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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth tells the story of Lily Bart, an upper-class woman living in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Wharton's novel has been praised, both for the way it elegantly depicts the finery of aristocratic life and for its honest and severe critique of the social elite. Wharton shows how, despite the privileges of money and status, women during this period were often robbed of their futures, expected to marry "properly," and allowed to hold few aspirations of their own. The novel also exposes the insignificance and pettiness of upper-class life, taking aim at oppressive traditions and social norms.

Although some viewed Wharton as a member of the very society she was criticizing, her novel was met with praise and acclaim from all social classes. The publisher noted the book had "the most rapid sale of any book ever published by Scribner."

1. Wharton's pastor praised The House of Mirth.

Morgan Dix, the rector of Trinity Church in New York City, applauded the socially conscious aspect of Wharton's novel. In a letter to Wharton, he described The House of Mirth as "a terrible but just arraignment of the social misconduct which begins in folly and ends in moral and spiritual death."

2. The title The House of Mirth comes from the Bible.

Wharton's title for her book was derived from a line from the New Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The line reads, "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."

3. Wharton experimented with other titles for The House of Mirth.

Before coming to a final decision on the title, Wharton planned to call her book A Moment's Ornament. She also considered titling it The Year of the Rose but settled on The House of Mirth in order to highlight the contrast between Lily's inner sadness and the happy, privileged society surrounding her.

4. Wharton herself was a member of the New York City elite.

Wharton lived in the very society she so harshly critiques in The House of Mirth. Wharton was a member of the New York leisure class—independently wealthy social class with much time for leisure or pleasurable pursuits—and she lived through the "Gilded Age" in the city (period between the Civil War and World War I when the population and the economy grew quickly), which spanned 1870–1900.

5. Wharton was one of the first Americans to document travel in Morocco.

Though she may have looked out of place in the deserts of North Africa, Wharton visited Morocco at the invitation of a French general in 1917. In her book In Morocco, she describes Morocco as "a country without a guidebook," referencing how few Westerners had visited the country at that point.

6. Author Henry James was Wharton's primary influence for The House of Mirth.

James, the famous author of The Turn of the Screw, was close friends with Wharton. She drew inspiration for her novels from James's literary form. In letters between the two, Wharton refers to James as "Cher Maître," meaning "a master of a trade or craft," showing her reverence for his writing style.

7. Critics initially argued over the classification of The House of Mirth.

The novel was first interpreted as a "novel of manners," providing a glimpse into the lives of the upper classes. However, most readers were able to understand the scathing satire underlying the tragic story of Lily and realized that the novel didn't actually fit into that genre.

8. There was a stage adaptation of The House of Mirth.

Dawn Keeler was commissioned to adapt The House of Mirth for the Cambridge Theatre Company, and the production premiered on April 26, 1995, in Winchester, England. The show was quite successful and toured for nine weeks.

9. Ironically, Wharton was criticized for the element of privilege in her writing.

Some critics, clearly not understanding the satire inherent in The House of Mirth, wrote that Wharton's characters were unaware of reality and that her books "constituted too narrow a subject matter" because of their preoccupation with upper-class life.

10. Wharton's family didn't want her to be an author.

As part of the New York elite, Wharton was expected to have few aspirations outside of a proper marriage. Despite an overbearing and socially powerful family, she continued to write even after her marriage to Edward Wharton in 1883.

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