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Themes

The House of Mirth presents an antithesis between money and morality. The richest characters, members of New York society's upper echelon, are petty and devoid of scruples, while those in the working class (or at least absent from the circles of the obscenely wealthy) rank high on the moral scale. Main character Lily Bart experiences a transformation through the course of the novel from materialistic and amoral to poverty-stricken but righteous. Many of the novel's conflict-ridden decisions come down to a question of priorities: be good, or be wealthy? It's clear from Wharton's tone that the author condones the former as the better choice.

Questions About Morality

  1. Lily never uses Bertha's letters for blackmail, but was it immoral of her to buy them in the first place? Considering that the charwoman was struggling to feed herself and her family, was it immoral of her to try and sell them?
  2. While we're on that note, who defines what is moral and immoral in House of Mirth? From where or whom does Lily in particular get her morals?
  3. Who is the most moral character in House of Mirth? The least?
  4. When she buys the letters from the charwoman, Lily muses that "if you would forgive your enemy, first inflict a hurt on him." She never really uses her weapon against Bertha – does she ever forgive her for ruining things between her and Percy? Later on, does she forgive her for ruining her reputation in Monte Carlo?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The ability to differentiate between "dinginess" and immorality constitutes Lily's moral awakening in House of Mirth.

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