The House of Mirth, written in 1905, is Edith Wharton’s fourth novel but first critically acclaimed work (she would later win a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence). The title comes from 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.”
The House of Mirth is the story of Lily Bart, who is born into a high-society family with no money, raised with the single goal of marrying well. Lily is beautiful and smart, and driven by her need for material wealth and status. At the same time, she’s conflicted by her love for Lawrence Selden. They have a tormented relationship, neither of them having enough money to satisfy the other, although as a male Lawrence doesn’t face any of the dangers that Lily does. She tells herself she can live without love, honesty, and kindness, as long as she has wealth and social status.
At first I was annoyed by Lily’s character, but as the book goes on, you see just how conflicted she is. She thinks she understands the rules of society, but they work against her. She plots to advance herself but doesn’t carry them through. And when she could defend herself, she chooses not to.
Why compare House of Mirth and Portrait of a Lady? Both are written around the same time (1881 for Portrait), both are American literary fiction about New York “high society”, and both address issues of women’s independence, marriage, money, and happiness. Plus, Lily is a really interesting counterpoint to Portrait’s Isabel Archer. Both are described as beautiful and intelligent, and both receive plenty of male attention. But where Bart needs to marry for money, Archer is repulsed by the idea. Where Bart is focused on the need for material resources and social status, Archer doesn’t worry about such practicalities. She wants to be independent, to travel and experience life. When she marries, she marries for love – and fortunately she has the resources to do so.
While Bart is shallow and materialistic, she also has a stronger, more idealistic side. That doesn’t make her a saint; in fact she seems to do good things against her own judgment, like volunteering with the poor and not stooping to blackmail when she has the opportunity. She’s also an interesting combination of world-wise, and naïve. She takes risks with her reputation, and she seems to be aware of those risks, but at times not realizing entirely how vulnerable she is. She seems to know how superficial her friends are; yet when she is betrayed she’s genuinely surprised.
In many ways Isabel Archer is the more moral, more honest of the two characters. And yet, I came to really like Lily Bart, whose downfall is that she can’t be as mercenary as society (and her own upbringing) demands her to be. I came to dislike Isabel Archer, who has all the resources anyone can ask for, but doesn’t do much with what she has.
My one problem with this book is with Wharton’s portrayal of a Jewish character, Simon Rosedale. Wharton relies on anti-Semitic stereotypes frequently found in literature of this time. He is seen as a social climber, intent on amassing wealth and influence. Lily describes him as ugly and is horrified at the thought of marrying a Jew. Still, Lily comes to find that he is more sympathetic (and more human) than she initially perceived.
In the end, I found this novel to be powerful and moving, and I’m glad I read it. I wonder if it’s because Wharton is female that I felt Bart to be such a poignant character, while Archer felt rather distant and unreal. What do you think?