What a depressing, but beautifully written book! The writing style is sophisticated and pure. You'll get the impression that the main character, Lily, is destined for a fatal crash, but you'll find yourself screaming at her to make the "right" choices and to defend herself when wrongly accused. Lily is so conflicted in what she thinks she wants and who she really is that you never know whether or not she finally resolves these issues within herself in the end. If you're a woman, you'll be thankful that you don't have the same limitations and ridiculous moral standards that were the societal norm in the early 1900's. Feel free to email with any questions. ~LeAnn
Wharton's classic novel is a study of New York's high society in the late nineteenth century. The heroine, Lily Bart, finds herself victim of a society where appearances are far more important than reality. The constant search for the perfct husband reminds me a little of a Jane Austen novel without the happy ending.
Jerry L. reviewed The House of Mirth (Modern Library Classics) on
Fascinating look into New York social life of the rich. I enjoyed the book immensely and the fact that it was written in another era added to its authenticity and interest. It's a nice peek into a world we never knew.
Published originally in 1905, made into a movie, this book provides a n accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy and the story of the beautiful Lily Bart and ill-fated attempt to rise to the heights of a heartless society.
** spoiler alert ** This novel follows primarily a young socialite named Lily Bart as she slowly ruins her life, dropping from the most beloved of country dinner visitors to a working class girl with an addiction to a sleep aid. Although many call this a love story, I think this would be classified as a love story in only the loosest sense, and in the great tradition of novels like Gone with the Wind and Wuthering Heights. If anyone's actually in love, it's rarely if ever admitted and certainly not happy.
When I began this book, without the slightest hint of what it might be about other than having previously read another of Wharton's works Ethan Frome, I assumed from the first chapter that the story would be a drawn out account of the changing of Lily's morals as she realizes that, obviously, Lawrence Selden (the pseudo "romantic interest") is the one for her, blah, blah, blah. As it turns out, Lily's morals change very little throughout the book, and her high standards of living combined with her strong moral fiber almost always ruin things for her. Why can't she just marry Selden and maintain her place in the social order and actually go a step up in her living conditions, if not achieving the wealth of which she dreams? Standards. Why can't she get over herself and marry Rosedale who will give her said wealth, even though she quite dislikes him? Standards. She simply can't be pleased. She won't marry for love and she won't marry for money - she's content to settle into old maidhood waiting for the perfect Mr. Right to come along. Meanwhile, her morals generally screw her over too. She has to stand by Bertha Dorset when she cheats! She can't use the love letters she found against her to regain her place and society and Rosedale's hand! She can't confess her undying love for Selden! But she's perfectly cool getting into various shady dealings with the Gormers, Mrs. Hatch and the chloral. Good God, Lily. She can't seem to decide what she wants and refuses to make the right decision throughout the book.
Although I found Lily to be in character throughout, I found so many of her decisions frustratingly stupid and unambitious (combined with her thoroughly ambitious personality) that I found it hard to love Lily as much as I would have otherwise. So many times, salvation was within reach. Actually, she didn't even have to reach for it. All she had to do was say the word and be whisked away from her depressing and anticlimactic end...but nope. Her standards/morals always got in the way.
Although I found the novel frustrating, slow and confusing (Wharton referred to characters exclusively by their first or last names for pages on end and then would spontaneously end, plus freaking everyone is related which is hard to remember) I did enjoy it. I would say it was really more of a 3.5 than a 3, a meh+ versus just a meh... But I also wouldn't quite say I "liked" it. I'm certainly glad I read it, but I'm also glad it's over.
An immensely popular bestseller upon its publication in 1905, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH was Edith Wharton's first great novel. Set among the lelgant brownstones of New York City and opulent country houses like Bellomont on the Hudson, the novel creates a satiric portrayal of what Wharton herself called 'a socity of irresponsible pleasure-seekers' with a percision comparable to that of Proust.
And her brilliant and complex characterization of the doomed Lily Bart, whose stunning beauty and dependence on marriage for exonomic survival reduce her to a decorative object, becomes an incisive commentary on the nature and status of women in that society.
From her tragic attraction to bachelor lawyer Lawrence Selden to her desperate relationship with social-climbing Rosedale, Lily is all too much a procuct of the world indicated by the title, a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes: "The heart of fools is in the house of mirth." For it is Lily's very specialness that threatens the elegance and fulfillment she seeks in life. Along with the author's other masterpiece THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, this novel claims a place among the finest American novels of manners.
....taken from the back cover of the book
The transformation of Lily Bart from a slightly careless but ambitious beauty into a helplessly unlucky woman fighting for her morality kept me engrossed. At the beginning of the novel, Lily is keenly focused on her goal of having as much of the things that please her as she wants. Because her own family is relatively poor, she depends on her wealthy Society friends to support her by inviting her to stay with them at their houses in exchange for her charm. Even so, she spends too much of her own money on her clothing and on card games with her friends, and although money shouldn't be a problem for her because she has all the skill and beauty she needs to land a wealthy husband, she thwarts until almost all of her prospective husbands drop away and her debt becomes too real for her to go on ignoring it. Then, through a series of poor choices, she imperils her standing in high society.
Lily's self-frustrating choices are the central puzzle of the novel. Although she experiences bad luck, she still had the opportunity and the skill to secure her future with a wealthy man and live her life contentedly, yet she seems to choose not to. And later when she was accused of impropriety, she has the means to overcome that obstacle and clear her name, and again she seems to choose not to. I think it's more than personal pride or stubbornness that forces Lily to steer herself into trouble and keeps her from saving herself time and time again: I think that, having been taught to equate luxury with morality, she does not want to believe the truth about the people she aspires so strongly to be with. She wants to be have money herself, and she wants to achieve these goals using her wit and charm, not by breaking up a marriage or through blackmail.
Lawrence Selden is the perfect complement to Lily Bart. He is too middle-class to be taken seriously as a husband for Lily Bart, he is too detached to become emotionally invested in her drama, and yet he profoundly influences her life. Early on, he half-jokingly questions her ambition to be well married, and marvels that she should really be completely happy just by being materially comfortable. Although she asserts that yes, she is certain that money will make her happy, she can't bring herself to commit to that belief. The security of her future requires her to be locked inside the highest social circle, but emotionally she prefers to be on the outside, insecure perhaps but free like Lawrence. I think she comes to envy him, and that, had she been born male instead of female, she might have been able to live a life of freedom like his. I also wondered if, had she not met him and had her marital ambitions challenged by him, she would have made different decisions. Without his outsider's view of her haunting her, would she have been able to attain her goals? Would she have stayed unexamined and therefore perfectly contented with luxury?
None of the books I have read in the last year or so has affected me much emotionally, but this book moved me more than I expected it to. I would definitely recommend it.
The House of Mirth" has its merits. It gives a clear (I assume) picture of the self-centered silliness of high society in the fading Victorian Age in NYC. Unfortunately I really couldn't get into this book and I finally gave up about half way through. I'm disappointed after reading such fabulous reviews.