Study Guide

The House of Mirth Themes

  • Society and Class

    Social climbing is the name of the game in this novel, which takes place in the elite circles of New York society during the very late 1800s. The cast of characters fall into distinct social spheres, from the wealthy and influential social elite all the way down to the working class. But the barriers between these circles are by no means impenetrable. Many characters teeter on the edge of the social elite, while others crawl their way up to the top or slide all the way down to the bottom of the social ladder. Money certainly helps in the ascent – and lack thereof certainly hastens the descent – but there's more to society than cold hard cash. Many times cash (or its extravagant uses) is traded for social currency, and there are many unofficial "jobs" to be filled servicing the social needs of the nouveau riche.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Does Lily want to be among the social elite for the money and luxury, or for the social currency? What about Rosedale?
    2. What keeps women like Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset at the top of the social heap?
    3. Do you consider Selden part of the social elite, or is he on the fringe of it? Does he get to decide where he stands? If not, who does?

    Chew on This

    The lower the class, the happier the character in House of Mirth.

  • Wealth

    Money will take you fairly far in the elite social circles of New York in the late 1800s presented in House of Mirth, but only if you use a good chunk of it to buy the social services of all the right people. The extravagant displays of wealth in this novel should shock and amaze you; in House of Mirth, poverty is having only a few servants in your mansion at a time. Or, at least, that's what society's elite consider to be poverty. Millionaires aside, the novel also glimpses into the world of the working class, who earn less in a year than the rich throw away as dinner scraps.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. While staying with Mrs. Peniston, Lily discovers that "dinginess is a quality which assumes all manner of disguises" and that it is "latent in the expensive routine of her aunt's life." What does she mean? If "dinginess" is the opposite of expensive luxury, how can the super-rich Mrs. Peniston possibly be dingy?
    2. Does House of Mirth present an antithesis of money and morality? Where does Mrs. Haffen, the charwoman, fit into this? Is she immoral for attempting blackmail?
    3. Is money ever used for good in House of Mirth, or is it always wasted on opulent luxury? Who uses it for good, and why?
    4. Wharton describes Lily's charitable donation as thinly-veiled egotism masquerading as philanthropy. Does this motive negate the effect of her action?

    Chew on This

    In her early attempts to marry, Lily seeks not only money, but the thrill of power over her husband.

  • Marriage

    Marriage is the duty and end-game for 29-year-old, strikingly beautiful Lily Bart, a single girl mingling with the social elite in New York in the late 1800s. Lily struggles with the novel's central conflict: marry for love, or marry for money? In a time when women are expected to live off their husbands, option #2 seems like the only way to go. The married couples featured in the novel certainly fit this mold, and the married characters fall into some rather bland gender roles. The men earn the money on Wall Street, and the women keep their families rolling in social currency.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Is Lily hiding her reaction to Mrs. Trenor's lecture in Book I, Chapter Seven, or does she really not care that Gryce is gone?
    2. Does Lily ever really want to marry Selden? Is she opposed to marrying a bore like Percy Gryce, or is she opposed to the institution of marriage as a whole?
    3. Are there any good marriages in House of Mirth? What would a "good marriage" mean to Wharton, based on the point-of-view you see in the novel?

    Chew on This

    The House of Mirth condemns the institution of marriage as false and self-serving.

  • Appearances

    Beauty is an asset for main character Lily Bart, a 29-year-old woman on the hunt for a rich husband. If dating and marriage is akin to war, and courtship to a series of battle tactics, then beauty is a nuclear weapon, and Lily's got her finger on the button. She uses her looks to deflect accusation, to charm, to coerce, and to manipulate. Men fall all over themselves for the opportunity to simply look at Lily. Of course, the problem with such a viewpoint is objectification. Lily is treated as more of a thing than a person, and even views herself this way.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Compare the physical descriptions of Lily Bart, Gerty Farish, and Bertha Dorset. How are these women affected by the way that they look?
    2. Is it possible for Lily to be seen as beautiful and as a real person, rather than an object? Is her beauty an obstacle to being respected?
    3. Wharton reiterates over and over again that beauty isn't enough – Lily's tact and grace are needed to win her a rich husband. So, which is a better weapon for Lily in the dating battlefield: looks or charm?

    Chew on This

    Lily's beauty hurts her more than it helps her in House of Mirth.

    Lily's beauty helps her more than it hurts her in House of Mirth.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Time and time again in House of Mirth, society is presented as a "gilded cage." In New York at the tail end of the Victorian era, the members of the social elite find themselves confined by their own self-imposed rules. Women must marry for money, men must bring home the bacon, single girls aren't allowed to get too close to married men, women who expect to marry shouldn't be smoking or playing cards for money, etc., etc. The novel explores the notion of social determinism – its characters are born into specific social roles, expected to play their parts, and unsuited to any other sort of life. A socialite wife of a rich man is incapable of being a mechanic the same way a fish is incapable of living on dry land. This sort of Darwinian restriction is just another form of overwhelming confinement.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How do Lily and Selden's respective definitions of success correlate with the lives they each seem to be choosing?
    2. Lily claims that Selden remembers the way out of the gilded cage, yet Wharton describes him as being tied down by the same deterministic manacles as the other characters. How free is Selden, really?
    3. Which character suffers the most at the hands of social "manacles" in House of Mirth? Which character suffers the least?
    4. Are Lily and Selden the only characters so acutely aware of their duties and distresses in the social sphere? Do characters like Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset have similar concerns, or are they blissfully happy in their societal roles?

    Chew on This

    Social manacles can not be broken in House of Mirth.

    House of Mirth argues that deterministic social manacles can in fact be broken.

  • Respect and Reputation

    The threat of scandal is an ever-present thundercloud in House of Mirth. Set among the upper-echelon of New York society in the late 1800s, the novel focuses on social goals, games, and disasters. Reputation is a particularly precarious balancing act for 29-year-old, still unmarried Lily Bart, who must carefully guard her public image in the hopes of winning a rich husband. Problems of money and boredom crop up, however, and Lily's interactions with married men and eligible bachelors to quell these concerns leave her on dangerous ground.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Is Lily deceiving herself about the morality involved in her transactions with Gus Trenor?
    2. Who struggles more with reputation – Lily or Rosedale?
    3. Why is it that men like Lawrence Selden never seem to have to worry about their reputation? After all, he had an affair with a married woman, but no one seems concerned that his public image is in jeopardy.

    Chew on This

    Scandal is more threatening than financial ruin in House of Mirth.

  • Morality

    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

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

  • Women and Femininity

    Gender roles are clearly established in House of Mirth. Men bring home the bacon, and women look pretty and keep tabs on the couple's social currency. Though they keep up good appearances, women in this novel can certainly be vicious – at least to each other. Married women guard their husbands carefully, both their affections and their money. Interestingly, however, it's the women who have the affairs in this novel, often with younger, less wealthy men who live off the married women's money in exchange for company.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Does Lily have the same control over women that she does over men? Compare her first three interactions in the novel: Selden, Percy Gryce, and Mrs. Dorset.
    2. Lily seems to have adopted her mother's policy on some issues. How much of her mother lives on through Lily? Is she making any attempts to shake off her childhood teachings?
    3. Which gender is more moral in this novel – the men, or the women?

    Chew on This

    Wharton's point of view in House of Mirth is a misogynist one.