"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."
Published in book form on October 14, 1905, The House of Mirth is the second novel of author Edith Wharton. Previously, Scribner's Magazine had been publishing it in segments since January of 1905. Due to its sweeping, accurate accounts of New York City's high society that had been newly transformed by industrial wealth of the late nineteenth century, a sizable readership was attracted. Lily Bart, the heroine of the novel, possesses a delicate vulnerability that captured the attentions of a wide variety of readers.
Using the tightly orbiting universe of the upper social strata both as a cause of and a contrast for Lily Bart's tragic fall, Wharton creates an impenetrable world that makes such a tragedy even more cuttingly acute by maximizing the height of the fall. Within the realm of silken facades and polite conversation inhabited by Lily Bart's social circle, a nearly limitless number of transgressions can be conjured using the depths of their own superficial morality against them.
Such glittering possibilities sold big: two editions of the work, 70,000 copies, sold out during the advance publication period. By that December, a total of 140,000 copies had been sold, and Scribner reported that it was the most rapid sale of a book that they had published. At year's end, Wharton had accumulated $30,000 in royalties, which would be the equivalent of approximately $500,000 today. It reigned on the bestseller list for four months, topping out over Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
Critics noticed it as well. Understanding it both as a social satire as well as a serious analysis of the manners and niceties of the upper class. Many contemporary critical sources recognized that society was the upcoming field in fiction, and held Wharton's effort to be pioneering in interpreting the forces that affect an individual throughout the course of their life.
Wharton's approach, along with that of Henry James in the early part of the twentieth century represented a trend that avant-garde writers wanted to overthrow. Many new ideas are coming across the ocean mainly from France, seeping into the intellectual climate of many universities. Such thinkers as Roland Barthes, philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, literary theorist Jacques Derrida and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan are beginning to gain an international audience today. Edith Wharton's background in Enlightenment rationalism caused her to be skeptical of such notions, disliking avant-garde writing altogether. She thought it was self-indulgent and lacking in the polish and control of style that she worked quite hard to maintain.
The House of Mirth continues to attract critical examination in modern literary circles. Cultural, Marxist, and feminist critics as well as others from various schools of thought seek to explain the drives behind the world that Wharton created 100 years ago.
The behavior exhibited by the rich socialites in the text are indicitive of a particular drive relating to their specific financial status, in that "possessors of the ... old money are concerned primarily with preservation - of their capital itself and the goods it has bought them - whereas speculation and consumption are the key words describing the economic habits of the 'new' ... money." 1 A distinction of further stratification is made within the upper class itself, and the gap between the two groups is where Lily Bart finds herself caught for most of the novel. "But conventional Christian morality comes as a form of ideological hindsight to justify the sexual and family order that preceded the theology." 1 This critic sees Lily Bart's society, therefore, as a group of people that live according to interests centering around their fortunes, yet they pretend not to, creating a mask of falsity that all of the characters attempt to maintain without question or comment. Using speech laden with admonition, convention, and traditional adages, the upper crust in Lily Bart's world is ironclad in its conviction that all perceived moral threats must be supressed, or, at the very least, not spoken about. The mincing manner employed by the characters in Wharton's novel illustrate this ethic in every social encounter. While agony churns beneath the placid veneer of any given socialite, a set of firm rules govern their outer lives. All other social motives are derived from these basic purposes. Women become tools to advance a climb up the social ladder; men become a rock to tether to in a world where power can not be had by a woman set adrift. Life is locked to this routine; society never attempts to outline a genuine morality in accordance with their true purposes in life, but seeks instead to screen them in hopeless fear.
Pushing this idea further to its roots, one critic states that "the power of the marketplace, then, resides not in its presence, which is only marginal in The House of Mirth, but in its ability to reproduce itself, in its ability to assimilate everything else into its domain ... even the most private affairs take on the essence of business transactions." 2 The importance of the market in these individuals' lives is not in itself wrong, in fact it establishes them securely and assures their stability. The trouble arises in their desire to conceal their interests, creating a whole set of social rituals that act as a mere screen for what really matters to these people.
Lily Bart functions both as the typical young woman on the marriage marketplace during her era and as the silent rebel against the superficiality that she knows to be wrong. Her rebellion is most obvious in the simple fact of her age: she is 29 years old. She has been eligible for marriage for over 10 years. Beautiful, polite, and kind, Lily has been propositioned by dozens of suitors, yet she has not accepted any of them. Focused on in the novel are the characters of Percy Gryce, the extremely wealthy and well established member of the upper crust, and Simon Rosedale, a wealthy man who is still seeking acceptance in the better circles. Lily detests Rosedale, as evidenced by her early interaction with him: "He was a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes with gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac." 3
Though she hates the suitors that all seek to claim her, there is one man with whom she enjoys spending time. Lawrence Selden, a man who has clout in the well-bred circles, but only as a novelty, is a poor man who is quite different from the other men of the novel, in that he believes "my idea of success ... is personal freedom ... from everything - from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit - that's what I call success." 4 Selden distances himself from the society that he lives in - at least he tries to. He comes from a family which supposedly cared little for money, yet maintained "detachment from the sumptuary side of life: the stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's pleasure in them." 5
Lily remains indecisive throughout the novel. Not choosing any suitor, she insteads tries to maintain her precarious perch among the bluebloods. This proves futile, as her parents left her with nothing but the family name to give her any sort of position. She becomes much of a pawn, used for whatever ends her peers can dream up and then discarded just as quickly. Drifting, she racks up considerable debts while attempting to live as wealthily as those surrounding her. Her end meets her suddenly, and in a flash of sudden action, she destroys what little shread of substance could keep her in the upper class, pays off her debt, and slips into a sleep from which she does not wake, having (accidentally?) overdosed on soporific.
1Lillian S. Robinson. "The Traffic in Women: A Cultural Critique of The House of Mirth."
2Wai-Chee Dimock. "Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth."
3Edith Wharton. The House of Mirth. p. 35.
4Wharton, p. 81.
5Wharton, p. 154.