The House of Mirth is a novel authored by Edith Wharton that was first published in 1905. It is a novel that displays the conflict between social expectation and the desire to pursue personal interests.
The setting takes place in an age in America during which the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. During this period, the stock market was doing well as a result of the great industrial revolution. While on one side of many cities including New York there lived millionaires in mansions, the other side lived immigrant workers (Showalter, 13).
Wharton’s intent in the novel is to show the great suffering of the majority that takes place inside the New York City, at the time. The promotion of the infamous ideal that you cannot buy happiness is Wharton’s tool in condemning the elitist world of women like Bertha Dorset. While Lawrence Selden lives comfortable in his modest wealth, Lily Bart is denied true happiness by her obsession with money a view justified by her refusal to marry the man she loves on grounds that he is not wealthy enough.
Lily Bart is a twenty nine year old attractive woman with important social and family ties. In the event of her mother’s death, Lily Bart starts living with her aunt, Mrs. Peniston. She however finds herself spending most of her time in Bellomont which is an estate for the wealthy and well established such as Gus and Judy Trenor. Judy is fond of throwing crazy and extravagant parties which are obliviously attended by the crème de la crème of New York. The game of bridge for money turns out to be problematic to Lily since her gambling addiction is running out of hand and draining her financially.
Lily lives for two important things, wealth and marriage. She is hopeful that she will marry a rich man and therefore secure her place in society. This decision sees her pass many chances with a view that she can do better. It is sad that Lily’s love, Lawrence Selden is not rich enough for her to marry him.
When Lily hears about the stock market in Bellomont, she decides that it is high time she got involved in some sort of investment. Gus Trenor, who is secretly attracted to Lily, agrees to invest her small amount of money on her behalf. The investment is a success and Lily spends the money lavishly from Wall Street. There is a turn to the story when Lily finds out that Gus Trenor has actually been investing his own money and giving her the profits. In return for this, Trenor proposes that she should spend time with him. Lily rejects this and promises that she will pay him back although she is not sure where she will get the money to do so.
When Lily together with George and Bertha Dorset and young Ned Silverton take a vacation to the Mediterranean, she learns that the reason for being tagged along was to distract George while Bertha has an affair with young Ned. The trip ends on a sad note for Lily. When Bertha learns that Lily is associating with the European royalty, she is jealous and kicks her off the cruise. She starts a rumor that Lily and George are having an affair. Lily is expelled from society.
The return journey to America for Lily is met with sad news when she learns that her aunt has died and leaves her only $10,000. Her two major problems are that one, she can only have the money after one year has elapsed, and secondly, this is just enough money to clear her debt to Gus Trenor. She is unable to rebuild her reputation in society and finally decides to move in with Seldon’s cousin, Gerty Farish. Lily takes up jobs as a secretary and a hat maker before she finally embarks on boarding a house and leading a miserable life. She takes sleeping pills in order to run away from the fear of loneliness. When the check from her aunt’s estate arrives, the pays off all her debts and takes an overdose of the sleeping pills. Selden finds her dead the next day just as he comes to her apartment with the intention of proposing marriage.
Analysis – Major Characters and their Love for Money and Wealth
Lily Bart who is the protagonist of the novel is a beautiful young woman in search of the right man in her life with the right kind of combination, money that will make her wealthy and also uphold her high status among the New York elite. Though she envies a romantic life, her main objective is a suitor who is wealthy with high social status. In fact, she loses many chances in the belief that she will do better next time (Lewis, 32).
The novel traces a two-year period when Lily moves from party to party struggling to fit in the wealthy class as the same time, accumulating larger and larger debts. It is this financial state that forces her to risk investing in the stock market and calls upon a married man to help him. The whole investment backfires and Lily is thrown out of the social circles that she really longs to identify with. Lily has no option but to join the middle class as a secretary and a hat maker.
Her sudden surge to poverty, loneliness and depression seems too hard for her to bear and finally she overdoses herself to death, or perhaps accidentally takes an overdose in order to sleep longer that causes her death. It is her focus on wealth that kills her romantic urge to marry her true love Selden.
Selden is a young lawyer and in the novel, he is portrayed as the only person who is able to associate with the elite and at the same time, be detached from this social status as an outsider. Selden believes that true love and happiness can never be bought with money. He proves to be a consistent friend to Lily. It is his being rational in his thinking that he finally realizes perhaps too late, how much she loves Lily.
George and Bertha Dorset
They are an extremely wealthy couple who portray a loveless relationship. Bertha is manipulative and she uses wealth and gossip to achieve what she wants. She is manipulative in that she uses Lily to distract George as she goes on to have an affair with a young bachelor. Jealousy takes its toll when she realizes George’s affection towards Lily and uses gossip to drive her out of the social circle. George pursues a divorce in order to marry Lily.
Gus and Judy Trenor
This is another socialite couple who are always hosting extravagant parties in their home in Bellomont. Judy spends most of her time in cheap gossip such as which unmarried men and women should be set up together in her next party. Gus on the other hand gets no attention from his wife and reverts to flirting with other women. Gus is drawn to Lily and skims up a trap to use his financial investments and large amount of money in a risky investment for her. This skim makes Lily drain into poverty deeper than she really was while Gus maintains his wealth and even affords to give some of his profits to Lily.
Mr. Rosedale has an aspiration to be in the social circles of the wealthy. Initially, he appears to be the owner of Lawrence Selden’s apartment. With great contrast, his rise to success is compared to Lily’s decline to poverty and eventual death. While Lily starts off as a member of the upper class in society and falls from grace to grass, Mr. Rosedale works his way up and becomes a wealthy Jewish banker and insightful businessman and he is no longer interested in marrying her. Mr. Rosedale kindness towards Lily despite their opposite paths is seen at the end of the novel when he offers her money after she loses her job as a hat maker.
A divorced woman who does dirty work for Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset, Carry Fisher relies on her social skills for survival. Her desire to teach Lily the art of midwifery is not welcomed by Lily. In Carry’s opinion, Lily fails to recognize that the wealthy people she associates with will one day snub her (Lily) as they do to her.
The “House of Mirth” identifies with American class hierarchies which are largely dictated by money, unlike other societies such as European social classes that are determined by nobility. Money is the only way into the upper class social circles that Lily frequents and is fond to be associated with. It is also money that is significant in the ranking of individuals in the upper circle. While Percy Gryce is the most envied bachelor because of his wealth, the Trenors are always hosting extravagant parties with regard to their financial resources.
Wealth is linked with power. The poorer have no say of the words of the rich. Bertha’s gossip over Lily’s affair with George is believed simply because she is richer. Most importantly, money is channel that Lily passes through from an upper class eligible socialite to an outcast working-class spinster.
In chapter one, Charles Darwin’s concept of survival for the fittest seems to work well in depicting social acceptance. Lily is portrayed as thinking of “how highly specialized she was” and continues further to argue that the ugly people must have been “sacrificed to produce her” (Wharton, 12). It portrays a society of survival for the fittest whereby the wealthy survive and the poor do not.
Money is a symbol in this novel and stands for different things to different people. Lily views money as the freedom from her obligations and the go ahead to spend life lavishly. On the other hand, Selden who comes from a working class family views money not as significant in life. To him, love is of uttermost importance in the enjoyment of life and experience of true happiness. He believes that money is coveted and leads to serious problems if gambled with or carelessly spent. The lust for money and an aspiration to belong to the upper class leads Lily to financial ruin and expulsion from society. In other words, the poor will continue to work for the rich to get richer while they themselves will inevitably rot in poverty.
“The House of Mirth” is a book that deals with the world of the elite in the New York City where evaluation of members is always constant which determines whether or not they deserve membership (Showalter, 56).
The setting takes place in an age in America during which the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. During this period, the stock market was doing well as a result of the great industrial revolution. While on one side of many cities including New York there lived millionaires in mansions, the other side lived immigrant workers.
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