The House of Mirth


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"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 ancillary role requires. By today's standards she would be nothing more than a mild rebel, but in the era into which Wharton drops her unmercifully, this tiny spark of character, combined with numerous assaults by vicious society women and bad luck, ultimately renders Lily persona non grata. Her own ambivalence about her position serves to open the door to disaster: several times she is on the verge of "good" marriage and squanders it at the last moment, unwilling to play by the rules of a society that produces, as she calls them, "poor, miserable, marriageable girls.
Lily's rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner's assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. "Once--twice--you gave me the chance to escape from my life and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward," she tells Selden as the book draws to a close. All manner of hideous socialite beasts--some of whose treatment by Wharton, such as the token social-climbing Jew, Simon Rosedale, date the book unfortunately--wander through the novel while Lily plummets. As her tale winds down to nothing more than the remnants of social grace and cold hard cash, it's hard not to agree with Lily's own assessment of herself: "I have tried hard--but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else." Nevertheless, it's even harder not to believe that she deserved better, which is why The House of Mirth remains so timely and so vital in spite of its crushing end and its unflattering portrait of what life offers up.




Lily Bart could be any one of us. The ideas, personages and the way of life described in "The House of Mirth" remain timeless, and remarkably apt, even in this age of technology, when we consider ourselves free from social constraints. Who can honestly say that they have never struggled to choose between morality and usefulness, to consider integrity versus comfort? And on what scale do we succeed or fail every day? Does not each of us face at some point the conditioning of our upbringing? Every day we must consider the ways of the world we live in, if in ever so subtle hints. The heroine of this book has her own world to consider, coloured by the many facets of social intricacies. We share her humour, her troubles, her discoveries, and we get an opportunity to glance over Lily's shoulder into the looking-glass of our own fallacies. Twists and turns of life are unpredictable, and as we follow Lily in her adventures, we may learn valuable lessons about ourselves.--Submitted by K. A. Knight.




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Recent Forum Posts on The House of Mirth

who can save Lilly?

When I ask this question I can see that practically everyone can save Lilly at various points in her downfall. In particular, I think that the role played by Seldon is despicable. He is her closest friend and yet it is he who sets in train a series of events which lead to the downfall - commencing with their first meeting in his rooms and his contrivance to keep her from meeting Percy Gryce at church. At the end of the day he does not own up to the part he played in the downfall and nor does he do anything constructive to help her. As for Rosedale, he understands entirely that Lilly is not to blame for any of the charges against her and yet with that knowledge he also fails to do anything about it. She is portrayed as a flippant, flighty party girl but by the end of the book we see that she is the only real good person (perhaps bar Gertie) and the others are ugly parasites who drive her to her ultimate fate.


Lilly and Seldon

I found this to be an amzing story, and extrmely heart wrenching. I just fell in love with Lilly and rooted for her from the start and yet in some reguards only she can be blamed for her downfall. She was a woman who was trapped between two worlds, and her heart was spilt into half. She despereately loved Seldon but she did not beleive she could be happy with him becasue she was brought up in the world of the wealthy and raied so vaule things of luxurury and matteralistic vaule, yet despite her intent to marry a rich man so she might be set, she was consntantly sabbatoge her efforts whenever an offer was presented becasue she could not let go of Seldon. She was a woman who was destined not to be happy or to know what she turly did desire, for she could not have everything she wanted and did not know how to make the sacrifice or what sacrifice to make. If she married for money her soul would suffer for she would be severed from the one whom understood her above all others and yet if she choose love over money she feared she would find it dull and be discontent and grow to resent the man she loved so. It was terribly heartbreaking that they hurt each other so for all thier love for each other, neither one knew how to let go of their pride for the sake of the other, and for the sake of thier love, untill it had grown to the point in which it simply was too later for them, and nothing could close the bearriere between them which they were both responseable for creating. They turly did belong to each other, and yet they did not really know how to be.


re: title of book

As the first line of the synopsis states above:

" "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. "


No Subject

The "House of Mirth" is a fascinating book. It reveals true human spirit and girl power!!! yea dawg


No Subject

This is an excellent story. I have never felt so involved in a story to the extent that i had no control of my emotions , i felt as though i was wtching a film unfold, Edith wharton writes so beautifully that you bcome completely Lost in the world that lily Bart finds herself. I felt unbeliveably sorry to lose Lily at the end and angry at selden for not coming to her sooner but ultimately that is life, as Lily said she was " just a screw or a cog in the great machine called Life". This is a book that i recommend to anyone because i am so certain that everyone will enjoy this book as i have.


No Subject

Haus Bellomont is German for "House of Mirth." The house party Lily attends at the very beginning of the book is called Bellomont.


title of book

why is "The House of Mirth" or should I say where does the title of this book come from???


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