Study Guide

The House of Mirth Wealth

By Edith Wharton

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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.

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