Study Guide

The House of Mirth Society and Class

By Edith Wharton

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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.

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