Study Guide

The House of Mirth Analysis

  • Tone

    Sympathetic, With a Healthy Dose of Amused Detachment

    For someone so thoroughly entrenched in the social elite, Wharton maintains a sense of perspective – and a sense of humor – while portraying the crowd she knows so very well. This is one of our favorite droll Wharton moments:

    The couple in question were engaged in the same kind of romance. […] Miss Van Osburgh was a large girl with flat surfaces and no high lights: Jack Stepney had once said of her that she was as reliable as roast mutton. His own taste was in the line of less solid and more highly-seasoned diet; but hunger makes any fare palatable, and there had been times when Mr. Stepney had been reduced to a crust. (1.4.69)

    Wharton recognizes the absurdity of money-driven marriages, as well as the insipid "jobs" that those in society are forced to fill if they want to keep their spot among the social elite. For example,

    Lord Hubert Dacey, a slender shabby-looking man, with a charming worn smile, and the air of having spent his best years in piloting the wealthy to the right restaurant. (2.1.13)

    She also keenly identifies the hypocrisy of the society she's observing:

    Like many unpunctual persons, Mrs. Gormer disliked to be kept waiting. (2.6.32)

    Ha! Funny stuff. At the same time, Wharton is incredibly sympathetic to the young Lily Bart; more so in Book II when the world around her protagonist has crumbled completely. There's nothing funny about Lily's social demise or her physical death at the novel's conclusion. She is every bit a victim of the society Wharton so cleverly exposes in Book I, and House of Mirth makes sure that, when we're done chuckling, we really feel the tragedy of her death in Book II.

  • Genre

    Historical Fiction, Realism, Romance, Satire and Parody, Tragedy

    House of Mirth is a great social and historical account of New York's elite in the late 1800s. Because Wharton grew up in the environment she's depicting, the portrait she paints is rather accurate (if rather scathing as well – hence the Satire and Parody). The "novel of manners" which we discuss in our "In A Nutshell" is actually a subset of the Realism genre; it relies on realistic accounts of realistic characters rather than allegory or metaphor, and draws its plot and action from everyday scenarios. We can account for both Romance and Tragedy by looking to Lily's tumultuous relationship with Selden; it's pretty much a doomed love affair from the start.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title comes from a line in the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes 7:4 to be more specific: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." In other words, wise people think about death and loss and other serious matters, while foolish people are busy thinking of only happy and silly things. When you read the passages surrounding 7:4, what you walk away with is some general advice to take life seriously instead of indulging in pleasure.

    Remind you of anything? Another way to describe this dichotomy is to contrast "Stoic" (thinking about serious stuff) and "Epicurean" (pleasure-seeking). Lawrence Selden is at one point described as combining "the stoic's carelessness of material things […] with the Epicurean's pleasure in them." In Lily's "Character Analysis," we discuss her transformation from a material girl to a pillar of morality – in other words, she's an Epicurean-turned-Stoic.

    The House of Mirth – like this passage from Ecclesiastes – praises stoicism and rejects Epicureanism. We talk in "Character Analysis" about the dichotomy of money and morality in the novel. Characters have to choose between material luxuries and goodness. Wharton makes it clear that the correct choice, in her mind and therefore in her novel, is goodness and morality – and this choice of title reinforces that bias.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    If you're interested in reading about Lily's death, its ambiguity, the various ways to interpret it, and the implications of those interpretations, go ahead and check out her "Character Analysis." What we're going to talk about here is the word. Check out the very last paragraph of House of Mirth:

    [Selden] knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear. (2.14.36)

    Before we talk about what this word is, we're going to have to go back a little ways in the novel and find where this "word" business all started. Selden starts thinking about this mystical word all the way back in Chapter Twelve, when Lily comes by to see him and, though he doesn't know it, changes her mind about blackmailing Bertha. As she readies to leave, Selden is "still groping to for the word to break the spell" of Lily's "tranced" "faculties." But he can't find it yet. Now, cut to the next morning, when Selden cheerily makes his way to Lily's place in order to propose:

    He only knew that he must see Lily Bart at once – he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said. It was strange that it had not come to his lips sooner – that he had let her pass from him the evening before without being able to speak it. […] It was not a word for twilight, but for the morning. (2.14.4)

    Exciting! Unfortunately, Lily is dead. And yet, Selden still manages to communicate with her dead body, as you see in that final paragraph we started our discussion with. He still speaks the word to her, even though she's not conscious to hear it. He speaks to her through silence.

    Have we seen this before? Yes, indeed, way back in Book I, Chapter Twelve, when Selden decides (for the first time) that he's in love with Lily and wants to marry her. It's at the living portraits party, where "Selden [gives] her his arm without speaking" and Lily "[takes] it in silence." They walk through the garden and, "still without speaking," have a seat by the fountain. Considering all the social intrigues, verbal swordplay, and word games that these two play, it's almost as though they communicate better in silence. And, what the end of the novel proves, in fact, is that they only need one word – communicated in silence – to really understand each other. It's no coincidence that The House of Mirth both begins and ends with conversations between Lily and Selden, nor one that the silent conversation at the end is more effective communication than the verbal one at the novel's beginning.

    Interestingly, it isn't just Selden who identifies a single word that holds the key to his relationship with Lily. Look at these passages from the moments before her death:

    As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered vague and luminous on the far edge of thought – she was afraid of not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well.

    Slowly the thought of the word faded, and sleep began to enfold her. She struggled faintly against it, feeling that she ought to keep awake on account of the baby; but even this feeling was gradually lost in an indistinct sense of drowsy peace, through which, of a sudden, a dark flash of loneliness and terror tore its way.
    (2.13.56-7)

    Nifty! Our heroine, too, zeroes in on a single "word" here – it's almost as if she and Selden have some sort of mystical, psychic connection. Which is all great, but get to the point already, right? What is the word?

    Hard to say. If you want to wrap this up and slap a bow on it, you could read an essay by scholar James Gargano called "House of Mirth: Social Futility and Faith." He argues that the "word" really is just one single word, and that that single word is "faith." Lily has to learn to take a leap of faith by marrying Selden, by living on the edge of the abyss of poverty and still feeling safe, the way that Nettie Struther has managed to do. She needs to have faith in her own morality – faith that she can live and not give in to the temptation of Rosedale's offer. She needs to have faith in her own usefulness, perhaps as a mother, given the recent events surrounding Nettie's baby.

    This is by no means the only answer, nor is it clear that Wharton intended any one single word. "The word" could be a set of ideas or concepts, a feeling or a mood that both Selden and Lily grasp at the novel's conclusion. What we do know about this "word" is that it's a positive one; Selden remarks that it is "not a word for twilight, but for the morning." The word acts as a light in the darkness to Lily, something "vague" but also "luminous." And, as you see in the passages above, the idea of the "word" in Lily's mind transitions into the idea of Nettie Struther's baby. (Think: re-birth, rejuvenation, hope for the future.)

    So maybe it has to do with maternity or hope or, as Gargano says, perhaps faith. Maybe it has something to do with Selden and Lily finally admitting their love to each other – something they were never really able to do in life. (Remember Lily saying, "Love me, love me – but don't tell me so!") In short, we can't tell you definitively what this word is – though we can now say with fair certainty that it is not "marshmallow." Word.

  • Setting

    The late 1800s; New York and the Mediterranean

    Social context is the most important thing to keep in mind while reading House of Mirth. Lily's world is one in which women, and their activities, are extremely restricted. If Lily wants to keep her reputation intact, she's not allowed to have a place of her own, a job, hang out alone with Selden or any other man, borrow money from married men, or, apparently, gamble or smoke. You'll also notice that speech and dialogue are both decidedly different than what you're used to – more formal and elegant – again because of the novel's setting.

    As far as the details are concerned, the setting varies from New York City itself to the fashionable New York country homes of couples like the Trenors. The most interesting setting switcheroo forms the division between Book I and Book II, when the social elite pack up and ditch town to head for the Mediterranean. Europe is a very different place – it has different social climbers, different social rules, different ruling elite to impress, and different ideas about social propriety. As Wharton writes, "Monte Carlo is, of all places, the one where the human bond is least close, and odd sights are the least arresting." (2.54)

    Characters like Bertha Dorset go a little wild once they've been given the slightly freer reign of Monaco. It's sort of the same thing that happens when people visit, say, Las Vegas. Unfortunately, for all involved, in House of Mirth what happens in Monte Carlo does not stay in Monte Carlo. Much of the tension in Book II has to do with reconciling the activities that went down in Europe with the panel of social judges waiting back in New York.

  • Writing Style

    Victorian

    Wharton's prose is as proper and intricately gilded as the furniture in the Trenors' drawing room. In the Victorian era, everything from cleavage to ankles to furniture legs were hidden, and, similarly, the much of the action in House of Mirth (revenge, sex, seduction, lust) is hidden in sub-text. When Trenor propositions Lily, all he actually says is, "The man who pays for dinner is generally allowed a seat at the table."

    Wharton also has a knack for saying a lot with a little. Try to re-word some of her more incisive one-liners and you'll find yourself buried in a paragraph of dull text. For example:

    If [Judy] was careless of [her husband's] affections, she was plainly jealous of his pocket. (2.4.43)

    Basically, this is really good writing.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Water Imagery

    When reading House of Mirth, keep an eye out for words like "flood," "water," "drown," "submerge," "sink," "float," and "ocean." You'll find a slew of references to drowning and floods and the like, starting with this passage right here:

    [Lily] knew that she hated dinginess as much as her mother had hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it, dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch. (1.3.73)

    Think of the image of drowning in a great flood of water as a sort of despair. In Lily's "Character Analysis," we talk about her transformation throughout the course of the novel from a material girl to a moral woman. This passage – from Part I, Chapter Three of the novel – gives us a glimpse into Lily's character back when she's still relatively shallow and amoral. In her mind, the greatest despair – the feeling of drowning – has to do with poverty. To Lily, the flood of water is "dinginess."

    Now look at this passage, at the moment of Lily's moral apotheosis (after Gus Trenor propositions her):

    Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the moral shame was one with the physical dread. […] His touch was a shock to her drowning consciousness. (1.13.67)

    Lily is despairing once again, and once again that despair is described as drowning in a flood of violent waters. Except, this time, it has nothing to do with money. Lily is feeling a flood of shame and immorality, not of "dinginess." Why? Because she's learned to recognize immorality when she sees it. Earlier in the novel, "undisturbed by scruples," morality wasn't on Lily's radar. This scene, at the end of Book I, constitutes a moral awakening. It's a big moment for Lily and the turning point for her transformation.

    Interestingly, Lily isn't the only one spending some quality time with the novel's most intense imagery. When Gerty Farish realizes that Selden is in love with Lily, not her, it goes a little something like this:

    It was all as meaningless as the boom of waves in a drowning head, and she felt, as the drowning may feel, that to sink would be nothing beside the pain of struggling to keep up. (1.14.25)

    And, shortly after, we have:

    Alone with her cousin's kiss, Gerty stared upon her thoughts. He had kissed her before – but not with another woman on his lips. If he had spared her that she could have drowned quietly, welcoming the dark flood as it submerged her. But now the flood was shot through with glory, and it was harder to drown at sunrise than in darkness. (1.14.59)

    When Lily comes by, distraught and frantic later that night, "She [lays] both hands on Gerty's shoulders, with a smile that [is] like sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage" (1.14.92). That's a lot of ocean imagery in about ten pages of text. What's going on? It looks like, for Gerty, this drowning imagery is a question of willful submission as opposed to violent struggle. Should she give in to the flood (that is, give up all hope of having Lawrence for herself) or fight against it (battle Lily for the man-turf)? Because Gerty chooses to help Lily and give up Selden in the process, it's as though she chooses to drown. When Lily comes by "like a sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage," it's because Gerty gave up, sank beneath the waves, and is now the flotsam and jetsam floating around in the aftermath of the storm.

    How does Selden's character make use this water imagery? Check this out, from the same stormy Part I, Chapter Fourteen:

    Well, he had strength for both – it was her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety. (1.14.44)

    Remember that Selden wishes to take Lily "beyond – beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition and corrosion of the soul." This process of dragging her up and away is, in his mind, akin to making their way out of a muddy bog. Just like Lily, the imagery is very much tied to morality.

    Now, let's jump to the end of the novel, right before Lily's death.

    That was the feeling which possessed her now – the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.

    Remember, Lily has conquered a moral crisis already. Immorality attacked her like a rush of waves, but Selden and she managed to pull themselves up and out of the water. Now, a different kind of flood hits Lily, this time in the form of her on-going identity crisis. Lily believes herself a "cog without a machine" since she's dropped out of society. In the "Character Analyses" we talk about social determinism, the idea that Lily is suited for society and incapable of living outside it. Because of this, Lily feels useless and rootless as a working class gal. Her "tentacles of self" have no footing; she's in a flood of her own uselessness.

    The very last occurrence of water imagery comes in the final chapter, when Selden finds Lily dead: "The bitter waters of life surged high about him, their sterile taste was on his lips" (2.14.32). Selden may have pulled Lily out of the "morass" (or bog) of immorality, but he couldn't save her from what he considers "the bitter waters of life." Factors like social determinism or the gilded cage of society mean that Lily is never really free – or in this case, never safely on dry land.

    Mythology

    Lily Bart is so beautiful, it's as though she came from another world – an ancient Greek world, actually, if you want to get more specific. House of Mirth is peppered with references to ancient Greek mythology, usually with Lily as some gorgeous centerpiece. Take a look:

    The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline – as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality. (1.1.119)

    That BEYOND! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus's task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda's chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. (1.14.44)

    Um…what? The sylvan dryad stuff makes sense, but who is Perseus? Time for a little Greek Mythology Break. Andromeda was a beautiful young Greek woman. Unfortunately, her mother wouldn't stop blabbing about how beautiful Andromeda was, and the gods got angry. To appease them, Andromeda's parents decided to sacrifice their daughter to a sea monster. Andromeda was tied to a rock, but, before the monster could take a tasty bite, the young hero Perseus showed up, saved her, took her away, and married her. Selden likens Lily to Andromeda, a woman being sacrificed for her beauty, and himself to Perseus, the rescuer man. Also, there's some great sea-imagery here, which by now you should know all about.

    Speaking of sea imagery, take a look at our next Greek mythology reference, taken from Gerty's perspective after she realizes that Lawrence is in love with Lily:

    The mortal maid on the shore is helpless against the siren who loves her prey: such victims are floated back dead from their adventure. (1.14.98)

    The sirens were Greek monsters, half-women and half-bird, which lived on a secluded island. They had beautiful voices and used to sing to lure sailors off their course and towards certain death. Gerty imagines that Selden is one such sailor, Lily is the evil, beautiful siren, and Gerty herself is a "moral maid" waiting back home for her sailor to return. In other words, she vilifies Lily for stealing her man, and pays homage to her rival's mythical beauty while doing so.

    The Furies

    Yes, more mythology. Here's the back-story: the furies were mythical creatures in ancient Greece who embodied vengeance. Basically, if you did something wrong, these scary, winged creatures would hunt after you for the rest of your life. The go-to ancient text here is a tragic play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, called Eumenides. In it, a man named Orestes is relentlessly pursued by the furies as punishment. "Eumenides" means "friendly ones" and was a euphemism used to refer to the furies.

    What does this have to do with House of Mirth? Take a look:

    [Lily] had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the Eumenides, and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour's repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain . . . (1.13.78)

    This is Lily's reaction after she flees Trenor's house late at night and finds herself compromised and in despair. Later that night, she says: "Oh, Gerty, the furies…you know the noise of their wings – alone, at night, in the dark? But you don't know – there is nothing to make the dark dreadful to you" (1.14.78). Lily clearly identifies herself with Orestes, but what are the furies to her? What is it that she feels relentlessly pursuing her throughout the course of the novel? To answer this, let's look at some more references to the furies.

    [The next morning:] In the solitude of her own room she was brought back to a sharp contemplation of facts. Her daylight view of them necessarily differed from the cloudy vision of the night. The winged furies were now prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea. But her fears seemed the uglier, thus shorn of their vagueness; and besides, she had to act, not rave. For the first time she forced herself to reckon up the exact amount of her debt to Trenor. (1.15.12)

    [After Mrs. Peniston refuses to help with her debt:] Lily went up to her own room and bolted the door. She was trembling with fear and anger – the rush of the furies' wings was in her ears. She walked up and down the room with blind irregular steps. The last door of escape was closed – she felt herself shut in with her dishonour. (1.15.48)

    Lily has identified the furies as the sense of obligation she feels to pay Trenor back his nine thousand dollars. That's why the sound of the wings abates when she has hope of getting the money from her aunt, and comes back with a fury when Mrs. Peniston refuses to help. Running away from New York to Europe means Lily is actually taking the same course of action that Orestes did – trying to flee the furies. Does it work? That would be a "no." Lily returns to New York to find that, sadly, her debt didn't magically disappear while she was gone. She assumes the obligation to pay it back once more, but we don't hear about the furies again until close to the end of the novel, when Selden offers Lily a quick-fix out of debt:

    She was quite sure that [Selden] would come and see her again, and almost sure that, if he did, she could bring him to the point of offering to marry her on the terms she had previously rejected. Would she still reject them if they were offered? More and more, with every fresh mischance befalling her, did the pursuing furies seem to take the shape of Bertha Dorset; and close at hand, safely locked among her papers, lay the means of ending their pursuit. The temptation, which her scorn of Rosedale had once enabled her to reject, now insistently returned upon her; and how much strength was left her to oppose it? (2.10.96)

    Now that Lily has grown into a moral woman concerned with scruples instead of cash, the furies no longer take the shape of her financial concern; they take the shape of a moral one. She's no longer concerned about having to pay back her debt; she's concerned that she will cop out, use the letters, and marry Rosedale for the quick-fix. As Lily's perceptions and attitude have changed, so have changed the novel's symbols and the ideas they represent.

    The Abyss (Or Chasm, take your pick)

    Lily seems to spend an unhealthy amount of time poised on the edge of some type of cliff, ready to fall down into some sort of metaphorical abyss. The first mention of said chasm arises when Lily debates whether or not to purchase the blackmail letters from the charwoman:

    If she weighed all these things it was unconsciously: she was aware only of feeling that Selden would wish the letters rescued, and that therefore she must obtain possession of them. Beyond that her mind did not travel. She had, indeed, a quick vision of returning the packet to Bertha Dorset, and of the opportunities the restitution offered; but this thought lit up abysses from which she shrank back ashamed.

    It's should be no surprise to you by now that, like everything else in House of Mirth, this abyss has something to do with morality. Lily feels that the gaping darkness below her is the darkness of moral destitution. Now, let's look at Abyss #2, when Selden encounters Lily in Monte Carlo before the Dorset scandal has taken place:

    [Lily] was on the edge of something – that was the impression left with him. He seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her.

    Lily is indeed about to take a fall – a fall which will be moral in the eyes of those around her (who believe she has engaged in an affair with George Dorset), social, and also financial. Much of Book II is composed of Lily's great fall from grace, from a member of the social elite to a destitute member of the working class. But we can't wrap this discussion up yet; the idea of the abyss comes back into play right at the end of the novel, when Lily muses on her encounter with Nettie Struther:

    The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It was a meager enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird's nest built on the edge of a cliff – a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.

    Nettie is on the edge of the abyss of poverty and insignificance. (Remember how Lily is just as concerned with isolation and meaninglessness as she is with finances in the moments before her death?) Yet Nettie is safe, Lily concludes, because she has both permanence and love in her home and in her husband. Poverty doesn't threaten Nettie the way it does Lily. For our heroine, though, the abyss still yawns before her and, by the end of the novel, seems to represent all that has plagued Lily throughout the novel: poverty, moral ruin, and even death, as we see in this last passage:

    The very slowness and hesitancy of the effect increased its fascination: it was delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness.

    Unconsciousness might mean sleep, but it also refers to death. Which one Lily is seeking at this point is, as always, up to you to decide.

    War and Battle

    In this novel, dating isn't just a game – it's war. The demure Miss Bart thinks of Percy as her "prey" and "organize[s] a method of attack" while on the train to Bellomont (1.2.8). Her beauty is described as a "weapon" (1.3.57). And check out this passage, re: the Brys' entry into the social elite:

    To attack society collectively, when one's means of approach are limited to a few acquaintances, is like advancing into a strange country with an insufficient number of scouts; but such rash tactics have sometimes led to brilliant victories. (1.12.7)

    It's not all tea parties and expensive upholstery. This is serious stuff. Consequently, however, the causalities of such social warfare are similarly grave. Lily becomes a tactical "sacrifice" to the Dorsets' marriage; it's clear that Bertha Dorset uses her as a pawn in her own scheming games. Sounds like more objectification, and more social Darwinism (survival of the socially fittest, right?).

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Most critics have concluded that the narrator's voice is that of Wharton's – that all that commentary and those incisive little asides represent the voice of the author. The tone of the author, therefore (see "Tone"), is also that of the narrator. Because of the narrative omniscience, as readers, we are able to see with both breadth and depth the society in which Lily Bart lives. We're allowed access not only to our heroine's head, but to the thoughts and opinions of those around her as well.

    Turn to Book I, Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen, for an interesting amalgamation of three unique perspectives: Lily, Gerty, and Selden. These three accounts of two incredibly tempestuous days are spliced together to increase dramatic tension and explore all the sides of a single story. As the novel continues, we're allowed insight into the thoughts of more and more characters – even Ned Silverton gets a brief spotlight in Book II, Chapter One. It's important that, as readers, we're allowed access to more minds than just that of Lily Bart. To judge and understand our heroine, we have to also judge and understand her context – made up, of course, of the many characters whom surround her.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      Lily isn't very happy with her life.

      Lily feels unfulfilled. Her life is boring and she expects that it will get even more boring as it progresses. She looks to something better, and that something is Lawrence Selden.

      Dream Stage

      Lily sort of thinks about being with Selden

      This isn't exactly your typical dream stage, since Lily never fully commits to a life with Selden. She holds back because she always remembers that Selden doesn't have enough money to keep her happy.

      Frustration Stage

      Lily can neither have her cake nor eat it.

      At first, Lily was faced with a decision between being happy but "poor" with someone like Selden, or being miserable and rich with someone like Percy Gryce. As her social life begins crumbling at the hand of Gus Trenor and Bertha Dorset, Lily is stripped of both possibilities.

      Nightmare Stage

      Lily becomes a working girl.

      Lily sinks further and further into poverty, and further down the social ladder, and finally to the working class. Then, she's fired from her job. Lily despairs and turns to chloral (a drug to help her sleep) for comfort.

      Destruction or Death Wish Stage

      Lily overdoses and dies.

      Lily overdoses on her chloral just when Selden was ready to rescue her from her misery.

    • Plot Analysis

      Since The House of Mirth was published, critics have been complaining about its lack of conventional plot structure. Basically, the novel is more a series of episodes than it is a seven-part Classic Plot. You could see each episode as being its own little climax, suspense, and denouement.

      Take, for example, the big scandal in Monte Carlo. Initially, Lily, George, Bertha, and Ned are all out for the night. Conflict begins when Bertha and Ned are nowhere to be found and George and Lily return alone. Complications rise the next morning, when George informs Lily that Bertha didn't come back until 7am; he suspects an affair. We get the climax when Bertha, alone with Lily, blames her for the scandal. Suspense rules the scene during dinner, when Lily and Selden anxiously wonder what's going to happen between the Dorsets, and denouement is the name of the game once Bertha kicks Lily off the yacht.

      You could run this same classic plot through for any of the other episodes in House of Mirth, from Lily's attempt to marry Gryce at Bellomont (climax is her decision to skip church and take a walk with Selden) to her stint as a secretary for Mrs. Norma Hatch (climax occurs when Selden pays her a visit and begs her to leave). OK, now you can try analyzing a few scenes on your own.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Lily thinks she wants to marry Gryce, but Selden's arrival complicates her decision. When she decides to go on a walk with Selden, she sacrifices her chances with Percy. At Jack's wedding, this loss is confirmed with the announcement of Percy's engagement to Evie.

      Act II

      Interactions with Gus Trenor become increasingly strained as Lily tries to juggle his ego with social propriety. She finds herself having to make nice with men like Rosedale, and, all the while, Selden lurks in the background. Act II ends with the tumultuous conclusion to Book I, when Lily finds herself compromised by Trenor and experiences a moral awakening.

      Act III

      Matters go from bad to worse as we inch toward our conclusion: death. Lily's social demise in its various stages is simply leading up to her physical demise at the end of the novel.

    • Allusions

      Literature and Philosophy

      • Ecclesiastes 7:4 (The title)
      • Jean de La Bruyère (1.1.95) (2.12.3) – a French essayist
      • Sarum Rule (1.2.31) – a Latin liturgy
      • Omar Khayyám (1.6.7) – a Persian poet and philosopher
      • "If you would forgive your enemy, first inflict a hurt on him", a Malay proverb (1.10.39)
      • William Shakespeare, The Tempest ("Caliban" and "Miranda") (1.12.19)
      • Aeschylus, The Eumenides (1.13.78)
      • "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God", The Gospel of Matthew (1.14.10)
      • Paul Verlaine (2.1.33) – a French poet
      • Theocritus (2.2.4) – a Greek poet

      Mythological References

      • Minerva (1.9.61) – the Roman name for the Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom and war
      • The Furies (1.13.78, 1.14.78, 1.15.12, 1.15.48, 2.10.96)
      • Perseus and Andromeda (1.14.44)
      • Venus (2.9.2) – The Roman name for the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of sex, love, and beauty

      Art References

      • Richard Wagner (1.10.38) – a German composer known for his operas
      • Sandro Botticelli (1.12.14) – an Italian Renaissance painter
      • Francisco Goya (1.12.15) – a Spanish painter
      • Titian (1.12.15) – an Italian Renaissance painter
      • Hugo Wilhelm Kauffmann (1.12.15) – a German painter
      • Paulo Veronese (1.12.15) – an Italian Renaissance painter
      • Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Mrs. Lloyd" (1.12.17)
      • Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1.12.17) – a Venetian painter

      Pop Culture

      • The New York Times
      (1.9.11)

    • Beatrice Cenci (1.15.13) – an Italian noblewoman involved in a famous murder trial in Rome