The House of Mirth was the first literary classic that I picked up entirely on my own, without prodding from a teacher or a parent, and adored. I read it as a teenager, during a stifling summer visit to my grandparents, when my literary tastes were unsophisticated (Archie comics were high on my list). I recall the experience as my coming-of-age as a reader—when I learned, years before discovering that I wanted to write, what transformative power a work of fiction can have.
Because my attachment to The House of Mirth is so personal, I tend to reread it (most recently this past spring, when I taught it in an undergraduate literature class) with slight trepidation that the magic may have fled. After all, the world and I have both changed quite a bit since I was a teenager. But each time, I find the novel’s tragic power intact, even as the nature of the tragedy seems to shift—from the perils of living by one’s looks (teenage reading) to the cruelty of the world toward women (early-adult reading) to the struggle for personal freedom in a money-obsessed culture (adult reading) to my most recent (middle-aged, I’ll reluctantly call it) appreciation of the novel as an artifact of the Gilded Age that lays bare that era’s pathologies.
All of which moves me to assert that Edith Wharton’s second novel is a masterpiece, a pinnacle of American letters that remains electrifying and relevant in our 21st century. On its surface, The House of Mirth reads like a 19th-century novel. Although the 20th century’s defining technologies had all been invented by the time it was published in 1905, they had yet to substantially alter even the affluent world of the novel’s protagonist, Lily Bart. Cars were exotic playthings; telephones hadn’t supplanted visiting cards; electric light was a harsher alternative to candles. World War I was inconceivable.
And there is, too, a lingering 19th-century feel to Wharton’s disembodied approach to human physicality—a void around corporal experience that is especially striking in a novel whose central conundrum is sexual: Lily Bart, a pedigreed virgin without fortune, craves the sensual pleasures of life among the very rich but cannot bring herself to marry a wealthy man, her only means of securing those pleasures for life.
Where The House of Mirth is decidedly 20th century is in its frank depiction of the changing sexual mores around the behavior of married women. Wives have begun to divorce their husbands—sometimes more than once,
Wharton lays out this rule explicitly, for the action of The House of Mirth is unintelligible without it: “The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct; she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference.”
Here we have the moral double standard at the crux of The House of Mirth: sexual deception is rewarded, while virginity remains a volatile property, inciting suspicion and shadowed by the lurking charge of prostitution. Reactions to The House of Mirth’s publication support the novel’s indictment of this paradox; according to Hermione Lee’s superb biography of Wharton, what most scandalized contemporary readers was not Bertha Dorset’s adultery, but the fact that Lily Bart goes alone to the apartment of a bachelor, Lawrence Selden, to drink tea!
In order to have any freedom at all, much less security, power, and social standing, a woman must marry—but Lily Bart cannot bring herself to do it. The question of why is a portal into the novel’s deepest mystery. The most obvious explanation is that she is in love with Lawrence Selden, an equally pedigreed lawyer who loves her in return but can’t provide the wealth she requires.
Marriage to Selden would mean a life of “dinginess”: Lily’s dead mother’s term, which she has internalized, for any personal effect that falls short of affluent ease. But Lily’s bond with Selden is markedly cerebral, their love-talk laden with concepts
Like her protagonist, Edith Wharton was born into upper-crust New York and coerced by her overbearing mother to choose a husband from within its ranks. According to Lee’s biography, bookish young Edith Jones was under intense pressure to marry when she accepted Teddy Wharton, 12 years her senior, and the carnal aspect of the union was imperfect at best: the marriage likely went unconsummated for weeks, and the couple occupied separate bedrooms and remained childless.
In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Wharton celebrates the passion she and her husband shared for travel and dogs (in photographs, they are surrounded by canines). But she never mentions Teddy Wharton’s bouts of depression—his father was a suicide—or the fact that her own romantic life had moved outside the marriage before she finally divorced him after 28 years.
Wharton had already written a novel set in 18th-century Italy and a book on interior design when she began drafting a novel set in the rarefied world of moneyed New York. The challenge, she recalls in A Backward Glance, was to find the gravitas in such a world. “The answer was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.”
Wharton intended to serialize the novel in Scribner’s Magazine, where she had already published many short stories. She recalled, “But no date had been fixed for its delivery, and between my critical dissatisfaction with the work and the distractions of a busy and hospitable life, full of friends and travel, reading and gardening, I had let the months drift by without really tackling my new subject.”
When another book fell through at Scribner’s, Wharton pledged The House of Mirth to fill the empty slot, and its first chapters were rushed into print before she had finished the rest. “It was good to be turned from a drifting amateur into a professional,” she wrote of the experience. “But that was nothing compared to the effect on my imagination of systematic daily effort.” Published when she was 43, The House of Mirth did more than presage Wharton’s disciplined productivity for the remainder of her life; it became a bestseller and made her famous.
After Lily Bart finishes her daring cup of tea at Selden’s apartment in the novel’s early pages (and here I urge newcomers to break off and read The House of Mirth without spoilers before returning to this introduction), she steps around a charwoman scrubbing the building’s stairs. The meeting will prove fateful to the story, but its deeper significance is cosmological; from the very start, Wharton’s novel signals its awareness that for every social beauty descending a staircase, there teems a world of labor that builds those stairs and scrubs them clean. Wealth and privilege exist on the backs—in this case literally, for the charwoman is under Lily’s feet—of a working class that toils gruelingly and invisibly so that others might profit and enjoy.
This was not opinion but fact. The Gilded Age of the late 19th century saw a widening income gap that is often compared with our own era. One would never mistake the rich industrialists and bankers in The House of Mirth for the landed gentry of Trollope’s 19th century; what counts for a gentleman in this New World is Percy Gryce, the dullard Lily nearly marries early in the novel, whose father invented “a patent device for excluding fresh air from hotels.”
Even the richest men in the novel are mostly hard at work; as Gus Trenor, the brutish husband of a lavish hostess, puts it, “You don’t know how a fellow has to hustle to keep this kind of thing going.” And there is Lily’s poignant memory of her father before his financial ruin and early death: “Lily could not recall the time when her father had not been bald and slightly stooping . . . All day he was ‘down town,’ and in winter it was long after nightfall when she heard his fagged step on the stairs and his hand on the school-room door.”
A gossamer veil separates the illusion of floating beauty that suffuses the luxury of Lily’s world from the human toil required, at every level, to create and sustain it. Book One of The House of Mirth leaves that veil undisturbed except for occasional glimpses of what lies across it; the charwoman, who later returns to blackmail Lily; the charitable projects of her childhood friend, Gerty Farish, who, though physically plain, is, like Lily, pedigreed, poor, and in love with Selden—and thus a narrative foil for her. And there is Simon Rosedale, an ultra-wealthy financier and interloper into Lily’s world, described in anti-Semitic terms that are a blot upon the novel and might have been fatal to it, were not Rosedale one of its most nuanced and sympathetic characters.
Lily has no wish to look across that veil; even when she gives money to Gerty Farish’s needy girls (having taken it, fatally, from Gus Trenor), she does so mostly for the narcissistic pleasure of feeling philanthropic. Yet something of the instability—and hidden brutality—that underlies her languid, moneyed cohort keeps invading Lily’s vision of it.
Sometimes, as at the Trenors, where she first captures the heart of Percy Gryce, Lily’s companions seem more than worthy of her aspirations: “She liked their elegance, their lightness, their lack of emphasis . . . They were lords of the only world she cared for, and they were ready to admit her to their ranks and let her lord it with them. Already she felt within her a stealing allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of their limitations, a disbelief in the things they did not believe in, a contemptuous pity for the people who were not able to live as they lived.”
But by dinnertime, stealing allegiance has turned to revulsion. “That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.”
The catalyst for this reversal of perspective is Lawrence Selden’s arrival; his swerving effect on Lily’s perceptions of their social milieu (where he is just as ensconced as she) is the real source of his disruptive power. Like the work of the Modernists Wharton anticipates, The House of Mirth embraces the notion of reality as a landscape shaped by consciousness, and demonstrates this alchemy in the conflicted mind of its protagonist. What destroys Lily is not
In a narrow-minded society where compassion is scant and the margin for error, for virgins, nonexistent, Lily’s resistance to marriage will ultimately be seen as a threat. This, too, she understands, and her failures induce bouts of melancholy that Wharton identifies, tellingly, as depression. After allowing Percy Gryce to slip through her fingers, Lily finds her surroundings distorted by her own low spirits: “Once more the haunting sense of physical ugliness was intensified by her mental depression, so that each piece of the offending furniture seemed to thrust forth its most aggressive angle.”
Eventually, these mental distortions poison Lily’s view of herself. On discovering that Gus Trenor expects sexual favors in return for the money he has given her, she experiences what we would call body dysmorphia, telling Gerty, “Can you imagine looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement—some hideous change that has come to you while you slept? Well, I seem to myself like that—I can’t bear to see myself in my own thoughts—I hate ugliness, you know.”
Lily’s wobbling perspective and quixotic actions, her unwillingness to play by the rules of her set, finally result in social expulsion: she is jettisoned across the invisible membrane dividing New York’s elite from the toiling, invisible underclass that upholds it. Now her downward spiral accelerates, for, being undisciplined, unskilled, and unable to sleep without narcotics, she is even less equipped to thrive as a trimmer of ladies’ hats than she was as the lady who wore them.Fiction is the dream life of the culture that makes it, and its enduring mysteries are what keep us coming back.
Invisible in her exile, she is forgotten by nearly all but Rosedale, whose transactional view of human relations has been more than ratified, but who is one of the few people in the novel to transcend it. Yet even Rosedale cannot rescue Lily.
Alone and exhausted, she finds herself on a bench in Bryant Park after dark—circumstances that would have aroused in any contemporary reader the specter of prostitution that has haunted her from the start. There, she is recognized and scooped up by Nettie Struther, a girl Lily once helped, through Gerty, to recover from tuberculosis by paying for her stay in a sanitarium. Now fully healed, Nettie coaxes Lily to the tenement apartment where she and her husband, a motorman, live with their newborn.
There Lily learns that Nettie’s past troubles were even worse than she knew; seduced and abandoned by her former employer, Nettie has still managed to find happiness with a good man who had faith enough to marry her despite her history. Comforted by Nettie’s proximity, Lily sees the “dingy” circumstances she has always dreaded transformed into an orb of warmth, gentleness, and physical love—a change Wharton signals with the vivid naturalism of her description of Lily holding Nettie’s child:
“Lily felt the soft weight sink trustfully against her breast. The child’s confidence in its safety thrilled her with a sense of warmth and returning life, and she bent over, wondering at the rosy blur of the little face, the empty clearness of the eyes, the vague tendrilly motions of the folding and unfolding fingers.”
Lily is aware of having had a revelation—discovered a “central truth of existence” that had been absent from the mannered, childless realm where she has passed her life (children, like the underclass, were hidden from her old milieu): “All the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance: her first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that evening in Nettie Struther’s kitchen.”
The revelation comes too late, Lily believes, to save her from poverty and solitude. Yet as she drifts into her final sleep, having overdosed—accidentally or intentionally, it’s not clear—she cradles an imaginary infant in her arms with a tender joy that implies redemption.
What form that redemption will take is ambiguous, but I have a theory: Selden, arriving the next morning at Lily’s boardinghouse, finds Gerty calmly and expertly managing the scene of Lily’s self-destruction. In these dire circumstances, Selden sees his plain cousin anew. “He stood up, and as their eyes met, he was struck by the extraordinary light in his cousin’s face.”
Gerty has always loved Selden, and there is the hint that with her, he might at last break free of the arid parlor games that kept him from Lily, and partake, in Lily’s aftermath, of her revelation. It is a transcendent vision—one in which Lily, Selden, and Gerty are numinously conjoined.
That’s one interpretation, but there are infinite others—of those scenes, and of the novel as a whole. Fiction is the dream life of the culture that makes it, and its enduring mysteries are what keep us coming back. More than a century after Edith Wharton published The House of Mirth, the novel’s power remains, for this reader, eternal.
This introduction is to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.