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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth (1905)

by Edith Wharton

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6,436136597 (4.03)594
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    SandSing7: Wharton is as American as Austen is British. Read both works for a comparitive "across the pond" view on the novel of manners.
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Showing 1-5 of 130 (next | show all)
I'm not quite sure where to start with this review other than to say I thought this book was full of many moments of utter brilliance. Firstly, there was the setting of the New York upper class at the beginning of the 20th century. I've read lots of society type books from this era, but I think this is the first (for me) that's been set in the US. Out went the Downton Abbey setting of the many English books I've read from the period, and in it's place was wonderful descriptions of the early inhabitants of those fabulous brownstone buildings of streets like 5th Avenue.

Secondly, Lily was the most fabulous heroine I've come across in a while. At first she seemed an unlikeable character - shallow, vain, and with aspirations focused solely on material gain and sustaining her ability to keep up with her social set. However, as the book unfolds she develops into the most complex character full of self-contradictions. On the one hand she wants to seek out a marriage into money, yet when opportunity knocks she can't take that final step. She equates marriage with the huge compromise of dull, pompous husbands, and interprets love as a fanciful dream which can never lead to happiness as it's destined to be attached to an insufficient income.

She's the least well off of her set, needing to stay in favour with her group more than any of the others, yet she lets them wildly misconstrue a number of incidents which ultimately lead to her downfall. She has ample opportunity on a number of occasions to set the record straight or to quiet rumours with some well-aimed counter mudslinging, yet she chooses instead to hold her head high in hushed dignity, protecting people who ultimately expose the false veneer of her material dreams for what they really are.

Ultimately Lily is a person of rare depth and character within her set, and cleverly Wharton reveals that to us whilst sadly holding Lily back for much of the book from discovering her true self. Her dialogue is razor sharp in places, and at times the book was very humorous.

4.5 stars - a very clever, unique read from the period. ( )
2 vote AlisonY | Nov 17, 2015 |
God dammit, Wharton. Just... god dammit. ( )
  lunaluxor | Oct 29, 2015 |
If you like Edith Wharton . . . enough said. ( )
  bogopea | Sep 17, 2015 |
The heroine's conflicted persona was something I identified with easily, though the circumstances were unfamiliar territory. While Lily Bart was well-developed, I found that throughout the book, I wanted to know more about her star-crossed lover, Lawrence. And, as much as I wanted Lily to find her meaning of life and end up with him, I was not disappointed in the ending. Not everything ends happily. ( )
  JessLJones | Sep 10, 2015 |
Edith Wharton gives a searing portrait of New York high society at the turn of the 20th century. Lily Barton is a woman captivated and immersed in the society of the super rich. She desperately wants to belong to the inner circle with its world of luxury and leisure. She is beautiful and charming and is confident in her social skills to maneuver adroitly among society’s denizens. She has two liabilities, though. She is thirty years-old and unmarried and she is not rich. Her father once had a fortune and her society-obsessed mother gave Lily an unquenchable thirst for the life style of the top echelon of class. Her father lost his money in a business failure and soon after he and her mother died. Lily is living on a small inheritance and allowance from an elderly spinster aunt. Lily’s cousin, Gert, lives a more practical life of community service that Lily thinks is not admirable and which she has no desire to emulate.

Lily knows she must marry money if she is to maintain her position among the elite. She knows that love will be entirely secondary, if present at all; social status is all that matter to her. She is close to Lawrence Selden, an attorney who, while welcomed in her circle for his charm, has not the financial means that will support her needs. She is clear with Selden that while she has affection for him their marriage is out of the question. She meets Percy Gryce, a young man with a large fortune who she is sure she can capture. Percy is also dull and boring, but Lily knows she will have to bear this to achieve her greater goal.

Lily makes some mistakes. After visiting Selden in his apartment (something a single woman should not do) she is spotted by Simon Rosedale, a Jewish business man who cannot be part of society due to his race, but is tolerated by the upper elite because his business acumen is useful to them. Rosedale indicates that he may use the scandal of Lily’s visit with Selden at some time in the future. While on a stay at a party in a country estate, Lily is working toward snaring Percy but he spots her in a scene of mild amorousness with Selden and he drops her in favor of another woman. Lily is desperate for money so she takes advice from Gus Trenor, the husband of her friend, on investments and there is a good return on her investment. Later she realizes that Gus has actually given her the money as part of his romantic intentions toward her. He entices her to his town house on the pretext that his wife wants to see her, where he tries to seduce her. Her visit here becomes known, furthering the scandalous reputation she has acquired.

Lily is so beautiful and charming and attractive to the husbands of her friends that they begin to cut her out of their crowd. She is finally ostracized when she is set up by a rival on the false story that Lily has tried to seduce her husband. She tries a number of approaches to regaining her position but nothing works. Rosedale had asked for her hand a year before and she rejected him as socially unacceptable, but now in her desperation she approaches his with her reconsideration. To her shock he says no and gives as the reason that his entry into society’s ranks through her is not longer possible due to the aura of scandal surrounding her.

Lily continues to decline in status and spirit. Her aunt dies and Lily expects to receive her modest estate, but she learns that she has so alienated the aunt that the inheritance goes to another niece. She finally is forced to take work in a millinery shop and live in a seamy boarding house. She can never reconcile herself to a life outside of the halls of society and by the end she is suffering from emotional angst and to combat her chronic insomnia she takes sleeping draughts every night. One night she unintentionally takes too large a dose and she dies.

Wharton’s book is a blistering depiction of the shallow vacuousness and nastiness of society in the gilded age. The unwritten rules that govern one’s place in society were arbitrary and cruel. Lily had many attributes that she could have used to break free from this world – her beauty, intelligence and charm – but she was so drawn to it that she could see no alternative style of living. She was dependent on others to maintain her standing since she hadn’t the fortune that otherwise would have secured it. The jealousy and vindictiveness of her friends and associates made her an outcast and she could do nothing but scheme to get back in the grace of society. Lily is more than a victim, however. She is so compelled to be a part of this social class that she has closed off any alternatives to it. ( )
  stevesmits | Aug 8, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (50 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wharton, Edithprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bawden, NinaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beer, JanetEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bron, EleanorNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brookner, AnitaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Caruso, BarbaraNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fields, AnnaReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lewis, R. W. B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McCaddon, WandaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
Set in the opulent houses and glittering resorts of New York's fashionable society, this is the story of Lily Bart, beautiful, witty and sophisticated, accepted by "old money", courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But, as she nears thirty, her foothold becomes precarious: she needs a husband to preserve her social and financial standing, to maintain her in the luxury she craves. Many men have sought her, but something - fastidiousness, an uncomfortable intelligence or some deep-seated integrity - prevents her from making a "suitable" match. Watched by the admiring but impoverished Lawrence Selden, she struggles courageously with the difficulties caused by the growing threat of poverty and her contempt for hypocrisy - a contempt which compromises her position as an unmarried woman among "the ultra-fashionable dancing people". This novel, originally published in 1905, shocked the society it chronicles, portraying the moral, social and economic constraints on a spriited woman.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0486420493, Paperback)

"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth," warns Ecclesiastes 7:4, and so does the novel by Edith Wharton that takes its title from this call to heed. New York at the turn of the century was a time of opulence and frivolity for those who could afford it. But for those who couldn't and yet wanted desperately to keep up with the whirlwind, like Wharton's charming Lily Bart, it was something else altogether: a gilded cage rather than the Gilded Age.

One of Wharton's earliest descriptions of her heroine, in the library of her bachelor friend and sometime suitor Lawrence Selden, indicates that she appears "as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room." Indeed, herein lies Lily's problem. She has, we're told, "been brought up to be ornamental," and yet her spirit is larger than what this ancillary role requires. By today's standards she would be nothing more than a mild rebel, but in the era into which Wharton drops her unmercifully, this tiny spark of character, combined with numerous assaults by vicious society women and bad luck, ultimately renders Lily persona non grata. Her own ambivalence about her position serves to open the door to disaster: several times she is on the verge of "good" marriage and squanders it at the last moment, unwilling to play by the rules of a society that produces, as she calls them, "poor, miserable, marriageable girls.

Lily's rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner's assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. "Once--twice--you gave me the chance to escape from my life and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward," she tells Selden as the book draws to a close. All manner of hideous socialite beasts--some of whose treatment by Wharton, such as the token social-climbing Jew, Simon Rosedale, date the book unfortunately--wander through the novel while Lily plummets. As her tale winds down to nothing more than the remnants of social grace and cold hard cash, it's hard not to agree with Lily's own assessment of herself: "I have tried hard--but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else." Nevertheless, it's even harder not to believe that she deserved better, which is why The House of Mirth remains so timely and so vital in spite of its crushing end and its unflattering portrait of what life offers up. --Melanie Rehak

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:03 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Lily Bart, beautiful, witty and sophisticated is accepted by 'old money' and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears thirty, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her in the luxury she has come to expect. Whilst many have sought her, something - fastidiousness or integrity- prevents her from making a 'suitable' match.… (more)

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