The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

One of my goals for this summer was to read one of the best American novelists, Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937). I was torn between two of her most famous novels The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), but I was keen on making use of the school’s library during the summer semester. One last hurried visit to the library helped me make the decision, as The House of Mirth was available on the public section and ready to be brought home.

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The House of Mirth has been a controversial and shocking novel ever since its publication in 1905. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a young New York socialite who, at 29 and still unmarried, is both admired for her beauty and criticised for her single status. Despite her looks, and her charm, Lily was brought up by a superficial mother who made of Lily’s beauty her supposedly only attribute. After her debut at the age of 18 Lily has had many suitors –one of them an Italian prince – but decided not to settle down. The novel takes place on her 29th year, as she struggles to make sense of her waiting, her present and her future.

Even though the idea of becoming an ostracised spinster at age 29 may seem a joke in 2016, when Wharton first published The House of Mirth she shocked the American public by exposing the dark truth behind young women. Wharton openly questions the validity of marriage as a tool for women to lead a socially respectable life through the eyes of Lily, who sees how the husbands of her friends flirt with her. Not only that, but she also sees her female friends engage in affairs with younger men not so behind closed doors as we may believe in the 21st century. Lily, as an outsider and spectator, questions whether she wishes to follow this path, and why she cannot live alone like her male friends do.

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Edith Wharton (Undated) From Beinecke Library, Yale University

From a feminist point of view The House of Mirth is a subversive novel that stands with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a subversion of traditional and patriarchal narratives. Both Wharton and Chopin created female main characters that offered readers a different take on marriage and motherhood. Throughout the novel we are presented with Lily’s love for life and her need to open her wings and escape the golden cage of marriage and traditional femininity. In her own awakening, Lily ponders on her role and her agency realising she is not free to act upon her wishes with Wharton’s fixation on capitalist femininity as a double-edged sword that compromises beauty and limitations:

“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 had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making.”

“I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else.”

In her search for happiness and agency Lily encounters a suitor that could make her happy were it not for the social restrictions and her own upbringing. In the height created by the last days of Victorian morals and manners and the American capitalist system, could a woman brought up to be beautiful forget her upbringing and marry for love? Wharton makes Lily’s search for love as interesting as possible by including money, social status, and traditions into the equation. Far from perpetuating a traditional view on romantic love, Lily ponders practically on who to marry and the reasons to do so, or not.

“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”

The struggle between her own desires, society’s expectations and her social, historical and economic context creates one of the best novels in American literature. Lily Bart is the first attempt by an American female writer to create a strong, subversive woman who wishes to live her life according to her own desires and needs. As a crime fiction reader, I could not but see Lily as a first attempt at creating Amy Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, although this comparison may be far-fetched and highly influenced for my love for Flynn’s novel. In any case, throughout the novel we see how Lily’s attempts fail and life erodes her will and her lively attitude:

“She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips. She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky: she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her.”

In order to keep this review free of spoilers, I will not discuss the ending, although it is not difficult to imagine for feminist readers. To those who have read it, I would love to hear your opinions, and those of you who have not, The House of Mirth is one of the best contemporary novels in the Western tradition. I cannot still understand how Wharton was not included in any of the programmes in my English and American degree. If this were the case with anyone, I would encourage readers and students alike to pick up Wharton’s books on their own as they are a pure joy to read. And if you are not a literature student, this book will change your life as well as it portrays a long-lost time of decadence, over-spending, and the rigid and the still contemporary battle against a system of values that tried to restrict women to their roles as wives and mothers.

This is review #4 for my  20 Books of Summer project

15 thoughts on “The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

  1. I love this novel so much. In fact, Lily Bart is probably one of my favourite characters in literature – she is so complex and intriguing and endlessly fascinating. Nice comparison with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a book that has been on my TBR list for he longest time. I really must get around to it soon!

    1. Please let me know what you think about The Awakening, because I think Edna Pontellier will probably join Lily Bart as one of your favourite characters.

  2. A wonderful review! I’ve only read Wharton’s Ethan Frome which I enjoyed so am keen to explore more of her work. The House of Mirth has definitely moved up my TBR list 🙂

    1. Thank you, Gemma. I hope you enjoy The House of Mirth. To be sincere, Ethan Frome rings a bell but it’s never been on my radar. Should I give it a try?

      1. I’d recommend it! It’s been a while since I read it but I remember loving how Wharton evoked this sense of desolation and missed opportunities. It tells the story of Ethan who is merely existing I suppose, until the arrival of his wife’s cousin makes him realise there’s more to life…

  3. I’ve only recently started reading EW, and wrote about the 3 novels (I bought at Book People for a bargain price) at my blog earlier this year. Enjoyed your take on it, and the comparison with Chopin. Would take issue with this being the *first* such feminist take on the spirited, constrained woman in a man’s world – Henry James surely got there first with a whole string of them, especially Isabel Archer…Some of George Eliot’s female characters come to mind, too. But you’re right about the still shocking frankness of Wharton’s depiction of Lily’s compromised position.

    1. I tried to read Portrait of a Lady some years ago and I just couldn’t finish it: James’ portrayal of Isabel Archer did not feel quite right to me. If I remember well, I thought she was too ‘good’, whereas Lily is ambitious and troubled. And you can easily tell I still haven’t read any Eliot yet, but I hope to soon. Thanks for reminding me 🙂

      1. It’s a shame you didn’t get on with Portrait. I’d recommend trying again at a later date. I don’t see Isabel as particularly ‘good’; she’s very much the emerging New Woman: assertive, intelligent, inclined to be subversive – but still she makes fatal flaws of judgement about suitable partners, falling for the dazzling but phoney aestheticism of a jaded Euro-roué who’s only after her money, rejecting ‘old money’ and security. She has to suck up the consequences. So: good but flawed…:) Do try G Eliot, too. Dorothea in Middlemarch is a terrific character.

  4. House of Mirth is on my list of books I really ought to read. I hope to get around to it before the end of the year (endless diversions). Your review has definitely whetted my appetite to pick this up. Great review Elena.

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