The House of Mirth (Everyman's Library)

The House of Mirth (Everyman's Library)

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by Edith Wharton, Pamela Knights
     
 

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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

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.

 
 

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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679406679
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/05/2008
Series:
Everyman's Library Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
1,234,991
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.04(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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.

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
January 24, 1862
Date of Death:
August 11, 1937
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Place of Death:
Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France
Education:
Educated privately in New York and Europe

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The House of Mirth 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 148 reviews.
crismeily More than 1 year ago
This is one of those classic books I always meant to read, but never got around to actually doing it. I finally got my hands on this weekend, and finished it within a day. The characters are sympathetic, and the plot engaging. I couldn't put it down, but then again I am one of those people who get completed engrossed in a book and have to finish it as soon as possible. Although, I was a tad disappointed. Im an avid Austen fan, and I guess I was expecting a similar turbulent love story, which ultimately will end happily, but Wharton did not deliver such story. The novel is fantastic, and if it was not for the things I put off doing while reading the book, I might have not hated the ending as much. But when a girl puts off studying for midterms, and stays until 3am reading a novel, dang it, it better end happily.
keruichun More than 1 year ago
I can't say enough how much I loved this book. About a no longer "young" woman who needs to marry for money in order to stay within the class she's grown accustomed to - she finds she always sabotages herself. She makes decisions that are bad for the time she's living in and ends up having to suffer the consequences. Reading it from a 21st century perspective, it all seems so unfair - if she were alive today she'd be doing just fine. But in her time, she was trapped and had to choose between the luxury she craved, but with men she didn't even like, or a life of poverty. Both were traps. It makes you appreciate the freedom we now have to live the way we please. But even though she's trapped in a way that I'll never experience, I still identified very much with her character - above all with her increasing inability to be the kind of person she wanted to be. Because in the end, we're all trying to be better people, then life gets in the way. I can't wait to read this one again!
Nazire More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book to read. Edith Wharton is one of the most important female writers in American literature. Her "Age of Innocence" and "The House of Mirth" is an absolutely must read books in the list of anyone. Wharton's style is unique to her which is chided with criticism of her time, New York's socialites and the wealthy, along with the psyche of U.S. at the time. Wharton delivers much in-depth insight to her readers through the language she uses, lively and fresh descriptions and the irony she presents in this novel. The whole novel is a critique of the New York's aristocracy in the Gilded age. Lily Bart is a 29 year old single young woman who is taken care of by her aunt (who is old fashioned, and thinks she has covered every single a young lady at Lily's age might need, both financially and other wise), addicted to gambling and who has ambitious goals of marrying into the wealth and continue to stay within her social class. This is the plight and the tragedy that revolves around Lily, making her one of the most likeable and also frustrating characters in the literature that I know. Lily is probably one of the most human, fallible characters that are represented in a positive light, but due to her plights, tragically ends her life/ There are a lot of details within this book, concretely set rules of social etiquette and vivid details of the characters, settings and rules of the society. However, there are certain vagueness to the novel that at the end is open to interpretation, which makes it readily one of the most arguable novels in American literature. This is the genius of Wharton bringing the certainty and uncertainty in a harmonized light. Lily is an extremely attractive young woman who is pushing the boundaries of her marriageability firstly because of her age, (which even by today's standards is debatable), secondly by her addiction to gambling and later to the scandalous rumors about her non-existent affair with George Dorset. While Lily has had many who has proposed to her, Lily has always been unable to decide and later jeopardize those proposes by acting out of character in hopes of being with someone better. Lily's ambitions and her own self righteous attitude gets the better of her. (She could have easily pulled her out of her financial troubles by marrying any one of her eligible suitors--which makes one critically think about Lily that although she wants to have a wealthy husband who will secure her foothold in the higher elite social class, she also wants to marry for love). With all of this said and done, Lawrence Seldon is an attorney from the middle class who often hangs around the wealthy. Seldon and Lily do love each other, however Lily never takes the leap to be with Seldon due to his inferior social standing. Her inability to let go of her desire to be in the society of the elite-regardless of their cruel, unhappy, polite but back-stabbing, gossiping circle overwhelms her desire to be happy. Lily is stuck in between love and wealth--which being unable to commit to either one brings her tragic death. Lily is such an interesting antagonist, especially considering the time where women writers were barely existent and usually were not taken seriously Wharton offers a critique of not only the New York's finest, however a glimpse of the mindset of a woman who lived in between the turn of the 19th Century. Wharton delivers her characters trough an interpretive and exposing lens that serves the modern.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The House of Mirth is a traditional novel of manners compromising a dramatic plot encircling a fatally flawed character. Lily Bart is a single socialite existing at the turn of the 20th century in upper class New York whose life ambition is to achieve inconceivable heights of social prominence through the security of a lucrative, venerable marriage. To Lily, social standing means everything it is something to be worked for and perfected no matter the cost. This selfish, single-minded desire for material wealth and social glory proves to be a constant struggle for Lily throughout the novel, as her morality comes into question through several trials, which consequently result in grave irrevocable errors. One such internal battle surfaces when Lily encounters the rare opportunity to marry for love, but ultimately banishes the possibility from her mind in favor of a more financially stable union. Another major tribulation concerns Lily¿s inclination to accumulating overwhelming debts, which force her to ask for favors from ¿friends,¿ leaving her vulnerable and free to manipulation. Unfortunately, Lily¿s purely self-interested motivations induce the opposite of the desired effect as they eventually serve to reduce her to a destitute social pariah. Through Lily¿s tragic character it is illustrated that excessive concern for material riches is detrimental to one¿s wellbeing, because it inevitably breeds moral decay and supersedes the more precious facets of life. It is through her poor decisions that Lily begins her downward spiral from her position as an esteemed lady of high society to a figure of public humiliation and defeat, a journey that takes readers along for a thrilling ride and leaves them with an impression of personal loss.
mgoodrich718 More than 1 year ago
The House Of Mirth By Judith Wharton 3 Stars Lily Barton is a 29 year old beautiful woman who is chaparoned by her wealthy aunt. Lily is stuck in the 1890's society, with no where to go, and no fun to be had. At least not if you want to marry well and be taken care of. Deep tradition, rules and double standards surround her. Young women who were unmarried could be taken advantage of and ruined for virtually nothing. No one would ever forget either once that happens. Lily's aunt disowns her prior to her death for one such infraction which may or may not include gambling debts and affairs with married men. Lily tries to survive using her intelligence and wit. She wants to be independent and find a man she can love for love's sake. Fate, and the cruel world are very much against her. Well written and true to the age. Wharton captures what a women such as Lily would have gone through during this time in our society. We've come a long way in some respects and others we haven't.
catherine21 More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a college course. From the first page I was drawn to continue reading. The book is identifiable with all sorts of people. If you're looking for a love story this is not the book for you. Lily Bart is one of the most complex and humanistic character ever written. This book is definitely recommended, even though it is full of heart break.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book, because of its engrossing plot and very intriguing themes. The characterization, particularly that of Lily Bart, is very realistic and extremely well written. Wharton takes a hard look at the traditions and lifestyles of the wealthy upper-class in ways that reveal the hypocrisy and cutthroat behaviors that dominate some circles of that social class. The other very interesting theme is the power of women in society, which has pertinence in today's world. For instance, Wharton addresses issues such as the value put on women by society, the meaning of customs such as marriage, the rules of behavior that women are expected to follow 'and many do not', as well as the power of women over each other, which is perhaps the most interesting concept of all that this book presents. Overall, this book is very well written, has a great ending that leaves the reader thinking, and is also a great social commentary. I would highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ELLO MUH HOMIES
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*she skips in merrily with a bottle of Vodka.*
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
Lily Bart was raised to be charming, social, and well, useless. She was born into New York society and taught by her parents to disdain everything "dingy" and beneath her. Lily, thanks to her extraordinary beauty, never really questioned the social norms and mores that shaped her. Tragically, her parents die, she becomes impoverished, and she is forced to live on the goodwill of her aunt. Her aunt, is somewhat of a stickler and disapproves of Lily's gambling, drinking, and socializing. She provides Lily with all the necessities but barely more. Lily resents her aunt for not understanding Lily's social obligations include dressing well and playing bridge for money. Still, Lily is unable to adjust her spending habits and lands into a bit of trouble because of it. Lily, an unmarried, beautiful woman garners the jealousy and disdain of the most influential patronesses of New York society. And because she is unwilling to play fire with fire descends in social standing falling from upper class, to the not so upper class, to middle class, to working class. With each fall, Lily is certain that it is a temporary situation which will see her hobnobbing with high society again. The most interesting thing about Lily and this novel is that Lily is definitely not a feminist heroine. She doesn't accept that she has to help herself. She doesn't accept that her current situation may be a permanent situation. she never does adjust. She never picks herself up by the bootstraps. She allows her up bring to define her and doesn't much fight it. In the end, there is no happy ending for Lily because she won't give herself one. She willfully submits to her circumstances and it never really even occurs to her that she has the power to change her life. I know that when it came out it exposed the horrors of NY society, but the most interesting thing to me was Lily's unwillingness to take ownership in her own life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a realistic portrayal of the then life style of wealthy NY sociaty with their show and tell antics. e necessity of the male as proviiding the only element of survival for a woman of that era. The author effectly relates those choices open to her, which were so much less than today (2015), as he renews the readers hope for Lilly's acceptance into the environment she was bread for. Worthy reading.
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I liked the part where Lily was wanting to cool off when it was warm.
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Read this...learn from this moral dilemma from poor lily bart
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