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.
The lower the class, the happier the character in House of Mirth.
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.
In her early attempts to marry, Lily seeks not only money, but the thrill of power over her husband.
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.
The House of Mirth condemns the institution of marriage as false and self-serving.
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.
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.
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.
Social manacles can not be broken in House of Mirth.
House of Mirth argues that deterministic social manacles can in fact be broken.
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.
Scandal is more threatening than financial ruin in House of Mirth.
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.
The ability to differentiate between "dinginess" and immorality constitutes Lily's moral awakening in House of Mirth.
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.
Wharton's point of view in House of Mirth is a misogynist one.