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Review: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton


Pages: 420
Original date of publication: 1905
My copy: 2000
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Borders, 2000

The title for the book famously comes from the Ecclesiastes quote, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Lily Bart is possibly Edith Wharton’s most complicated character, and this novel one of the best portrayals of the glitter and cruelty upper class New York society. When the novel opens, Lily is 29 years old, unmarried, and trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” so to speak. Torn between her desire to fit in with society and a desire for a relationship, Lily fits in nowhere. This novel then is the story of her downfall.

I first read The House of Mirth in high school, but really didn’t appreciate it the way I do now—or even understand the complexity of the themes that Edith Wharton explores. Reading The Age of Innocence a couple of years ago led to a newfound love for Edith Wharton’s works. No one except possibly Henry James can describe upper class New York society the way Edith Wharton does—and she does so so skillfully that you don’t quite understand at first what she’s up to. As such, this novel contains brilliant commentary about the double-faced aspect to the society from which Wharton came.

As for Lily herself, as I’ve said, she’s one of the most complicated of Edith Wharton’s characters and yet a prototype for characters who came after—namely, Undine Spraggs in The Customs of the Country. Lily is vivacious, witty, and knows exactly how to manipulate people… but her greed and desire to live the good life lead hr to reject the marriage proposals of several good men who might have been otherwise suitable. For that reason, Lily has a hard time seeing what’s right in front of her—namely, her friend Lawrence Selden, with whom she has a complicated and sometimes strained relationship throughout the novel. At the end, Lily is rejected by the society of which she so desperately wants to be a part.

Comments

Karen K. said…
I think House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton novel, though Ethan Frome comes pretty close. I didn't get all the fuss about Wharton until I read this book, which I could hardly put down. Lily Bart is just a perfectly realized character.

Have you seen the film adaptation of this? I thought the cast was wonderful but it was really slow.

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