The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

3.8 147
by Edith Wharton

View All Available Formats & Editions

Edith Wharton's second novel, 1905's "The House of Mirth" marked the arrival of a "professionally serious, masterful novelist." (Cynthia Griffin Wolff) In "The House of Mirth," Wharton explores the status of women at the turn of the nineteenth century.  See more details below


Edith Wharton's second novel, 1905's "The House of Mirth" marked the arrival of a "professionally serious, masterful novelist." (Cynthia Griffin Wolff) In "The House of Mirth," Wharton explores the status of women at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Editorial Reviews
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.

Product Details

Wildside Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.38(d)

Read an Excerpt


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."


"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."

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Gore Vidal There are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as "major," and Edith Wharton is one.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The House of Mirth 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 147 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 22 days ago
What did you need?
Anonymous 4 months ago
Flops in wearing only a baggy pair of pants and a pair of underwear on his head. "That was some party."
Anonymous 5 months ago
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous 6 months ago
He walks in wearing fake cat ear and a clown nose. XD
Anonymous 6 months ago
*she skips in merrily with a bottle of Vodka.*
TulaneGirl 6 months 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 11 months 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the part where Lily was wanting to cool off when it was warm.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read this...learn from this moral dilemma from poor lily bart