The House of Mirth

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For the various adaptations of the novel, see The House of Mirth (disambiguation).
The House of Mirth
The House of Mirth.JPG
The House of Mirth, Penguin Books, 1993
Author Edith Wharton
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
October 14, 1905
Media type print

The House of Mirth (1905), by Edith Wharton, is the story of Lily Bart, a well-born, but penniless woman of the high society of New York City, who was raised and educated to become wife to a rich man, a hothouse flower for conspicuous consumption. As an unmarried woman with gambling debts and an uncertain future, Lily is destroyed by the society that created her.[1][2]

Written in the style of a novel of manners, The House of Mirth was the fourth novel by Edith Wharton (1862–1937), which tells the story of Lily Bart against the background of the high-society of upper class New York City of the 1890s; as a genre novel, The House of Mirth (1905) is an example of American literary naturalism.[3]


In The House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart enjoys the attentions of a gentleman.

The title of the novel, The House of Mirth (1905), is derived from the Old Testament, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, 7th chapter, verse 4:

“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

— Ecclesiastes 7:4

Edith Wharton’s original title for the manuscript was A Moment's Ornament, which plainly stated the facts-of-life of the story of the socialite woman Lily Bart; and directly addressed the social limitations imposed upon her, as such, by the mores of the social class and social stratum to which she belonged by birth, education, and breeding.[4]

The manuscript title, A Moment's Ornament, refers to the Romantic imagery of the first stanza of the poem “She was a Phantom of Delight” (1804), by William Wordsworth (1770–1850), which describes an ideal of beauty of the type that narrowly circumscribed the life of Lily Bart:

“She was a Phantom of delight / When first she gleam’d upon my sight; / A lovely Apparition, sent / To be a moment’s ornament: / Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; / Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair; / But all things else about her drawn / From May-time and the cheerful dawn; / A dancing shape, an image gay, / To haunt, to startle, and waylay.”

— CLXXIV: She was a Phantom of Delight, first stanza (1804).[5]


In The House of Mirth (1905), the story of Lily Bart begins with her visiting the apartment of Lawrence Selden, a man for whom she has romantic feelings, but whose pennilessness makes him ineligible to be her husband. Instead she decides that she must marry Percy Gryce, a young, timid millionaire. Although her confidantes are convinced that Percy will propose marriage to Lily when they next meet, Lily changes her mind, and withdraws from their relationship, because Selden's unexpected visit makes her realize how dishonorable marrying a man she does not care for would be. Despite feeling convinced that he loves Lily, Selden does not yet want to risk marriage; meanwhile, Gryce marries another girl, from within their social circle.

The tragic heroine of The House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart, lingers at the broad staircase, observing the high-society people gathered in the hall below.

Her social standing begins to erode when Gus Trenor, husband of friend Judy, gives Lily a large sum of money, accepted in the innocent belief that it represents profits from investments Gus had made in her behalf. The rumors that arise from that transaction, worsened by her injudicious and mysterious visit to Gus's townhouse in the city, further erode Lily's social standing. In the event, Lily one day receives a note from Selden, who asks to meet with her. Certain that he will propose marriage, Lily agrees to meet him the next day. Surprised and alarmed by Lily's apparent change of heart, Selden flees New York City, first to Havana and then to Europe, cravenly leaving Lily with no notice.

To escape the rumors arisen from the gossip caused by her financial dealings with Gus Trenor, and also disappointed by Selden's emotional cowardice, Lily accepts Bertha Dorset's invitation to join her and her husband, George, on a cruise of Europe aboard their yacht, the Sabrina. Unfortunately, whilst at sea, Bertha falsely accuses Lily of adultery with George, in order to divertthe attention and suspicion of their social circle away from Bertha's infidelity with the poet Ned Silverton. The ensuing social scandal ruins the personal reputation of Lily Bart, which then causes her abandonment by friends and disinheritance by Aunt Peniston.

Undeterred by such misfortunes, Lily fights to regain her place in high society by befriending Mr and Mrs Gormer. However, her enemy, the malicious Bertha Dorset, gradually communicates to them the “scandalous” personal background of Lily Bart, and, so, undermines the friendship which Lily had hoped would socially rehabilitate her. Only two friends remain for Lily: Gerty Farish (a cousin of Lawrence Selden) and Carry Fisher, who help her cope with the social ignominy of a degraded social-status, whilst continually advising Lily to marry as soon as reasonably possible.

Despite the efforts and advice of Gerty and Carry to help her overcome notoriety, Lily descends through the social strata of the high society of New York City. She obtains a job as personal secretary of Mrs. Hatch, who is a disreputable woman; and Lily resigns after Lawrence Selden returns to rescue her from complete infamy. Lily then finds a job in a milliner's shop; yet, unaccustomed to the rigors of working class manual labour, her rate of production is low and the quality of her workmanship is poor, and is fired at the end of the New York social season, when the demand for fashionable hats has ceased.

Meanwhile, Simon Rosedale, a Jewish suitor who earlier had proposed marriage to Lily, when she was higher in the social scale, returns to her life and tries to rescue her, but Lily is unwilling to meet his terms. Simon wants Lily to use love letters, which she bought from her servant, to confirm the occurrence, years earlier, of a love affair between Lawrence Selden and Bertha Dorset. For the sake of Selden's reputation, Lily does not act upon Rosedale's request, and secretly burns the love letters when she visits Selden, one last time.

In the event, Lily Bart receives a ten-thousand-dollar inheritance, from her Aunt Peniston, with which she repays Gus Trenor. Distraught by her misfortunes, Lily had begun regularly using a sleeping draught of chloral hydrate to escape the pain of poverty and social ostracism. One day, Lily takes an overdose of the sleeping draught and kills herself. Hours later, Lawrence Selden arrives to her quarters, to finally propose marriage, but finds Lily Bart dead; only then is he able to be close to her.

Critical reception[edit]

In the contemporary book review “New York Society Held up to Scorn in three New Books” (15 October 1905) The New York Times critic said that The House of Mirth is “a novel of remarkable power” and that “its varied elements are harmoniously blended, and [that] the discriminating reader who has completed the whole story in a protracted sitting, or two, must rise from it with the conviction that there are no parts of it which do not properly and essentially belong to the whole. Its descriptive passages have verity and charm, it has the saving grace of humor, its multitude of personages, as we have said, all have the semblance of life.”[6]

Publication of the novel prompted letters to the editor of the New York Times Saturday Review of Books, wherein the readers of The House of Mirth argued the merits of the story; enthusiasts said that the novel was a faithful and true portrait of the New York City gentry, whilst detractors said that the novel impugned the character of the city's social élite as a heartless, materialist leisure class.[7]


The novel The House of Mirth (1905) has been adapted to radio, the stage and the cinema.


  1. ^ Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia Third Edition (1987) p. 486.
  2. ^ Wharton, Edith. "Introduction to the 1936 Edition of The House of Mirth." In Singley, Carol J., ed. (2003). Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth: A Casebook, p. 33. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 18, 2014.
  3. ^ Wharton, Edith. "Introduction to the 1936 Edition of The House of Mirth." In Singley, Carol J., ed. (2003). Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth: A Casebook, p. 33. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 18, 2014.
  4. ^ Lewis, RWB (1984), "Introduction", The House of Mirth, Bantam Books (published 1986) 
  5. ^ "bartelby". 
  6. ^ "New York Society Held Up to Scorn in Three New Books," New York Times, October 15, 1905
  7. ^ Letter to the editor of the New York Times Saturday Review of Books, 3 March 1906.
  8. ^ "The House of Mirth: The Play of the Novel, Dramatized by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch, 1906; edited, with an introd., notes, and appendixes by Glenn Loney", Catalogue, Australia: National Library .
  9. ^ The House of Mirth: The Play of the Novel, Dramatized by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch, 1906; edited, with an introd., notes, and appendixes by Glenn Loney, Open library .
  10. ^ Kirby, Walter (December 14, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 54. 
  11. ^ Marshall, Scott (1996), "Edith Wharton on Film and Television: A History and Filmography" (PDF), Edith Wharton Review (Washington State University): 15–25 .


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