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Summary of House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth is a fascinating story and chronology of one woman’s obsession with being a New York socialite and all that goes with the role. The obsession with finding a mate to support her lavish lifestyle turns deadly in the end however, as Lily Bart is a prisoner of the system she so staunchly supports in the beginning. Regardless of whether or not we view Lily as a sympathetic character, she undergoes a transfiguration throughout the novel. Although The House of Mirth culminates in Lily’s death, we are given a glimpse of a changed woman who has learned morality and redeemed her character. Perhaps death was the only way for her to really find herself.

House of Mirth Summary

The elaborate code of female sexual conduct is, in its Byzantine formality, also a means of status acquisition and loss.

  • The female, once married, is a species of property
  • The female, like any other object that is purchased, must not be “damaged goods.”
  • As Lily’s sad story makes clear, the female, unless she is herself independently wealthy, must marry.
  • Life is expensive, as Lily remarks, and a woman without money cannot maintain herself in society in any way save marriage.

Lily is rendered dysfunctional, in part, by her own foolishness—she does not practice efficient predation—and, in part, by her sense of honor. But her exaggerated sense of honor, her refusal to use Bertha Dorset’s letters to Selden, is something of a quirk in her make-up. For she is, just as much as the other characters, a fully socialized member of a group that puts money and the display of wealth above all other considerations. The fact that she finds poverty so intolerable as to make life not worth living exemplifies this attitude. Social status, a status based on possessions, is more important to her than life itself and, throughout the movie, it is the pursuit of money that animates most of her actions. It is to be remarked that the vast majority of Americans living during the period in which this story takes place were not members of the leisure class and that they felt life was worth living nonetheless. The “canon of reputability” which the leisure class creates and lives by, a canon “which discountenances all employment that is of the nature of productive effort” —note Rosedale’s shock at the notion that Lily has been working as a milliner—is a cruel canon. It forces Lily to commit suicide.

The society depicted in The House of Mirth is quite Veblenesque. As such, it is utterly corrupt. All permissible activities boil down to transactions. Everything is artificial and there is no spontaneity. Genuine emotions are socially dysfunctional. Normal behavior in such a society is to live solely in pursuit of “pecuniary repute” and thus everything boils down to presenting the image of being a successful predator, to possessing the means to practice an “avoidance of indecorous usefulness.” The elaborate social conventions, the get-togethers, the dinners, and the mannered mode of making conversation are all typical leisure class activities and they serve the purpose of status seeking. Where people communicate in this movie by forcefully breaking through the mannered, time-wasting conventions of conversation—as Gus Trenor does when he confronts Lily with the fact that she owes him money—this is seen as outre.

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