The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) – a review

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth was the first novel by Edith Wharton. Her first book of stories, The Greater Inclination, was published in 1899. Published in 1905, The House of Mirth is the story of Lily Bart, an ambitious woman of New York City’s high society at the turn of the twentieth century.

Lily Bart is well-bred but has no money, and at age twenty-nine, is closing in on permanent spinsterhood. In those times, that was nothing less than tragic. The story is of her downward spiral over the course of about two years.

Her troubling decline was seen as a commentary on a corrupt and heartless upper class. The novel was by and large praised by critics, sold well, and quickly cemented  Wharton’s literary reputation.


Lily Bart, a complex heroine

From the original review in The New York Times, December 30, 1905:  Rarely has any book aroused such universal interest or provoked such illuminating discussions as has The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

What a human grip also has on our sympathy, and what a complex creature she is, with her demi-monde longing for luxury, and her fine capacity for conscience.

Many consider her no better than Becky Sharp, and only attribute her refusal to sell herself to a careless disregard for consequences, while others find in her the true nobility of soul, whose many ignoble actions are due to force (or is it lack?) of circumstances beyond her control. Her final spiritual rejuvenation (and here there is no division of opinion) is due to the influence of her love for Belden.

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The house of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth on Amazon

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Spoiler alert— the fate of Lily Bart

As to her committing suicide, this is also open to question. Did she, after finding Belden’s love grown cold, and after learning that “if you have no money, you needn’t come round,” deliberately take a big enough dose to end it all, or did she merely increase the dose to induce more sleep? 

She mentions running a risk, but there is no conclusive proof that she really meant to do so, and after reading such a painful story, it seems too bad that she was not allowed to “live happily ever after” as a reward for her virtue.

The other persons in The House of Mirth  notwithstanding Mr. Newport, are living, breathing creatures and represent a certain portion (not all, thank goodness) of “high society.” It is too bad they don’t realize their responsibility a little more clearly and lead a better example to  “the masses who ignorantly worship them.”

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House of Mirth illustration from original edition

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Revealing the foibles of the rich

With the moral searchlight turned upon them, Mrs. Wharton reveals the voluntary conditions of the “very rich” as a far greater crying shame than the involuntary condition of the poor, who do not regard respectability as a bore of a disgrace.

One final word of praise for Mrs. Wharton’s refinement of touch: Any German or French author, in dealing with such delicate situations as Lily’s scene with Trevor, or even Dorset, would have made them common or risqué. But not so Mrs. Wharton; in the entire book there is not one scene or word we could wish recalled.

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The house of mirth by Edith Wharton 1905 - original cover and manuscript page

Original 1905 cover; and a manuscript page

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More about The House of Mirth

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