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The main theme of The House of Mirth is the economic position of women in upper class U.S. society at the beginning of the century. Denied legitimate means of self-support, women were forced to make themselves beautiful and submissively charming to marry a wealthy man or they faced poverty or dependency.
One of the minor Themes of the novel is the character portraiture of Lily Bart as she struggles between her society’s money-oriented values an inherent sense of decency which keeps her from attaining her ends. Into this latter element of Lily’s nature enters Lawrence Selden, the man whom Lily loves and who exists on the fringes of the upper class New York society.
The mood of The House of Mirth is lightly ironic up until the last few chapters when it becomes sentimental. The narrator maintains a fine balance between an ironic portrayal of her protagonist and the society in which she moves and a sensitive treatment of her complexity which enables the reader to like her.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a wealthy New York family. Her mother was Lucretia Rhinelander Jones and her father was George Frederic Jones. Her family was part of a closely knit social circle that included all the oldest and wealthiest families of New York. Edith was raised like all girls of her class to get married. She had her formal "coming out" in 1885 and soon after she married, but unhappily. Her husband was Edward Wharton, an older man from a wealthy Boston family. He developed a mental disorder and had a series of emotional breakdowns until he was completely insane. Edith Wharton gradually began to write short fiction during these years. She published her first short story in 1889. Her first book was a popular treatise on interior decoration. Then she came out with a collection of short stories and later, a novel, The Greater Inclination (1889). She wrote about her novel’s success years later in her autobiography it "broke the chains that had held me so long in a kind of torpor." She wrote two more novels and published another collection of short stories before The House of Mirth came out in 1905.
In 1913, she divorced husband. From that time forward, Edith Wharton lived in France where she had a villa not far from Paris. Her best known short novel, Ethan Frome (1911) departs from the subject matter of her other fiction in its setting in rural New England. She steadily published in the years following. Among these are The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913),and Summer (1917). Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds.
Edith Wharton also wrote non-fiction. She wrote an important treatise on writing, called The Art of Fiction in 1925. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934) is an excellent source of information about her life and her view of writing as well as a good read. She died in 1937.
Edith Wharton wrote in a style called social realism. The proponents of social realism are very varied, ranging from Mark Twain to Henry James, from William Dean Howells to Sinclair Lewis. Literary realism, like all styles of literature arose out of a social moment, a historical context, and its proponents rarely agreed on what constituted realism. William Dean Howells, influential as an editor, wanted his colleagues to write of the "smiling aspects of life," not the grubby world of prostitutes and melodramas, and so he inspired a generations of younger writers like Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser to do just that and so we have novels like Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and Sister Carrie.
Edith Wharton, though, not averse to tackling the frowning aspects of life, is much closer to William Dean Howells in literary taste than she is to Crane or Dreiser. Her closest ally among the realists was Henry James. There is a famous story of literary collaboration and advice here as with many writers. When Henry James read Wharton’s novel The Valley of Indecision, he wrote to her his praise of it, but then wandered around with his characteristically wandering prose to get to the point that she should confine herself in her subject matter to New York. He wrote, "Do New York! The first-hand account is precious." She did so with great success for the rest of her career.
The House of Mirth grew out of a fragmentary novel which Wharton had provisionally titled "A Moment’s Notice." She wanted to write about the deterioration of New York society. She called it "a society of irresponsible pleasure seekers." It was a society of which Wharton clearly disapproved. In 1920, she looked back with nostalgia on an earlier New York society in The Age of Innocence. The House of Mirth was published, as many novels of the day were, in serialized form in Scribner’s Magazine. It was wildly successful. The last segment was read with high excitement. When she published the novel as a whole, it was a instant best seller and remained one for an entire year. Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Age of Innocence in 1921. She published thirty books in her lifetime. Her autobiography is titled A Backward Glance and was published in 1934, three years before her death.
The excitement which greeted the publication of The House of Mirth was caused by a number of its elements, the critique of patriarchy not being among them. People were interested in hearing the inside business of rich people in New York, families whose public lives were chronicled on the society pages of newspapers, but included only such things as descriptions of their clothes, guest lists, and vacation itineraries. Sometimes the public was satisfied to hear of some scandal, but the lives of the wealthy were generally off limits. Wharton’s book, which treats these people with no small amount of scorn, but moreover, with a great deal of familiarity, a matter-of-factness, was fascinating for people who were permanently on the outside of that social sphere.
The novel was also popular for its portrait of Lily Bart, the feminine version of the rags to riches narrative. Of course, Wharton’s version is quite a twist on that narrative her protagonist is born into the social circles of old wealthy but her family’s fortunes have fallen. Instead of working her way to the top with hard work and thriftiness as Benjamin Franklin would advise a man to do, her tools of success are her beauty, her wit and charm, her ability to listen submissively to boring men, and her willingness to spend huge amounts of money she doesn’t have on luxury items which indicate her ability to keep afloat along with the rest.
It is certainly a strange rags to riches story, perhaps because it takes the economic position of women into account. The third element explaining its popularity was the lightly drawn romance between Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart. Wharton received a flood of mail as the novel was being serialized, much of it came in a great wave with the last installment. It consisted largely of people wanting her to resurrect Lily Bart and marry her to Lawrence Selden.
Though it is clear from Wharton’s correspondence and her autobiography, that she intended the novel to be a critique of the changes occurring in the old social circles of New York, especially the entrance of the new rich into the social sphere of the old rich, it is impossible to miss the critique of patriarchy which informs the deep structure of the plot. In Lily Bart’s plight, Wharton is careful to indicate, lies the plight of all women of the early twentieth century. In order to drive this point home, Wharton includes a working class character, Nettie Struthers, who attempted to earn her living by working in an office, but when seduced and abandoned by a superior, is left to starve and die. It is only with the happenstance charity of Lily Bart herself that Nettie Struthers was able to live happily ever after. It is no mistake that Wharton went so determinedly against the tradition for novels and refused to close down the critique of patriarchy by having her protagonist get married and live that happy life.
There certainly was not a thriving feminist discourse happening at the time of the novel’s publication. The last wave of feminism had occurred at the end of the civil war, when women abolitionists took their organizing skills and applied them to the rights of women. However, the language of critique, especially as regarded women’s economic viability, or lack thereof, was around. Two famous examples of the critique of patriarchy are Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and John Stuart Mill’s essays on women’s position in the economy which, in large part, paraphrase Wollstonecraft. These writers argued forcefully that marriage as it was presently organized was compulsory, and as such, it was a form of prostitution. That is, if women cannot earn their living in any way other than marriage--they are marrying for money--then they are selling themselves for economic advantage.