The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Cover image for The house of mirth / Edith Wharton.

Lily Bart: fashionable, socially-adept, and absolutely beautiful. Born and raised in the upper echelons of New York society, she seems the type of woman to immediately wed a wealthy man and secure her position as a rich socialite. However, due to her own warring nature between her material desires and her yearning for true love, Lily finds herself caught in a malicious web of jealousy and deceit that causes her fall from grace and social affluence to poverty and loneliness on the margins of society.

It is this unfortunate journey that Edith Wharton chronicles in her novel The House of Mirth. Although Lily is the protagonist of the novel, Wharton explores the events from other perspectives, notably Laurence Selden, Lily’s true love interest. The greatest irony of the novel is that although Selden openly despises the superficial and gossip-driven high society, when push comes to shove and Lily’s reputation is tarnished by forces outside of her control, Selden has the same prejudices against her, and it is these biases that keep Lily and Selden from their happy ending until it is too late to reach it.

Outside of Lily Bart herself, Wharton uses the novel to criticize the society of which she was a part. The most obvious of these is the disparity between what is expected out of men and women during this time. As Lily herself notes, while men could get away with shabbiness or not marrying, women were forced to always look beautiful and presentable, and had to marry in order to keep this up. Ultimately, Lily’s inability to cope with the demands her society made of her caused her decline into the fringes of society.

Overall, The House of Mirth is in no way a light or funny read as the title suggests. Instead, it represents the depressing struggle between what society has determined for people to be and what those people actually are through Lily Bart’s equally tragic story arc. In the end, The House of Mirth is an interesting read if only to understand the similarities between early twentieth century society and modern life.

– Mahak M.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is available to checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available to download for free from Libby.

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