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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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The House of Mirth (1905)

by Edith Wharton

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    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (SandSing7)
    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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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 |
http://tinyurl.com/nk3cqcy

This might be the most complex piece of writing I've read. And not just for its florid writing.

On the surface, a social commentary about the mores and dictates of late 19th century New York, it felt like much more than that to me. It's not as if any of the crazy shenanigans surrounding society - and by society, I mean any kind in any place - have disappeared. There are still rules, although they may have become more relaxed. There is still old money and new money and how people are treated if you come from one versus the other. And there are still problems in marrying or courting above or below your station - again, no matter where you come from.

The novel tends to age well, since it tells the story of society in general, not just that of New York in its time. It's as if nothing has changed, and our culture is not more enlightened 100 years further on. For instance, never does Mr. Rosedale appear that his manner and forbearing are not associated with the fact that he is a Jew. For all Wharton's obvious liberal attitudes, she was not able to bridge that cultural divide. Upbringing? Lack of education? We struggle with those to this day.

Far more interesting, though, is Lily herself. You want to whomp Lily over the head, bringing her to some reasonable sense of where her life is going because she cannot be reconciled with her own desires. She wants to be morally upright, but she also abhors anything not beautiful and expensive. That conflict makes it impossible for her to choose the right path, time and again. I understand how that could work in her head, but the ending makes you truly wonder if anyone would choose this path, lacking any foresight about where it can end. That makes her a true innocent, more than anything else, and I think it's likely that Wharton could never have told this moral tale without an innocent at the center. ( )
  khage | Jul 19, 2015 |
Mistress of Her Own Misfortune

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is a tragic and grim expose of Society life during or just after America's "Gilded Age" (1870-1900). It details the seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of Society Girl, Lily Bart, already 29 years old and seeking a husband. We are introduced to a host of mostly unlikeable characters who make up fashionable New York Society, and who in spite of their financial wealth, display a poverty of spirit in adhering to their rules, whims and self-centered interests.

Lily is renowned for her beauty, charm and grace, but has money troubles and is living under her maiden aunt's roof. Each time her social ambitions come almost within her grasp, she manages to destroy her plans by making choices, including some bad financial decisions, which are rash and in poor judgment. Lily shuns some of her friends, makes enemies of others and opens herself up to gossip, unfairly destroying her reputation and social standing. Her dismal fall is painful, even though Lily doesn't hold your sympathy entirely.

I found the writing beautiful in parts, a little slow and stultifying in others. Overall, I'm very glad to have read this American Classic and look forward to reading more of Edith Wharton's work. ( )
  Zumbanista | Apr 27, 2015 |
In my opinion, no one can write about the hypocrisy of high society better than Edith Wharton. The House of Mirth is a tragic tale of Lilly Bart, a woman living in New York high society circles through the graces of her Aunt who allows her to live in her mansion.

Strong willed, foolish, yet very likable, the book is so well written that even though you know Lilly is headed down the wrong path in navigating through the unspoken strict rules of the pretentious rich, one cannot help but root for her.

Trying to avoid marrying for the sake of money, Lilly's ideas are way ahead of the time period of 1903. She has some choices of men who wish to offer her a life of luxury, but alas her true love is her intellectual soul mate who quite understands Lilly, but is a lawyer and not wealthy enough to totally fit into the high society.

Alas, she accumulates some gambling debts and naively asks the help of a man who promises to invest some of her small amount of money. All too soon she learns that he betrayed her and she owes $10,000.

When her strict, judgmental aunt learns of her gambling debts, she turns her back on Lilly and refuses to help.

All to soon the rumors swirl and Lilly is suddenly, swiftly on the outside of the rich who now look down upon and scorn her.

When her Aunt dies, she inherits $10,000 -- the exact amount of debt she owes. With no skills, She is forced to try to learn to support herself unsuccessfully.

Her redemptive option would be to betray a friend who was very cruel to her. She could indeed expose the ethics and morals of this very snarky, sharky friend, but in the end, even if it meant she might be back in the good graces of the high society, she cannot follow through.

This is an excellently written book with a strong plot, wonderfully developed characters and historically accurate. It is one of those rare books that leave you thinking about it long after the last page is read.

Five Stars. ( )
1 vote Whisper1 | Apr 20, 2015 |
Lily Bart is beautiful and lives with her rich aunt. She is nearly thirty and has been trying to make an advantageous marriage, without being able to bring herself to do it, for the last ten years. We see her throw over Percy Gryce, who was about to propose, because he is wrong and because she prefers the company of Lawrence Selden. Selden loves her, but is not rich enough for her purposes. Lily is caught up in marital dispute between two friend and rumours begin to circulate about her. Her aunt dies and leaves her only a small legacy. She begins to lose her place in society and eventually is forced to try to earn a living as a milliner.

The whole book reads like a car crash and is relentless and oppressive. I found myself taking breaks out of a need to escape the unfolding disaster, although it is not without humour: Lily "had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce ... but... must submit to more boredom...and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life." Wharton cleverly causes us to sympathize with Lily, but at the same time we judge her for her sense of entitlement, the way she puts status and wealth above love, even the way she cannot bring herself to make the compromise she determines to make and just marry some one. Her moral conscience is important, and I was cheering for some of her later decisions (although I would have borrowed from Rosedale to repay Trenor and set up a shop).

Gerty is a helpful character to show us a life style choice Lily could have made and Selden demonstrates a choice not to take society too seriously. None of Liliy's other "friends" are truly her friends at all, except for Carry Fisher and, in a sense, Simon Rosedale. Wharton's attitude to this Jewish character is of another era, but he has redeeming qualities and again offers Lily choices which she fails to take.

Very interesting, with lots to think about, but I'm glad it's over and I need to go and read something cheerful. ( )
1 vote pgchuis | Apr 15, 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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