The House of Mirth

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Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into an “Old New York” family that could trace its lineage back 300 years. Her writing became an escape from her ill-fated, painful marriage to a prominent Bostonian. The publication of The House of Mirth finally established her stature in the literary world. After her divorce in 1913, she spent the rest of her life in France, and received that country’s ...
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1964 Paperback Near Fine Signet Classics 1964 Unread, light tip wear to bright glossy cover, tight tanned pages. Review"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but ... the heart of fools is in the house of mirth, " warns Ecclesiastes 7: 4, and so does the novel by Edith Wharton that takes its title from this call to heed. New York at the turn of the century was a time of opulence and frivolity for those who could afford it. But for those who couldn't and yet wanted desperately to keep up with the whirlwind, like Wharton's charming Lily Bart, it was something else altogether: a gilded cage rather than the Gilded Age. One of Wharton's earliest descriptions of her heroine, in the library of her bachelor friend and sometime suitor Lawrence Selden, indicates that she appears "as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room." Indeed, herein lies Lily's problem. She has, we're told, "been brought up to be ornamental, " and yet her spirit is larger than what this ancilla Read more Show Less

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Overview

About the Author

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into an “Old New York” family that could trace its lineage back 300 years. Her writing became an escape from her ill-fated, painful marriage to a prominent Bostonian. The publication of The House of Mirth finally established her stature in the literary world. After her divorce in 1913, she spent the rest of her life in France, and received that country’s Cross of the Legion of Honor for her work in helping refugees in World War I.

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 Barnes & Noble
Edith Wharton's classic tale of social mores in early-20th-century New York focuses on the travails of Lily Bart, a ravishing young woman who lacks a fortune of her own and needs to find a wealthy husband in order to secure her position. Torn between her desire for freedom and the rigid conventions of upper-class society, Lily tragically misses her chance for real love with the intellectually refined attorney Lawrence Selden, the one man who could make her happy.
From the Publisher
With an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick,
Contemporary Reviews, and Letters
Between Edith Wharton and Her Publisher

"        A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys."—Edith Wharton

Lily Bart knows that she must marry—her expensive tastes and mounting debts demand it—and, at twenty-nine, she has every artful wile at her disposal to secure that end. But attached as she is to the social world of her wealthy suitors, something in her rebels against the insipid men whom circumstances compel her to charm.
        "Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape," Lily muses as she contemplates the prospect of being bored all afternoon by Percy Grice, dull but undeniably rich, "on the bare chance that he might ulti-
mately do her the honor of boring her for life?" Lily is distracted from her prey by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, handsome, quick-witted, and penniless. A runaway bestseller on publication in 1905, The House of Mirth is a brilliant romantic novel of manners, the book that established Edith Wharton as one of America's greatest novelists.

"        A tragedy of our modern life, in which the relentlessness of what men used to call Fate and esteem, in their ignorance, a power beyond their control, is as vividly set forth as ever it was by Aeschylus or Shakespeare." —The New York Times

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in
1920 for The Age of Innocence. But it was the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 that marked Wharton's coming-of-age as a writer.

Carol J. Singley Rutgers University
"This is an admirably edited volume that includes a wide range of texts by Wharton and illuminating documents from the period. The editors set The House of Mirth in the context of European as well as American novelistic practices, greatly expanding our understanding of Wharton's first major and arguably finest novel."
Augusta Rohrbach Brown University
"Too often pigeon-holed as the work of a buttoned-up proper 'lady,' The House of Mirth is restored in this edition to its full cultural context. Critics have downplayed Wharton's connection to popular culture in favor of promoting her status as a canonical author. This edition makes Wharton's relationship to popular culture explicit by providing readers with a full dossier of materials, from fashion plates to advice columns and social commentary."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451515469
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/1/1964
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), American novelist and short-story writer, was born in New York City. Strongly influenced by Henry James, she is best known for her subtle and su­perbly crafted studies of the tragedies and ironies in the lives of members of middle-class and artistocratic New York soci­ety in the the nineteenth century. She was educated in New York and Europe, and married Edward Wharton, a Boston banker, in 1885. When her husband became mentally ill, she cared for him until 1913, when she settled permanently in France and divorced him. Among her best and most characteristic works are The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she received a Pultizer prize.

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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

I


SELDEN PAUSED in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country, but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.

An impulse of curiosity made him turn out of his direct line to the door and stroll past her. He knew that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him; and it amused him to think of putting her skill to the test.

"Mr. Selden-what good luck!"

She came forward smiling, eager, almost, in her resolve to intercept him. One or two persons, in brushing past them, lingered to look; for Miss Bart was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train.

Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Selden found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?

"What luck!" she repeated. "How nice of you to come to my rescue!"

He responded joyfully that to do so was his mission in life, and asked what form the rescue was to take.

"Oh, almost any-even to sitting on a bench and talking to me. One sits out a cotillion-why not sit out a train? It isn't a bit hotter here than in Mrs. Van Osburgh's conservatory-and some of the women are not a bit uglier."

She broke off, laughing, to explain that she had come up to town from Tuxedo, on her way to the Gus Trenors' at Bellomont, and had missed the three-fifteen train to Rhinebeck.

"And there isn't another till half-past five." She consulted the little jewelled watch among her laces. "Just two hours to wait. And I don't know what to do with myself. My maid came up this morning to do some shopping for me, and was to go on to Bellomont at one o'clock, and my aunt's house is closed, and I don't know a soul in town." She glanced plaintively about the station. "It is hotter than Mrs. Van Osburgh's, after all. If you can spare the time, do take me somewhere for a breath of air."

He declared himself entirely at her disposal: the adventure struck him as diverting. As a spectator he had always enjoyed Lily Bart, and his course lay so far out of her orbit that it amused him to be drawn for a moment into the sudden intimacy which her proposal implied.

"Shall we go over to Sherry's for a cup of tea?"

She smiled assentingly and then made a slight grimace.

"So many people come up to town on a Monday-one is sure to meet a lot of bores. I'm as old as the hills, of course, and it ought not to make any difference; but if I'm old enough, you're not," she objected gaily. "I'm dying for tea-but isn't there a quieter place?"

He answered her smile, which rested on him vividly. Her discretions interested him almost as much as her imprudences: he was so sure that both were part of the same carefully elaborated plan. In judging Miss Bart he had always made use of the "argument from design."

"The resources of New York are rather meagre," he said; "but I'll find a hansom first, and then well invent something."

He led her through the throng of returning holiday-makers, past sallow-faced girls in preposterous hats and flat-chested women struggling with paper bundles and palm-leaf fans. Was it possible that she belonged to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was.

A rapid shower had cooled the air, and clouds still hung refreshingly over the moist street.

"How delicious! Let us walk a little," she said as they emerged from the station.

They turned into Madison Avenue and began to stroll northward. As she moved beside him with her long, light step, Selden was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness: in the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair-was it ever so slightly brightened by art?-and the thick planting of her straight black lashes. Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. 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. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external, as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?

As he reached this point in his speculations, the sun came out, and her lifted parasol cut off his enjoyment. A moment or two later she paused with a sigh.

"Oh, dear, I'm so hot and thirsty-and what a hideous place New York is!" She looked despairingly up and down the dreary thoroughfare. "Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirt-sleeves." Her eyes wandered down one of the side-streets. "Some one has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade."

"I am glad my street meets with your approval," said Selden as they turned the corner.

"Your street? Do you live here?"

She glanced with interest along the new brick and limestone house-fronts, fantastically varied in obedience to the American craving for novelty, but fresh and inviting with their awnings and flower-boxes.

"Ah, yes-to be sure: The Benedick. What a nice-looking building! I don't think I've ever seen it before." She looked across at the flat-house with its marble porch and pseudo-Georgian façade. "Which are your windows? Those with the awnings down?"

"On the top floor-yes."

"And that nice little balcony is yours? How cool it looks up there!"

He paused a moment "Come up and see," he suggested. "I can give you a cup of tea in no time-and you won't meet any bores."

Her colour deepened-she still had the art of blushing at the right time-but she took the suggestion as lightly as it was made.

"Why not? It's too tempting-I'll take the risk," she declared.

"Oh, I'm not dangerous," he said in the same key. In truth, he had never liked her as well as at that moment. He knew she had accepted without afterthought: he could never be a factor in her calculations, and there was a surprise, a refreshment almost, in the spontaneity of her consent.

On the threshold he paused a moment, feeling for his latchkey.

"There's no one here; but I have a servant who is supposed to come in the mornings, and it's just possible he may have put out the tea-things and provided some cake."

He ushered her into a slip of a hall hung with old prints. She noticed the letters and notes heaped on the table among his gloves and sticks; then she found herself in a small library, dark but cheerful, with its walls of books, a pleasantly faded Turkey rug, a littered desk, and as he had foretold, a tea-tray on a low table near the window. A breeze had sprung up, swaying inward the muslin curtains and bringing a fresh scent of mignonette and petunias from the flower-box on the balcony.

Lily sank with a sigh into one of the shabby leather chairs.

"How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman." She leaned back in a luxury of discontent.

Selden was rummaging in a cupboard for the cake.

"Even women," he said, "have been known to enjoy the privileges of a flat."

"Oh, governesses-or widows. But not girls-not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!"

"I even know a girl who lives in a flat."

She sat up in surprise. "You do?"

"I do," he assured her, emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake.

"Oh, I know-you mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said marriageable-and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know."

"You shouldn't dine with her on wash-days," said Selden, cutting the cake.

They both laughed, and he knelt by the table to light the lamp under the kettle, while she measured out the tea into a little tea-pot of green glaze. As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.

She seemed to read his thought. "It was horrid of me to say that of Gerty," she said with charming compunction. "I forgot she was your cousin. But we're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. And besides, she is free and I am not. If I were, I daresay I could manage to be happy even in her flat. It must be pure bliss to arrange the furniture just as one likes, and give all the horrors to the ash-man. If I could only do over my aunt's drawing-room, I know I should be a better woman."

"Is it so very bad?" he asked sympathetically.

She smiled at him across the tea-pot, which she was holding up to be filled.

"That shows how seldom you come there. Why don't you come oftener?"

"When I do come, it's not to look at Mrs. Peniston's furniture."

"Nonsense," she said. "You don't come at all-and yet we get on so well when we meet."

"Perhaps that's the reason," he answered promptly. "I'm afraid I haven't any cream, you know-shall you mind a slice of lemon instead?"

"I shall like it better." She waited while he cut the lemon and dropped a thin disk into her cup. "But that is not the reason," she insisted.

"The reason for what?"

"For your never coming." She leaned forward with a shade of perplexity in her charming eyes. "I wish I knew-I wish I could make you out. Of course I know there are men who don't like me-one can tell that at a glance. And there are others who are afraid of me: they think I want to marry them." She smiled up at him frankly. "But I don't think you dislike me-and you can't possibly think I want to marry you."

"No-I absolve you of that," he agreed.

"Well, then-?"

He had carried his cup to the fire-place and stood leaning against the chimney-piece and looking down on her with an air of indolent amusement. The provocation in her eyes increased his amusement-he had not supposed she would waste her powder on such small game; but perhaps she was only keeping her hand in; or perhaps a girl of her type had no conversation but of the personal kind. At any rate, she was amazingly pretty, and he had asked her to tea and must live up to his obligations.

"Well, then," he said with a plunge, "perhaps that's the reason."

"What?"

"The fact that you don't want to marry me. Perhaps I don't regard it as such a strong inducement to go and see you." He felt a slight shiver down his spine as he ventured this, but her laugh reassured him.

"Dear Mr. Selden, that wasn't worthy of you. It's stupid of you to make love to me, and it isn't like you to be stupid." She leaned back, sipping her tea with an air so enchantingly judicial that if they had been in her aunt's drawing-room, he might almost have tried to disprove her deduction.

"Don't you see," she continued, "that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me and that what I want is a friend who won't be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them? Sometimes I have fancied you might be that friend-I don't know why, except that you are neither a prig nor a bounder and that I shouldn't have to pretend with you or be on my guard against you." Her voice had dropped to a note of seriousness, and she sat gazing up at him with the troubled gravity of a child.

"You don't know how much I need such a friend," she said. "My aunt is full of copy-book axioms, but they were all meant to apply to conduct in the early fifties. I always feel that to live up to them would include wearing book-muslin with gigot sleeves. And the other women-my best friends-well, they use me or abuse me; but they don't care a straw what happens to me. I've been about too long-people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry."
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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 Feminism(s) 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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First Chapter

Chapter 1 Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.

An impulse of curiosity made him turn out of his direct line to the door, and stroll past her. He knew that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him; and it amused him to think of putting her skill to the test.

"Mr. Selden -- what good luck!"

She came forward smiling, eager almost, in her resolve to intercept him. One or two persons, in brushing past them, lingered to look; for Miss Bart was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train.

Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Selden found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?

"What luck!" she repeated. "How nice of you to come to my rescue!"

He responded ioyfully that to do so was his mission in life, and asked what form the rescue was to take.

"Oh, almost any -- even to sitting on a bench and talking to me. One sits out a cotillion -- why not sit out a train? It isn't a bit hotter here than in Mrs. Van Osburgh's conservatory -- and some of the women are not a bit uglier."

She broke off, laughing, to explain that she had come up to town from Tuxedo, on her way to the Gus Trenors' at Bellomont, and had missed the three-fifteen train to Rhinebeck.

"And there isn't another till half-past five." She consulted the little jewelled watch among her laces. "Just two hours to wait. And I don't know what to do with myself. My maid came up this morning to do some shopping for me, and was to go on to Bellomont at one o'clock, and my aunt's house is closed, and I don't know a soul in town." She glanced plaintively about the station. "It is hotter than Mrs. Van Osburgh's, after all. If you can spare the time, do take me somewhere for a breath of air."

He declared himself entirely at her disposal: the adventure struck him as diverting. As a spectator, he had always enjoyed Lily Bart; and his course lay so far out of her orbit that it amused him to be drawn for a moment into the sudden intimacy which her proposal implied.

"Shall we go over to Sherry's for a cup of tea?"

She smiled assentingly, and then made a slight grimace.

"So many people come up to town on a Monday-one is sure to meet a lot of bores. I'm as old as the hills, of course, and it ought not to make any difference; but if I'm old enough, you're not," she objected gaily. "I'm dying for tea -- but isn't there a quieter place?"

He answered her smile, which rested on him vividly. Her discretions interested him almost as much as her imprudences: he was so sure that both were part of the same carefully-elaborated plan. In judging Miss Bart, he had always made use of the "argument from design."

"The resources of New York are rather meagre," he said; "but I'll find a hansom first, and then we'll invent something."

He led her through the throng of returning holidaymakers, past sallow-faced girls in preposterous hats, and flat-chested women struggling with paper bundles and palm-leaf fans. Was it possible that she belonged to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was.

A rapid shower had cooled the air, and clouds still hung refreshingly over the moist street.

"How delicious! Let us walk a little," she said as they emerged from the station.

They turned into Madison Avenue and began to stroll northward. As she moved beside him, with her long light step, Selden was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness: in the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair -- was it ever so slightly brightened by art? -- and the thick planting of her straight black lashes. Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. 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. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?

As he reached this point in his speculations the sun came out, and her lifted parasol cut off his enjoyment. A moment or two later she paused with a sigh.

"Oh, dear, I'm so hot and thirsty -- and what a hideous place New York is!" She looked despairingly up and down the dreary thoroughfare. "Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirtsleeves." Her eyes wandered down one of the side streets. "Some one has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade."

"I am glad my street meets with your approval," said Selden as they turned the corner.

"Your street? Do you live here?"

She glanced with interest along the new brick and limestone house-fronts, fantastically varied in obedience to the American craving for novelty, but fresh and inviting with their awnings and flower-boxes.

"Ah, yes -- to be sure: The Benedick. What a nicelooking building! I don't think I've ever seen it before." She looked across at the flat-house with its marble porch and pseudo-Georgian facade. "Which are your windows? Those with the awnings down?"

"On the top floor -- yes."

"And that nice little balcony is yours? How cool it looks up there!"

He paused a moment. "Come up and see," he suggested. "I can give you a cup of tea in no time -- and you won't meet any bores."

Her colour deepened -- she still had the art of blushing at the right time -- but she took the suggestion as lightly as it was made.

"Why not? It's too tempting -- I'll take the risk," she declared.

"Oh, I'm not dangerous," he said in the same key. In truth, he had never liked her as well as at that moment. He knew she had accepted without afterthought: he could never be a factor in her calculations, and there was a surprise, a refreshment almost, in the spontaneity of her consent.

On the threshold he paused a moment, feeling for his latchkey.

"There's no one here; but I have a servant who is supposed to come in the mornings, and it's just possible he may have put out the tea-things and provided some cake."

He ushered her into a slip of a hall hung with old prints. She noticed the letters and notes heaped on the table among his gloves and sticks; then she found herself in a small library, dark but cheerful, with its walls of books, a pleasantly faded Turkey rug, a littered desk, and, as he had foretold, a tea-tray on a low table near the window. A breeze had sprung up, swaying inward the muslin curtains, and bringing a fresh scent of mignonette and petunias from the flower-box on the balcony.

Lily sank with a sigh into one of the shabby leather chairs.

"How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman." She leaned back in a luxury of discontent.

Selden was rummaging in a cupboard for the cake.

"Even women," he said, "have been known to enjoy the privileges of a flat."

"Oh, governesses -- or widows. But not girls -- not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!"

"I even know a girl who lives in a flat."

She sat up in surprise. "You do?"

"I do," he assured her, emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake.

"Oh, I know -- you mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said marriageable -- and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know."

"You shouldn't dine with her on wash-days," said Selden, cutting the cake.

They both laughed, and he knelt by the table to light the lamp under the kettle, while she measured out the tea into a little tea-pot of green glaze. As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.

She seemed to read his thought. "It was horrid of me to say that of Gerty," she said with charming compunction. "I forgot she was your cousin. But we're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. And besides, she is free and I am not. If I were, I daresay I could manage to be happy even in her flat. It must be pure bliss to arrange the furniture just as one likes, and give all the horrors to the ash-man. If I could only do over my aunt's drawing-room I know I should be a better woman."

"Is it so very bad?" he asked sympathetically.

She smiled at him across the tea-pot which she was holding up to be filled.

"That shows how seldom you come there. Why don't you come oftener?"

"When I do come, it's not to look at Mrs. Peniston's furniture."

"Nonsense," she said. "You don't come at all -- and yet we get on so well when we meet."

"Perhaps that's the reason," he answered promptly. "I'm afraid I haven't any cream, you know -- shall you mind a slice of lemon instead?"

"I shall like it better." She waited while he cut the lemon and dropped a thin disk into her cup. "But that is not the reason," she insisted.

"The reason for what?"

"For your never coming." She leaned forward with a shade of perplexity in her charming eyes. "I wish I knew -- I wish I could make you out. Of course I know there are men who don't like me -- one can tell that at a glance. And there are others who are afraid of me: they think I want to marry them." She smiled up at him frankly. "But I don't think you dislike me -- and you can't possibly think I want to marry you."

"No -- I absolve you of that," he agreed.

"Well, then --?"

He had carried his cup to the fireplace, and stood leaning against the chimney-piece and looking down on her with an air of indolent amusement. The provocation in her eyes increased his amusement -- he had not supposed she would waste her powder on such small game; but perhaps she was only keeping her hand in; or perhaps a girl of her age had no conversation but of the personal kind. At any rate, she was amazingly pretty, and he had asked her to tea and must live up to his obligations.

"Well, then," he said with a plunge, "perhaps that's the reason."

"What?"

"The fact that you don't want to marry me. Perhaps I don't regard it as such a strong inducement to go and see you." He felt a slight shiver down his spine as he ventured this, but her laugh reassured him.

"Dear Mr. Selden, that wasn't worthy of you. It's stupid of you to make love to me, and it isn't like you to be stupid." She leaned back, sipping her tea with an air so enchantingly judicial that, if they had been in her aunt's drawing-room, he might almost have tried to disprove her deduction.

"Don't you see," she continued, "that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me, and that what I want is a friend who won't be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them? Sometimes I have fancied you might be that friend -- I don't know why, except that you are neither a prig nor a bounder, and that I shouldn't have to pretend with you or be on my guard against you." Her voice had dropped to a note of seriousness, and she sat gazing up at him with the troubled gravity of a child.

"You don't know how much I need such a friend," she said. "My aunt is full of copy-book axioms, but they were all meant to apply to conduct in the early fifties. I always feel that to live up to them would include wearing book-muslin with gigot sleeves. And the other women -- my best friends -- well, they use me or abuse me; but they don't care a straw what happens to me. I've been about too long -- people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry."

There was a moment's pause, during which Selden meditated one or two replies calculated to add a momentary zest to the situation; but he rejected them in favour of the simple question: "Well, why don't you?"

She coloured and laughed. "Ah, I see you are a friend after all, and that is one of the disagreeable things I was asking for."

"It wasn't meant to be disagreeable," he returned amicably. "Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?"

She sighed. "I suppose so. What else is there?"

"Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along."

"I didn't mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.'

She shook her head wearily. "I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out -- I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor -- and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money."

Selden had turned to reach for a cigarette-box on the mantelpiece.

"What's become of Dillworth?" he asked.

"Oh, his mother was frightened -- she was afraid I should have all the family jewels reset. And she wanted me to promise that I wouldn't do over the drawingroom."

"The very thing you are marrying for!"

"Exactly. So she packed him off to India."

"Hard luck -- but you can do better than Dillworth."

He offered the box, and she took out three or four cigarettes, putting one between her lips and slipping the others into a little gold case attached to her long pearl chain.

"Have I time? Just a whiff, then." She leaned forward, holding the tip of her cigarette to his. As she did so, he noted, with a purely impersonal enjoyment, how evenly the black lashes were set in her smooth white lids, and how the purplish shade beneath them melted into the pure pallour of the cheek.

She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke. Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure in agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities. Suddenly her expression changed from desultory enjoyment to active conjecture, and she turned to Selden with a question.

"You collect, don't you -- you know about first editions and things?"

"As much as a man may who has no money to spend. Now and then I pick up something in the rubbish heap; and I go and look on at the big sales."

She had again addressed herself to the shelves, but her eyes now swept them inattentively, and he saw that she was preoccupied with a new idea.

"And Americana -- do you collect Americana?"

Selden stared and laughed.

"No, that's rather out of my line. I'm not really a collector, you see; I simply like to have good editions of the books I am fond of."

She made a slight grimace. "And Americana are horribly dull, I suppose?"

"I should fancy so -- except to the historian. But your real collector values a thing for its rarity. I don't suppose the buyers of Americana sit up reading them all night -- old Jefferson Gryce certainly didn't."

She was listening with keen attention. "And yet they fetch fabulous prices, don't they? It seems so odd to want to pay a lot for an ugly badly-printed book that one is never going to read! And I suppose most of the owners of Americana are not historians either?"

"No; very few of the historians can afford to buy them. They have to use those in the public libraries or in private collections. It seems to be the mere rarity that attracts the average collector."

He had seated himself on an arm of the chair near which she was standing, and she continued to question him, asking which were the rarest volumes, whether the Jefferson Gryce collection was really considered the finest in the world, and what was the largest price ever fetched by a single volume.

It was so pleasant to sit there looking up at her, as she lifted now one book and then another from the shelves, fluttering the pages between her fingers, while her drooping profile was outlined against the warm background of old bindings, that he talked on without pausing to wonder at her sudden interest in so unsuggestive a subject. But he could never be long with her without trying to find a reason for what she was doing, and as she replaced his first edition of La Bruyère and turned away from the bookcases, he began to ask himself what she had been driving at. Her next question was not of a nature to enlighten him. She paused before him with a smile which seemed at once designed to admit him to her familiarity, and to remind him of the restrictions it imposed.

"Don't you ever mind," she asked suddenly, "not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?"

He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.

"Don't I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?''

"And having to work -- do you mind that?"

"Oh, the work itself is not so bad -- I'm rather fond of the law."

"No; but the being tied down: the routine -- don't you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?"

"Horribly -- especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer."

She drew a sympathetic breath. "But do you mind enough -- to marry to get out of it?"

Selden broke into a laugh. "God forbid!" he declared.

She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.

"Ah, there's the difference -- a girl must, a man may if he chooses." She surveyed him critically. "Your coat's a little shabby -- but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop -- and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership."

Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible, even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.

"Ah, well, there must be plenty of capital on the look-out for such an investment. Perhaps you'll meet your fate tonight at the Trenors'."

She returned his look interrogatively.

"I thought you might be going there -- oh, not in that capacity! But there are to be a lot of your set -- Gwen Van Osburgh, the Wetheralls, Lady Cressida Raith-and the George Dorsets."

She paused a moment before the last name, and shot a query through her lashes; but he remained imperturbable.

"Mrs. Trenor asked me; but I can't get away till the end of the week; and those big parties bore me."

"Ah, so they do me," she exclaimed.

"Then why go?"

"It's part of the business -- you forget! And besides, if I didn't, I should be playing bézique with my aunt at Richfield Springs."

"That's almost as bad as marrying Dillworth," he agreed, and they both laughed for pure pleasure in their sudden intimacy.

She glanced at the clock.

"Dear me! I must be off. It's after five."

She paused before the mantelpiece, studying herself in the mirror while she adjusted her veil. The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wildwood grace to her outline -- as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality.

He followed her across the room to the entrance-hall; but on the threshold she held out her hand with a gesture of leave-taking.

"It's been delightful; and now you will have to return my visit."

"But don't you want me to see you to the station?"

"No; good bye here, please."

She let her hand lie in his a moment, smiling up at him adorably.

"Good bye, then -- and good luck at Bellomont!" he said, opening the door for her.

On the landing she paused to look about her. There were a thousand chances to one against her meeting anybody, but one could never tell, and she always paid for her rare indiscretions by a violent reaction of prudence. There was no one in sight, however, but a charwoman who was scrubbing the stairs. Her own stout person and its surrounding implements took up so much room that Lily, to pass her, had to gather up her skirts and brush against the wall. As she did so, the woman paused in her work and looked up curiously, resting her clenched red fists on the wet cloth she had just drawn from her pail. She had a broad sallow face, slightly pitted with small-pox, and thin straw-coloured hair through which her scalp shone unpleasantly.

"I beg your pardon," said Lily, intending by her politeness to convey a criticism of the other's manner.

The woman, without answering, pushed her pail aside, and continued to stare as Miss Bart swept by with a murmur of silken linings. Lily felt herself flushing under the look. What did the creature suppose? Could one never do the simplest, the most harmless thing, without subjecting one's self to some odious conjecture? Half way down the next flight, she smiled to think that a char-woman's stare should so perturb her. The poor thing was probably dazzled by such an unwonted apparition. But were such apparitions unwonted on Selden's stairs? Miss Bart was not familiar with the moral code of bachelors' flat-houses, and her colour rose again as it occurred to her that the woman's persistent gaze implied a groping among past associations. But she put aside the thought with a smile at her own fears, and hastened downward, wondering if she should find a cab short of Fifth Avenue.

Under the Georgian porch she paused again, scanning the street for a hansom. None was in sight, but as she reached the sidewalk she ran against a small glossylooking man with a gardenia in his coat, who raised his hat with a surprised exclamation.

"Miss Bart? Well -- of all people! This is luck," he declared; and she caught a twinkle of amused curiosity between his screwed-up lids.

"Oh, Mr. Rosedale -- how are you?" she said, perceiving that the irrepressible annoyance on her face was reflected in the sudden intimacy of his smile.

Mr. Rosedale stood scanning her with interest and approval. He was a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac. He glanced up interrogatively at the porch of the Benedick.

"Been up to town for a little shopping, I suppose?" he said, in a tone which had the familiarity of a touch.

Miss Bart shrank from it slightly, and then flung herself into precipitate explanations.

"Yes -- I came up to see my dress-maker. I am just on my way to catch the train to the Trenors'."

"Ah -- your dress-maker; just so," he said blandly. "I didn't know there were any dress-makers in the Benedick."

"The Benedick?" She looked gently puzzled. "Is that the name of this building?"

"Yes, that's the name: I believe it's an old word for bachelor, isn't it? I happen to own the building -- that's the way I know." His smile deepened as he added with increasing assurance: "But you must let me take you to the station. The Trenors are at Bellomont, of course? You've barely time to catch the five-forty. The dressmaker kept you waiting, I suppose."

Lily stiffened under the pleasantry.

"Oh, thanks," she stammered; and at that moment her eye caught a hansom drifting down Madison Avenue, and she hailed it with a desperate gesture.

"You're very kind; but I couldn't think of troubling you," she said, extending her hand to Mr. Rosedale; and heedless of his protestations, she sprang into the rescuing vehicle, and called out a breathless order to the driver.

Introduction copyright © 1987 By Macmillan Publishing Company, a Simon & Schuster Inc. Company

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

The House of Mirth, published in 1905, marks Edith Wharton's emergence as one of America's greatest writers. Although Wharton had previously published two collections of stories, The Greater Inclination (1899) and Crucial Incidents (1901) and the novel The Valley of Decision (1902), her decision to write about fashionable New York, a world she "had been steeped in since infancy," brought her immediate success and recognition. As she wrote in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), her goal in The House of Mirth was to uncover the true nature of society's power and to answer the question: "in what aspect could a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers be said to have, on the 'old woe of the world,' any deeper bearing that the people composing such a society could guess?"

By 1905, the genteel milieu of Wharton's childhood was rapidly disappearing. Fashions—and economics—had changed, and Old New York society was forced to recognize the power of "new money" and even to accept the newly rich, with their tremendous wealth earned in a suspect marketplace, into their circle. It was a concession that would not only corrode their sense of style and decorum, but allow them to sacrifice the members of the "old" society who could not keep pace. Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth, is a victim of a large, unstoppable shift in the ways of the world.

Launched into society at a glorious and very expensive debutante ball, Lily sees a world of unlimited possibility before her. But her father's announcement that he is financially ruined, followed quickly by his death, leave Lily and her mother with only one "asset"—Lily's extraordinary beauty and charm. At the age of 29, now orphaned, Lily lives with an aunt who offers minimum, often grudging, hospitality and financial support. A wealthy husband could satisfy her craving for luxury and admiration, but Lily is reluctant to consummate this kind of "deal." In a chronicle that richly details the follies of shallowness, and cruelties of society as it illuminates Lily's own ambivalence about who and what she wants, Wharton traces her heroine's decline from her elite position as a much-desired guest in exclusive social events, to her role as a liaison between rich "outsiders" eager to be accepted in society but ignorant of its ways, to her piteous existence when the homes of both old and new society are firmly, finally, closed to her.

On one level a devastating satire of a world devoid of moral scruples, The House of Mirth is also a stringent critique of the particular restrictions and limitations such a world imposes on women. Lily is a woman not only of charm, but of intelligence; her outward beauty matched by a genuine, if undeveloped, appreciation of art and of nature's beauty. By succumbing to society's definition of her as a beautiful object and nothing more, however, Lily in many ways authors her own fate. Woven throughout the novel are threads of Wharton's own experience. Born in 1862, Wharton spent her childhood in the staid brownstones of New York and the elegant country houses to which the rich retired during the summer, and was intimately acquainted with the styles of entertaining, of dress, and of conspicuous consumption favored by the people who inhabited them. She married five years after her own debut, late enough to have contemplated the likely fate of an unmarried woman in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though her husband, Edward, was well-enough off to avoid working in the despised business world, the two were fundamentally incompatible. Edward admired Edith's brilliance, but he was far from her intellectual equal and shared few of her interests. The critic Edmund Wilson speculated that Wharton turned to fiction to ease the tensions of her marriage; certainly the world she created through her writing must have been a welcome haven from the tedium and disappointments of life with Edward. But it is the very act of writing that separates Wharton from her fictional creation. Unlike Lily, Wharton took an active role in defining herself, becoming a masterful writer, and establishing that a woman need not depend on others to achieve dignity and a sense of worth. The world is much richer for it.

ABOUT EDITH WHARTON

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, during the American Civil War, into a world that could hardly have been more discouraging of her desire to be a writer. Her parents, George Frederic and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, descendants of prosperous English and Dutch businessmen, bankers, and lawyers, were pillars of the fashionable New York society Wharton would depict in many of her novels. It was a society in which the only acceptable aim for a young woman of the upper class was to enter into marriage with a gentleman of the upper class and become mistress of a household. Edith's mother, a notoriously commanding and aloof woman to whom the birth of her daughter relatively late in life was an embarrassment, was perpetually critical and disapproving of her daughter's intellectual ambitions.

But Edith demonstrated early a formidable intellect and a great love for books. Though her education—at the ends of a series of governesses—was intended only to provide her the social graces necessary for a society wife, she spoke three languages before adolescence, and read widely in the great literature of Western culture. She first attempted to write a novel at the age of eleven, but her mother criticized her first lines, effectively dissuading her from fiction writing for several more years. She did, however, begin writing poetry, and achieve her first publication at the age of thirteen when a magazine published her translations of several German poems.

Attempting to elude the negative economic repercussions of the Reconstruction, the Jones family moved to Europe for six years beginning in 1866, when Edith was five; when she returned to America, after a life-threatening battle with typhoid fever that would indelibly mark her consciousness, she found her country ugly and deeply depressing. Though the family's move to Newport, Rhode Island temporarily revived her spirits, Wharton's affinity for Europe and her ever deepening loathing for the increasing materialism of American life would lead to many return trips to the Continent. She would settle permanently in Paris in the early 1900s.

In 1885, after the death of her beloved father, when she was twenty-three and thus dangerously close to being considered a spinster, Edith married Edward "Teddy" Wharton, a gentleman from Boston of appropriate social background twelve years her senior. The first years of her marriage were spent in frequent travel and in making the proper social rounds in New York and Newport. Edith was pleased to be mistress of her own house and garden. But as her confidence grew, and she became more and more involved in and excited by her writing, her kindhearted but intellectually unimaginative husband and their stultifyingly predictable, possibly sexless married life began to drain her spirits.

In 1907, at the age of forty-five, she would begin a passionate love affair—apparently the only of her life—with the journalist Morton Fullerton. The relationship was brief, but it marked a profound emotional and sexual awakening for Wharton. Teddy, meanwhile, began to suffer from mental illness—possibly manic depression. He also took a mistress, and embezzled money from his wife to buy his mistress a house. He was institutionalized in 1912, and in 1913, Edith divorced him. She would never remarry.

Wharton published her first short story in 1891; her first story collection, The Greater Inclination, in 1899; a novella called The Touchstone in 1900; and her first novel, a historical romance called The Valley of Decision, in 1902. That same year she began a correspondence with Henry James, to whom she had been introduced by mutual friends. He judged her at the time as a gifted writer but perhaps too imitative a student of his; their friendship would grow, as would James's estimation of his friend's talents, until; James's death in 1916. The Age of Innocence, written soon afterward, is marked by several allusions to Wharton's dear friend and to his novel The Portrait of a Lady.

The book that made Wharton famous was The House of Mirth, published in 1905. Between that book and the publication of her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934, she published sixteen novels and novellas, eight collections of short stories, several works of nonfiction, and two volumes of poetry as well as many articles, translations, introductions, and reviews. The novel she was working on before her death, The Buccaneers, was published posthumously in 1938. This impressive productivity was spurred on in part by the fact that many of her works, including The Age of Innocence, were contracted by magazines to appear on a serial basis, requiring her to produce a certain number of words within a limited amount of time and space. Wharton both prospered and chafed under this regime; she wrote prolifically and made a tremendous amount of money, but many critics have noted that the quality of her work, particularly after World War I, suffered under the influence of its rapid production for a mass market.

Beyond her writing, Wharton's life was also distinguished by her selfless service to France and to the European refugees who flooded Paris during World War I, work for which the French government made her—the first woman so recognized—a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. When she died in 1937, her coffin was attended by French war veterans on recognition of her adopted country.

Though she was a well-known public figure, Wharton was always guarded about her private life and real feelings. Her autobiography was so unrevealing that her publishers, to Wharton's fury, tried to adjust their contract to permit severe cutting of what they called long "dull" parts. Wharton had destroyed many photographs, letters and literary documents that might well have better illumined her life. Her letters to Morton Fullerton, which she had asked him to destroy, did not surface until the mid-1980s, many years after her death.

Edith Wharton's interior life is known best through her letters to many treasured friends, through their reminiscences of her, and through the miracle of her writing. As Wharton's biographer Shari Benstock noted, "Nothing in Edith Jones's background heralded her diverse creativity and abounding energy, nor was she encouraged her to develop her 'gift.'" Yet she did, through a force of character and imagination which enabled her to produce a body of work remarkable for its craft, its insight into human nature, and its depictions of the complex interactions between individuals and their limited social world, full of pitfalls and obstacles, in which they do or do not reach for meaning.

RELATED TITLES

The Age of Innocence (1920)
With an Introduction by Cynthia Griffin Wolf and Explanatory Notes by Laura Dluzynski Quinn

Wharton's novel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning, critically acclaimed ("It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century . . . a permanent addition to literature."—The New York Times) bestselling success when it was released in book form in 1920. When the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, fleeing her brutish husband, her rebellious independence and passionate awareness of life stir the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, a man already engaged to her cousin May Welland. In the story of Ellen and Newland's thwarted love, Wharton uses her sharp wit and mastery of form to explore the timeless and universal conflicts between passion and responsibility, freedom and tradition, the desire for self-actualization and the moral requirement to honor one's commitments. Wharton's sharp ironic wit and mastery of form create a picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending "civilization."

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Ethan Frome (1911)
With an Introduction and Notes by Doris Grumbach

Wharton's best-known book is unique among her thirty-one novels, novellas, and collections of short stories both in substance and style. Constructed as a story-within-a-story told by an unnamed narrator, and set in a bleak, frozen rural landscape, it is the tale of the struggling farmer Ethan Frome and his difficult hypochondriacal wife Zeenie, whose marriage is threatened by the arrival in their household of Zeenie's vivacious cousin Matty. In her Introduction, Wharton claimed that the genesis of this austere, tragic book was her "uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little . . . resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it." Later, in her autobiography, she would call it the work she most enjoyed "making," and to which she "brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease."

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The Reef
With an Introduction by Anita Brookner

Anna Leath, an American widow living in France, has renewed her relationship with her first love, the diplomat George Darrow. But on his way to her château, Givre, where he hopes to consolidate her marriage plans, Darrow encounters Sophy Viner, who is as vibrant and spontaneous as Anna is reserved and restrained. Months later, when Darrow finally makes his way to Givre, he learns that Anna's stepson, Owen, is engaged to the girl. And what to Darrow was a formidable interlude becomes the reef on which the lives of four people are in danger of floundering. Acutely conceived and rigorously crafted, distinguished by a compelling mood of fatality, The Reef met with negative reviews and poor sales upon its first publication. Wharton, discouraged, called it a "poor miserable lifeless lump." Henry James, however, thought it the finest thing she had yet written, a passionately poignant" drama reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy.

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The Custom of the Country(1913)
With an Introduction by Anita Brookner

Considered by many literary critics to be Wharton's best novel, The Custom of the Country is about, in the words of Anita Brookner, "the upwardly mobile and what eventually put an end to their aspirations, about the unscrupulous and the entrenched, about nearly getting what one wants and being rendered powerless by the forces of society that lie in wait for those who overreach themselves." Mr andMrs. Spragg are hoping to forge an entrée into society and arrange a suitably ambitious match for their only daughter. As Wharton unfolds the story of Undine Spragg—a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating—she provides a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior decor of upper-class America and its nouveau riche fringes. Her vision of social behavior is both supremely informed and both supremely disenchanted; her intricate and satisfying plot is supremely entertaining.

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Summer(1917)
With an Introduction and Notes by Elizabeth Ammons

Written in six weeks while Wharton was on vacation from her home in Paris and her exhausting relief work on behalf of World War I refugees, Summer is the story of Charity Royall, who lives unhappily with her hard-drinking adoptive father in the isolated village of North Dormer, until a visiting architect awakens her sexual passion and hope for escape. Inspired in part by Wharton's own secret affair with Morton Fullerton, in part by her own passionate view of American small-mindedness, this is a tale of forbidden desire and thwarted dreams.

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The Buccaneers(1938)
Completed by Marion Mainwaring

Wharton's last, uncompleted novel, published posthumously in 1938, is a romantic trale about five wealthy American girls who set sail for London where they marry lords, earls, and dukes who find their beauty charming—and their wealth useful. Now completed by Marion Mainwaring, who took her cue from Wharton's own synopsis, The Buccaneers is "brave, lively, engaging . . . a fairy-tale novel, miraculously returned to life." (The New York Times Book Review).

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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Wharton took the title for her novel from a verse in Ecclesiastics—"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in The House of Mirth." Does Lily Bart's allegiance to the follies and superficialities of society mean that she has the "heart of a fool" or is she trapped by the dictates of her upbringing and the expectations of the times?
  • What does Wharton mean when she describes Lawrence Selden as a man with "the stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's delight in them" [p.152]? Are his scorn and aloofness attitudes only a man could assume in the society Wharton depicts? How genuine are they? Does his readiness to attend certain social events and to indulge in gossip and flirtations with Lily belie his chosen role as a "spectator"?
  • The people in Lily's circle disdain the "new" millionaires who acquired their money in business rather than through inheritance, yet in many ways their social world is predicated on a business ethic. How does the language of the novel reflect this? In what ways do the social "exchanges" among the characters mimic business dealings, even when they don't involve the actual exchange of money?
  • Lily rejects both Sim Rosedale, a fabulously rich man of "unacceptable" lineage, and Selden, a man she clearly admires who cannot support her in style. Do these rejections represent an unrealistic, perhaps inflated, view of her own worth and potential? Are they purely selfish or do they reflect an underlying sense of morality on Lily's part?
  • Even early in the novel, Wharton offers hints that foreshadow Lily's public humiliation by the Trenors and the Dorsets, her abandonment by Carry Fisher, and her aunt's decision to disinherit her. What events alert you to the true nature of the other character's feelings and attitudes toward her? Is Lily too naive to grasp the significance of these events? Does she genuinely misunderstand her financial arrangement with Gus Trenor or simply choose to ignore its "obvious" implications? When she agrees to accompany the Dorsets on the cruise, is she unaware of her role as a mask for Bertha's affair with Ned Silverton?
  • What does Lily's great success in the tableaux vivants symbolize within the context of the novel? Does it reveal, as Selden believes, "the real Lily Bart"? [p. 134] Why does Lily respond to his enthusiasm and his confession of love afterwards by saying, "Ah, love me, love me—but don't tell me so"? [p. 138] What other examples are there of Lily's consciously adopting a pose, either literally or figuratively, to please an audience?
  • Both Lily's cousin, Grace Stepney, and Selden's cousin, Gerty Farish, live in genteel poverty on margins of society. How are their attitudes about their positions reflected in the way they treat Lily?
  • Lily and Selden have five intimate conversations: at his apartment in the opening chapter; at Trenors' country home, Bellomont; at the Brys after Lily's stunning performance in the tableaux vivants; in Mrs. Hatch's hotel room; and once again at Selden's apartment, on the day before Lily dies. How do the tone and contents of their conversations change as Lily's circumstances change, and what does this reveal about their feelings for one another? Are either of them really capable of loving and being loved?
  • Are all the women in the novel passive "victims," dependent on the power and money of men? Who really creates the rules in Lily's circle and how do they wield their powers? Why does Rosedale ultimately turn Lily away, despite his previous persistence in courting her and his aggressiveness in making his way into society? Is he right in believing that his money alone is not enough to rescue her reputation?
  • Is Lily's descent inevitable? What opportunities does she have to turn things around and why does she reject them? Does her decision not to use Bertha Dorset's letters to regain her social standing make sense in society that unquestioningly accepts the manipulations of Gus Trenor, Carry Fisher, and Bertha herself?
  • Edith Wharton wrote "A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideas." Do you think The House of Mirth is primarily a portrait of the frivolous and corrupt social world of New York or is it the story of Lily Bart's personal tragedy?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 192 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 41 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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