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The House of Mirth: 100th Anniversary Edition

The House of Mirth: 100th Anniversary Edition

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by Edith Wharton, Anna Quindlen (Introduction)

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A literary sensation when it was published by Scribners in 1905, The House of Mirth quickly established Edith Wharton as the most important American woman of letters in the twentieth century. The first American novel to provide a devastatingly accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy, it is the story of the beautiful and beguiling Lily Bart and her ill-fated


A literary sensation when it was published by Scribners in 1905, The House of Mirth quickly established Edith Wharton as the most important American woman of letters in the twentieth century. The first American novel to provide a devastatingly accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy, it is the story of the beautiful and beguiling Lily Bart and her ill-fated attempt to rise to the heights of a heartless society in which, ultimately, she has no part.

Editorial Reviews

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.

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.
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."

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Signet Classics Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.82(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 jeweled 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. Inj udging 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 holiday-makers, past shallow-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 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 latch-key.

"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 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."

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?"

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.

Meet the Author

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age of Innocence. Born in 1862 into one of New York's older and richer families, she was educated here and abroad. Her works include Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Glimpses of the Moon, and Roman Fever and Other Stories. As a keen observer and chronicler of society, she is without peer. Edith Wharton died in France in 1937.

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
Educated privately in New York and Europe

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The House of Mirth: 100th Anniversary Edition 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Sarah_R More than 1 year ago
My 10th-grade English teacher handed me a copy of the House of Mirth about halfway through that school year and told me she thought I'd really enjoy it and Edith Wharton. I was hesitant, but I read it because I was 15 and a teacher was suggesting it, which might have been mixed up with assigning it in my mind. But boy, am I glad I read it! Reading The House of Mirth was the start of a lifelong love affair with Edith Wharton, her books, her characters, and her stories. I have since re-read House of Mirth, seen the movie multiple times, and ventured out to Wharton's other texts, all of which I love for her detail, her honest writing, her fully realized characters, and the tragic lives they all lead. I will continue to say that The House of Mirth is my all-time favorite book for as long as I'm reading, because I doubt I will ever find something that I connect with as much as this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the first few chapters of The House of Mirth, it is easy to dismiss Lily Bart as shallow and terribly spoiled. As her story unfolds, however, the reader begins to empathize with the main character. Drawn into the story, the realization sets in that Lily Bart is trapped without options by her love of fine things and her lack of independent means. The story of Lily Bart is little different from the real-life, modern-day situation some women find themselves in: longing for security but not having the practical skills and education to care for themselves, wanting to fit in on the social ladder one rung higher than reality will allow and having fewer options than her male counterparts. Although fascinating, the book can be a little depressing to read, but also thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed the social history of the 'Gilded Age' imparted in the story. The life and times of upper class New Yorkers in that era were well-depicted. Overall, the book is an enjoyable and worthwhile read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edith Wharton's story, House of Mirth is indicative of the Golden Age, an age where money and class are of more consequence than morals. Lily Bart is a character to be disliked, yet there is something about her that bends you to her will, that insists that you enjoy her taste and understand her need for beauty, wealth and serenity. She makes timeless mistakes and although we find ourselves 100 years the other side of this world, we are merely 100 seconds away from its reality. The writing is refreshingly challenging. If you've read every Jane Austen novel, and are enamored with the English language and the trials of women in the 19th and early 20th century, Wharton is your next best read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Prose is beautiful. Story bogged down a bit but the writing made it worth continuing.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I was hooked the minute I started reading this novel. If you want to dramatically increase your vocabulary, read Edith Wharton ! This story is involving and Lily Bart will evoke sympathy from even the most cynical reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What can I say that hasn't already been said by the other reviewers here? An amazing novel about a young woman whose social errors lead her into a direction she never imagined. Wharton did an incredible job of conveying the thoughts and feelings of Lily Bart to the reader. An exceptional novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book keeps you turning the pages and hoping with and for the characters. heartwrenching and enraging at times, its an excellent novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
after reading Age of Innocence and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, I realized that this is my favorite style of book. So I decided to also read House of Mirth. I loved this book but it frustrated me so much! I really started to think that I was Lily and everything is happening to me! Sometimes I was so frustrated that I would put it down and not pick it up for a week, but then I would grab it and start reading again because I'd have to know what would happen next. If you like these type of books, which I guess are sweet but tragic, then you will like House of Mirth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved the story and how the classes and people related to each other back then. Great classic book! Will highly recommend!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book really showed the honest truth about being a women in times where social status was everything and comfort came in money. It shows the evil that comes with money and the greed along with it. It does not paint a pretty picture of Lily's life, but I feel that is the most respectable and wonderful part of this book. To show her struggle and lose herself in debt with the pain and heartache, that at times overtakes her is a wonderful honesty that really makes you feel for her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is an immensely enjoyable story. Wharton's flowing and elegant writing style makes the story an elegant one to read. The main character, Lily Bart, is a character that you learn to empathize with, as you learn to hate the society that she is effected by. The book tells a story of the upper class in early 20th century New York and criticizes their frivolity.
Mariamosis More than 1 year ago
I was entertained by Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" and decided to give this book a try.

I have read half of this book, and due to the fact that I have yet to finish it, I am probably the wrong person to be reviewing it. However, I am going to do just that.

Through countless hours of trying to get through this book, I have found that I am not a fan. I would classify this book as a novel about late 19th, early 20th century New York bourgeoise keen on profitable marriages and much discussion regarding aristocratic dinner parties.

The main character, Lily Bart, seems eager to please her socialite friends in a prosperous marriage, yet she continuously sabotages her opportunites with the priviledged men.

This is as far as I have read in this book, and I think it is also where I will stop. However, if you love books by Jane Austin or Kate Chopin then this may be the book for you.