Study Guide

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth Introduction

The House of Mirth was published in 1905 by Edith Wharton, a well-known writer from a famous and wealthy New York family. Wharton, in many of her novels, explores and exposes the opulent society in which she lived. She knew the ins and outs of high society like the back of her hand, and wealthy New York society is indeed the hot topic of House of Mirth. The novel follows Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman on the hunt for a rich husband, as she navigates the social scene and suffers tragically at its self-serving hands.

At the time of its publication, House of Mirth was critically and commercially a great success. However, it was condemned by some as overly-critical of society's elite – and by "some" we mean, of course, "society's elite" themselves. Literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick writes in her introduction to the 1999 Modern Library edition of the novel that Wharton exposes "the best and the richest society of New York" to be "pimps cruising in Cadillacs." Ouch.

The novel firmly established Edith Wharton as a serious writer, and paved the way for later novels, including The Age of Innocence, for which she received the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. (Wharton was the first woman to receive this award.) House of Mirth was also seminal as an early novel in a genre of literature called "The Novel of Manners." These works explore a particular social system in a particular time, generally elite society sometime around the last half of the 19th century. Wharton was among writers like Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh in pioneering this genre.

What is The House of Mirth About and Why Should I Care?

Let us ask you a question. When you come across a book written a hundred years ago, and you realize that all the ridiculous drama of cliques, and popularity, and gossip was just as middle school then as it is now, is it reassuring or kind of depressing? Yeah, we don't know either.

Still, the easy comparison makes The House of Mirth way relevant. It's impossible to watch Lily Bart's star fall and her popular circle ditch her in crueler and crueler ways without immediately flashing to your personal own high school nightmare. Not only have we all been there, but we have also all been there on both sides of the ugliness, as the people diving into loserdom, and as the onlookers doing nothing to stop them.

That, friends, is the genius of The House of Mirth. Sure, the stakes are a little over the top and the ending goes for broke with the melodrama, but the book paints a totally convincing picture of the way social life is organized (and apparently has always been organized) around vague and unconfirmed gossip, and the desire to just do whatever everyone else is doing. What's amazing is just how unchanged the whole thing is—particularly the way Wharton shows friends abandoning Lily like the proverbial rats leaving the proverbial sinking ship. Proverbially.

So, what do you think? Are we meant to read this and change our behavior to stand up for the ostracized in our midst? Or is that point here that the well-oiled machine of society will just grind over anyone who sticks out, and that this really isn't even anyone's fault? Is there a character that gets to live it both ways, and do we want to try to be like that character in our daily lives?

The House of Mirth Resources

Movie or TV Productions

1981, Made-for-TV
Staring Geraldine Chaplin as Lily Bart.

1918 Film
This one's in black-and-white.

2000 Film
Starring Gillian Anderson (yes, from the X-Files) and Laura Linney. The film condenses a lot of the action in House of Mirth because. A lot of these intricacies are missing, as are many of the minor characters that give us the flavor of Old New York society. Still, kudos to the film for conveying Wharton's biting wit by relying so heavily on specific lines from the text; almost all of the movie's dialogue is verbatim.

Videos

The tableaux vivants scene
From the 2000 film

Lily's Final Scene with Selden
Lots of drama, tears, etc.

Lily refuses Selden's help. Again.
Indignation at its best.

Images

Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart
Big hats never looked so good.

The Author
Edith Wharton as a young woman.

Documents

The Mount
Edith's Wharton's famous house in Massachusetts still stands…for the time being.

Article About Wharton's Letter on Lily's Death
Was the overdose intentional? See what Wharton (and a slew of critics) thought.

Other

The Greatest House Ever
A website featuring Edith Wharton's house. You can start to see where Wharton got all the opulent details from…