching her, gazing at her, interpreting her actions. Selden is the most obvious watcher of Lily, as the tableaux vivant is her most obvious performance. Women and society in general watch Lily, making sure she is performing according to the rules. Lily also watches herself to make sure she stands out from the crowd, fits in, or does not make a scene. When she is forced to judge her actions apart from their performative aspect, she has difficulty knowing which way to turn.

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