No 702 The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Oh Lily. Lily, Lily, Lily.

Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth might well be one of the most perplexing characters ever written. Is she a victim of circumstance and the hypocrisy of New York society at the turn of the twentieth century, or is she the willful agent of her own destruction? Is it true that

No one could hurt her as much as she was hurting herself

Or alternatively

She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate

I’m still not sure I know.

Lily is a socially well connected, intelligent and beautiful young woman of limited means and her acceptance into and love for high society is her downfall. Raised to expect a life of wealth and ease, she imagines such an existence to be her right, even if the numbers don’t quite add up, and she looks down on anyone who leads a life outside of this rarified circle. To live as she would like, she must make a secure marriage and, in the end, it is her failure to accept this compromise that plays a heavy hand in sealing her fate.

The House of Mirth is a novel driven by ambiguities and missed chances. On one hand, Lily is a spoiled beauty with a sense of entitlement and on the other she craves love and companionship and although manipulative, cannot commit downright cruelty. Her circumstances fade in incremental stages, through both her own fault and through no fault of her own. She fails to snare her first potential husband Percy Gryce on the whim of spending the day with Lawrence Selden. Although she loves Selden, she feels she cannot marry him as he is not as wealthy as she would like and she passes on brash newcomer Sim Rosedale out of sheer distaste. She eventually regrets all these decisions and attempts to win back the situation fail. All the while she runs up gambling debts she can’t hope to pay.

Lily has her failings then, but she is also failed by those she considered friends. A financial investment turns out to be no more that a loan she can’t hope to pay back. She is the sacrificial lamb in a sordid love triangle, taking the blame for others misbehaviour and having her reputation tarnished, before losing the inheritance that could have saved her.

Wharton doesn’t spare any punches as she chronicles Lily’s fall from grace, contrasting her psychological insights with the external effects of her failures. It seems to me that Wharton sees Lily’s fatal flaw as being the fact that she knows herself too well. She is so aware of the fact that she must in some ways chose love or money, yet when she decides to chose money, at the last moment, her heart and her sense of right stop her from sealing her future security. She has the opportunity to destroy and enemy and redeem herself, but can’t bring herself to do it. The other characters in the book operate casually within the rules of their sex and class but Lily can neither accept these conventions nor fully shake them off. She hopes to exist in the space in between and as she cruelly learns, there is no place for her there.

Lily is an actor to all, giving them what they need from her at the time but never fully giving of herself. She asks herself,

Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artiface?

When it comes down to it then, Lily’s entire world is artifice, a house of cards that is quick to tumble and Wharton shows us exactly how women like Lily could be punished by the upper reaches of society, for having ideas above their station and for not knowing their place. For me this was less a tragic love story, although bad timing does play a horrible part in Lily’s fate, and more a tale of social exclusion and the savagery that can exist under the surface of the well bred and the wealthy. It has obviously dated, but Wharton is such a compelling story teller and has created such a compelling character that it remains an emotional and surprisingly thrilling read.

I know there are a lot of House of Mirth fans out there so I’d love to hear all your opinions on Lily Bart, who is one of the most intriguing literary characters I have come across in a long time.

Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 45
Number Remaining: 701

20 Books of Summer The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

31 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Great assessment, Cathy. I was equally frustrated and sympathetic with Lily. I think that’s why she’s a great character! I’m glad you liked it!

    You’re almost in the 600s woo!


  2. Your great review reminds I’ve been wanting to read this book forever. Lily Bart must be on top of the list of most interesting classic female characters.


  3. I see we share the same sentiment in our reviews; we even quoted the same sentence. I struggled to write mine as well, as I found Lily to be such an odd mixture of inability and unwillingness to face the facts, even as she understood them better than almost all other characters in the novel. While that certainly makes her interesting, I had a hard time making sense of her. But I agree with you that this book is more a critique of society than of Lily… she stays beautiful until the end, unlike most of the other members of high society, whose good looks seem to diminish as the story moves along.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. my take is a bit different. I blamed society and other women more than Lily. I found it utterly depressing and the end almost a bit sadistic on Wharton’s part. I was really wondering how much Wharton liked her heroine.


  5. Wonderful review! So glad this was one of your earlier reads of The 746. The House of Mirth is one of my top ten favorites of all time and Lily Bart is a favorite character. I love this book. I’ve read it more than once and will probably read it again in the future.


  6. Hi Cathy,
    Your review was passed on to me by the Executive Director of The Mount, Edith’s home in Lenox MA. This has long been my favorite novel and there was a NYT article in 2007 about a letter I have that EW wrote to her family doctor, asking for practical tips on how to depict Lily’s fatal chloral hydrate habit.

    No question about the compelling complexities of Lily but I’ve always seen her as representing something too fragile and fine to survive in the soil where she was planted, but not weak, and agree with Roxana Robinson that her death was not by chance, and carelessness not her defining characteristic.
    Amy Beckwith


  7. I would imagine given different conditions her choices might have been less self-destructive. Wharton is a perceptive social critic, and this just sounds plain excellent. Nice review as ever. I’ve loved the Wharton I’ve read, so I’ll definitely be looking to read this one too.


  8. Brilliant! I think it’s the complexities and flaws in Lily’s character that make her all the more human and endearing to the reader. Like you say in your comments, there are times you want to shake Lily out of herself and times when you want to empathise and hug her. I admire Lily for not destroying her enemy when she has everything in her power to do so, but those final chapters are heartbreaking.


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