The House of Mirth (Everyman's Library)

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Overview

In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton depicts the glittering salons of Gilded Age New York with precision and wit, even as she movingly portrays the obstacles that impeded women's choices at the turn of the century.

The beautiful, much-desired Lily Bart has been raised to be one of the perfect wives of the wealthy upper class, but her spark of character and independent drive prevents her from becoming one of the many women who will succeed in those circles. Though her desire for ...

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The House of Mirth

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Overview

In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton depicts the glittering salons of Gilded Age New York with precision and wit, even as she movingly portrays the obstacles that impeded women's choices at the turn of the century.

The beautiful, much-desired Lily Bart has been raised to be one of the perfect wives of the wealthy upper class, but her spark of character and independent drive prevents her from becoming one of the many women who will succeed in those circles. Though her desire for a comfortable life means that she cannot marry for love without money, her resistance to the rules of the social elite endangers her many marriage proposals. As Lily spirals down into debt and dishonor, her story takes on the resonance of classic tragedy. One of Wharton's most bracing and nuanced portraits of the life of women in a hostile, highly ordered world, The House of Mirth exposes the truths about American high society that its denizens most wished to deny. With an introduction by Pamela Knights.

 (Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)
 

A daring novel about the shallow, brutal world of Eastern monied society deals with powerful social and feministic themes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A tragedy of our modern life, in which the relentlessness of what men used to call Fate and esteem…. is as vividly set forth as ever it was by Aeschylus or Shakespeare.”
The New York Times

“Uniquely authentic among American novels of manners.”
—Louis Auchincloss

“Brilliant….[Lily Bart] is a grand tragic heroine, fit to take center stage with Manon or Emma Bovary, Gwendolen Harleth or Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Anna Karenina or Isabel Archer.”
—Hermione Lee

Library Journal

A handful of Wharton's standards get the "Everyman's Library" upgrade. These are more expensive than paperback alternatives but still reasonably priced, and the hardcover quality is worth the extra bucks if you can afford it.


—Michael Rogers
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679406679
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/5/2008
  • Series: Everyman's Library Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 241,322
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 8.37 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton was born into a privileged New York family in 1862 and died in France in 1937. In addition to her works as a novelist, most famously The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, and Ethan Frome, she also was a renowned interior designer, and was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Biography

Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family's return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith's creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton's novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton's first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable Literary Success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton's reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.

In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 -- the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.

Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Age of Innocence.

Good To Know

Upon the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905, Wharton became an instant celebrity, and the the book was an instant bestseller, with 80,000 copies ordered from Scribner's six weeks after its release.

Wharton had a great fondness for dogs, and owned several throughout her life.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edith Newbold Jones Wharton (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 24, 1862
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      August 11, 1937
    2. Place of Death:
      Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The train, meanwhile, had scarcely slackened speed-life whizzed on with a deafening rattle and roar, in which one traveller at least found a welcome refuge from her own thoughts.

(The House of Mirth, 1905)

Before ten minutes had passed, the old familiar unpleasant sensation of being in a hurry took possession of my mind.

(Eliot Gregory, 'A Nation in a Hurry', Atlantic Monthly, 85, May 1900)

The House of Mirth comes out of a nation in a hurry. It is possessed by change, by mobility of all kinds. Everyone seems to be in rapid transit; one century seems to be swirling into the next. As we read, we begin to feel that we are in many different worlds at once, encountering carriages and motor cars, candles and electric light, telephone calls and notes sealed with wax, coexisting even within a single page. Edith Wharton's novels often contain an immense array of objects which help us understand the culture that produced them, but here they take us into a society where it is hard to get one's bearings; the map alters even as we look at it. The moment-to-moment narration of the story sustains the effect of an ever-shifting scene, most obviously in the pace and swift cutting of the episodes, but, too, in many of the images that shape what we see: 'the whole scene slipped by as if with the turn of a stereopticon' (I. xiv); 'this glimpse of the ever-revolving wheels of the great social machine' (II. viii); 'now a new vista of peril opened before her' (II. x).

The novel's heroine, Lily Bart, moves from one house to another, from group to group, and class to class, and her tracks cross and recross those of other socially fluid characters-divorced, Jewish, newly rich and newly poor-as they try to make their way in established New York society. Its geography sketches the shadowy journeys of incomers 'from the West', who try out their wealth in the margins of fashionable New York, consolidate it in houses in the 'versatile thoroughfare' of Fifth Avenue, settle it in the building plots of country estates on Long Island, and find in the Riviera and England 'new kingdoms' to display it. En route, a narrative aside comments that, 'Affluence, unless stimulated by a keen imagination, forms but the vaguest notion of the practical strain of poverty' (I. viii). Although the world of the very poor is almost beyond the novel's own imagination, we travel a vast social distance within its hierarchies, in a vertiginous journey downwards from the 'little illuminated circle' of the immensely rich, to the 'dreary limbo of dinginess' (I. xiv) that supports it. At the same time, the narrative spirals inwards; as we see Lily in multiple settings, we also become caught up in a restless inquiry about what she is, what has made her, and what she might become. In this whirling journey into the self, the novel throws out questions about subjective and social identity, asking how these are related and what happens to them at times of breathless change.
*
The opening sentences of the novel face us with the scurry of the contemporary. For readers, in 1905 at least, the afternoon rush at Grand Central Station was the epitome of haste. Cultural historians have reconstructed for us turn-of-the-century perceptions of what these great terminals were like and what they stood for. Alan Trachtenberg suggests that they signified the shape of the future:

Their multiple functions represented travel, interconnection, coordination, the spatial form of placelessness, of being neither here nor there, but on the way.... Like a giant clock seated in the city's midst, the terminal represented regulation, system, obedience to schedule. By necessity, its spaces were provisional: not habitations or places of continuous labor but sites of coming and going.

(Trachtenberg, p. 120)

His view is confirmed by John R. Stilgoe who retrieves for us the laments of city-dwellers like Eliot Gregory:
Our transit from dock to hotel was like the visit to a new circle in the Inferno, where trains rumble eternally overhead, and cable-cars glide and block around a pale-faced throng of the 'damned,' who, in expiation of their sins, are driven forever forward, toward an unreachable goal.

('A Nation in a Hurry', quoted in Stilgoe, p. 23)

This Eliot's New York City sounds like a later Eliot's Waste Land. No wonder Americans believed that modern civilization played directly on the nerves. The widely read American Nervousness (1881), by George M. Beard, had helped them understand that their systems were under pressure from the pace of modern life. The human organism was a machine itself, like Edison's electric generator, under strain from outside forces. 'Modern nervousness,' Beard explained, was 'the cry of the system struggling with its environment' (see Trachtenberg, pp. 47-8). New means of transport and communication, not least the railroad's imposition of nationwide 'standard time' in 1883, were placing individuals under near-intolerable stress. At the same time, as Alan Trachtenberg emphasizes, it was only the sensitive elite of America who were under threat. The 'lower orders' were less finely tuned. For the more select, beyond the fears of the machine lay fears of social challenge by the restive underclasses of the city. But whether caused by cultural disturbance or by technology, these currents of modern change passed directly into the currents of the self.

By the end of The House of Mirth, the heroine has become a victim. The narrative removes her from the shelter of the leisure classes, to subject her to change after change, driving her by degrees deeper into the modern working city. Cut off from a future in her aunt's unchanging home in Fifth Avenue, she enters the 'express train' of the Gormers' society (II. v), and the 'limbo' (II. ix) of the hotel world and others beyond. Lily's final lodging is the drab workers' boarding-house, approached 'through the degradation of a New York street in the last stages of decline from fashion to commerce' (II. x); she hates 'the intimate domestic noises of the house and the cries and rumblings of the street' (II. xi). For Lily, for other characters, and for the novel as a whole, this is, indeed, a decline into the circles of the damned:

[Rosedale] glanced at the dirty and unpropitious corner on which they stood, with the shriek of the 'elevated' and the tumult of trams and waggons contending hideously in their ears ... A cup of tea in quiet, somewhere out of the noise and ugliness, seemed for the moment the one solace [Lily] could bear.

(II. x)

These terms-noise, ugliness, dirt, glare and their variants-are repeated over and over throughout the narrative as the mark of everything Lily fears and has tried to keep at bay. In the final chapters, they saturate her environment and, at last, in her dreadful insomnia, invade her consciousness: 'as soon as she had lain down every nerve started once more into separate wakefulness. It was as though a great blaze of electric light had been turned on in her head, and her poor little anguished self shrank and cowered in it, without knowing where to take refuge' (II. xiii). It is a terrifying image, which the ambiguous peace of Lily's death cannot really lay to rest. Too much of the novel lies behind it.

In her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), Edith Wharton commented that her last page was always 'latent' in her first; and The House of Mirth, it is true, introduces at the very beginning all the terms which accumulate into the nightmare of the end. From the start, we see Lily defined in opposition to the forces that finally overwhelm her. We meet her, as we eventually leave her, through the vision of Lawrence Selden. As an observer, Selden shapes Lily to his own interests, and his view of her becomes one element in what destroys her. Here, however, it is difficult for us not to see Lily as he sees her, as an expensive and polished work of art, a product of social processes Selden cannot quite grasp, because he is another beneficiary: 'He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her' (I. i). In Grand Central Station, she arrests the eye because she is separate from the rush, and distinct from the crowd. Radiant, vivid, an image of leisure, luxury and superiority, she is distinguished in every way from the scene that sets her off: 'Was it possible that she belonged to the same race?' (I. i).

These opening paragraphs quickly produce the motifs that the novel clusters together as the fearful realm of 'dinginess', travelling on to colour the narrative, even when Selden's eye is withdrawn: lack of taste (the 'preposterous hats' and 'palm-leaf fans'), hurry, discomfort, ugliness, sallow faces, dullness, routine, the struggle with petty practicalities, the anonymity of the throng. Whatever shapes these take in the text, from the smell of cooking in a drawing-room, to the unpleasantly shining scalp of a charwoman, they emanate from the sphere of work and subsistence and signal the mechanics of living, which the gracious rich can ignore. Lily 'resented the smell of beeswax and brown soap, and behaved as though she thought a house ought to keep clean of itself, without extraneous assistance' (I. ix); in the boarding-house at the end, she 'yearned for that other luxurious world, whose machinery is so carefully concealed that one scene flows into another without perceptible agency' (II. xi).

But as well as coding class, they mark gender: all the forms of dinginess that terrify Lily are female. One of the casualties of the dingy, we learn, is Lily's own mother, whose 'worst reproach to her husband was to ask him if he expected her to “live like a pig”' (I. iii), and his financial failure is her collapse; her death-bed adjuration to Lily to escape stays with her daughter throughout the novel. The mother's voice is strong, but the fear goes beyond either Lily or Mrs Bart. In its shifting fortunes, the novel consistently produces the monitory figures of dismal women who have no rich man to support them: among others, Mrs Haffen adding blackmail to cleaning, when her husband loses his job; Grace Stepney 'with a freckled nose and red eye-lids, who lived in a boarding-house and admired Mrs Peniston's drawing-room' (I. xi); the limp-black figure of Miss Jane Silverton descending Gerty Farish's dull stairs. Even the women in the little restaurant, with their notebooks, music, proof-sheets and engrossing occupations offer no inspiration. Lily's aim is to be invulnerable, married and wealthy enough to escape the struggle.

But the novel requires a counter-force and finds it again in a female form; to be the creature for whom the rest are sacrificed, it suggests, is to become the essence of malignity. The counter-image of the unmarried, the poor, the working-class and the ugly soon concentrates in the figure of Bertha Dorset: a woman endlessly fascinating, with a powerful social credit based on a husband's 'impregnable bank-account' (II. viii). When she appears in Chapter Two, she is described as having 'a restless pliability of pose' and looking 'like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room' (I. ii); warning enough, perhaps, that she will come to haunt every turn of the novel. Like the legion of the dull, she remains for us largely inscrutable, the sum of her effects. The novel keeps its extremes frightening by keeping them vague; but whereas it presents working-class women and spinsters in terms of ugly physical detail, Bertha is composed of a set of 'dark exaggerated eyes', 'literary' clothes and a sequence of snakey images (she glitters in 'serpentine spangles' (I. iii), is an 'anaconda' (II. vi) and at last the 'pursuing furies' take her shape (II. x)). As she drives Lily out of her orbit, her poison gets everywhere. The sight of Miss Silverton, ruined, too, by her brother's connection with Bertha, provokes one of Lily's strongest premonitions of her future:

I see myself reduced to the fate of that poor Silverton woman-slinking about to employment agencies, and trying to sell painted blotting-pads to Women's Exchanges! And there are thousands and thousands of women trying to do the same thing already, and not one of the number who has less idea how to earn a dollar than I have!

(II. viii)

'Fate' is one of Lily's words: to be married to a millionaire like Percy Gryce, or to merge into 'mean and shabby surroundings' (I. iii) are equally hateful to her. For much of the novel, Lily concentrates on her own fate. But at this moment, and a few others like it, her visit to the Girls' Club, for example, she becomes aware of wider issues, seeing, as we do, that she is caught in larger questions about women's value and destiny within the limits of a particular society.
*
In Chapter One, at the station, Selden wonders about her purposes and destination, opening up the inquiry of the narrative as a whole. Like many nineteenth-century heroines, Lily is herself placeless, neither here nor there; she is, we discover later, that socially ambiguous figure, the orphan and poor relation whose journey could end in a grand settlement and fortune, or in isolation and penury. Not a worker or a holidaymaker, she is desultory and drifting in a space between trains on a journey between other people's country houses. At every point in her journey, throughout the novel, what she does becomes less important than the repeated image of her irresolute and waiting-for invitations, callers, letters, legacies, proposals, anything which might help her find a place, and change her identity into one of more solid social value. The sense of 'unfilled gaps of time confronting her' (I. ix) becomes stronger and stronger, merging in Lily's imagination (and ours) with the looming metaphor of the 'abyss' which waits for her. The image, used again and again, is large enough to encompass the social depths of the poor, the dark vistas of spinsterhood and dreary middle age, the horrors of sexual or moral surrender, and the vision of vast existential voids and of dark psychological interiors, even the 'dim abysses of unconsciousness' (II. xiii) she looks down to as she takes her sleeping draft. In Chapter One, Lily does not miss her train, which would perhaps have been too easy a symbol, but her introduction against the regulated, time-tabled world of the hurrying station is an exemplary beginning to a narrative of hesitations, doubt and mismanaged changes of direction, in a world of purposeful schedules.

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Table of Contents

About the Series
About This Volume
Pt. 1 The House of Mirth: The Complete Text
Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts 3
The Complete Text 25
Pt. 2 The House of Mirth: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism
A Critical History of The House of Mirth 309
Cultural Criticism and The House of Mirth 326
What Is Cultural Criticism? 326
Cultural Criticism: A Selected Bibliography 337
A Cultural Perspective: The Traffic in Women: A Cultural Critique of The House of Mirth 340
Marxist Criticism and The House of Mirth 359
What Is Marxist Criticism? 359
Marxist Criticism: A Selected Bibliography 372
A Marxist Perspective: Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth 375
Feminist Criticism and The House of Mirth 391
What Is Feminist Criticism? 391
Feminist Criticism: A Selected Bibliography 398
A Feminist Perspective: The Name of the Lily: Edith Wharton's Feminisms 404
Deconstruction and The House of Mirth 419
What Is Deconstruction? 419
Deconstruction: A Selected Bibliography 429
A Deconstructionist Perspective: Death by Speculation: Deconstructing The House of Mirth 431
Psychoanalytic Criticism and The House of Mirth 447
What Is Psychoanalytic Criticism? 447
Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Selected Bibliography 459
A Psychoanalytic Perspective: The Daughter's Dilemma: Psychoanalytic Interpretation and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth 464
Glossary of Critical and Theoretical Terms 483
About the Contributors 497
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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 43 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2013

    This Nook version isn't readable

    I love the novel, but pages of it are pure gibberish.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 9, 2011

    Frustrating

    This edition was unreadable with the gibberish that marred every page.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2011

    Not Recommended

    This book has garbled words throughout. It is illegible and should not be offered even as a free e-book. Doesn't someone proof read these books? I spent a great deal of time with nook technicians via the phone and then at a Barnes and Noble Store trying to determine if it was the Nook or the book! I learned it was the book, and that you may especially get these illegible books when they are free. I only gave it one star because it would not be submitted without a rating. I really shouldn't give it any stars because I couldn't read it! Not nice!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2006

    A Spark of Genius

    Brilliant character development of Ms. Lily Bart. I love how Wharton gives her readers an omnipotent view of the battle between good and evil that precedes each character's words and actions. It just shows how truly discerning and insightful she is. The protagonist's heroic adherence to her morals will really make you question the strenght of your own character. The ending depressed me, but I still think it the appropriate outcome. This book is a real classic!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2012

    Boring

    I liked the movie but not the book,so slow.

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  • Posted April 5, 2011

    Some errors in editing

    Sometimes, there were paragraph breaks in the middle of words at the end of lines, or closing quotes would be moved to the beginning of the next paragraph. Readable, but annoying. I figure I paid for superior editing, and this didn't measure up.

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  • Posted February 4, 2011

    Use your Nook to catch up on classics, starting with this one!

    The House of Mirth is a brilliantly constructed novel, with emotional tugs that will stick with you. Although some might find it a little dated in subject matter (social mores in the very early 20th century in New York), it does impart a fascinating picture of that place and time among the rich (and wealthy want to bes). Thoroughly readable and enjoyable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2000

    A sentimental, sad, and enjoyable story

    The House of Mirth is an excellent portrayal of life in moneyed old New York families, which had their own code of social and ethical conduct. The main character, Lily Bart, is at times likable, at times pitiable as a victim of the times, and at times frustrating in her lack of foresight about her financial ruin. I had read The Age of Innocence before this book, and enjoyed it very much. The House of Mirth touches somewhat seriously on social issues such as women's working conditions, but is largely concerned with one woman's descent into financial and social ruin, in the eyes of herself and her rich relatives and friends. The writing is so engrossing that one feels Lily Bart is a real victim, and occasionally I had to put down the book and remind myself that to have to work for a living is not the worst thing in the world. However, this is a testimony to the power of Edith Wharton's writing--she does such a tremendous job portraying the snobbery of the times in that sect of society. One of the things that kept me from giving this book 5 stars--the continual references to 'the nature of his race' when describing a Jewish investor. Perhaps those references, sadly, reflect the attitude of the society Edith Wharton described and was herself part of.

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