174 of 183 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2000
I stumbled upon a review of the recent film of THE HOUSE OF MIRTH in the TLS and, in order to have the novel firmly fixed in my mind (that is, before the lush, seductive images of film forever eradicated Wharton's novel from me) I dragged my copy off the shelf for a re-read. It had been 16 years since I last read of Lily Bart and her life, and I didn't realize how much I had missed her. For me, this is one of the great reading experiences, one of a handful that make reading a book the deeply moving and human exchange that it is. Despite the distance of wealth, property, time and manners, Wharton manages to make Lily's world and life palpable to anyone who will listen. The clash of money, morals, personality and circumstance is infinitely developed and played out in front of a never fading natural world. Once again, I was deeply moved by Lily Bart and at the end, felt I had lost someone myself.
136 of 145 people found the following review helpful
Edith Wharton's "The House Of Mirth" is a sad, but brilliant commentary on the closed, repressive society of the rich, upper class, New York nobility, at the dawn of the 20th century. It is also the story of the downfall of one woman, who attempts to live by her own rules, with no sponsor and no money of her own. Her parents are dead and she lives with relatives.
Lily Bart is one of society's most eligible women, at the height of her powers, when the novel opens. Though she has little money, she has family connections, good breeding and the hope of coming into an inheritance. Beautiful and very charming, Lily has been brought up to be an ornament, as were most women of her class at that time. She is a gilded bird with a noble heart, but clearly she is not aware of the restrictions of her cage. Part of Lily's tragedy is that she does have character, spirit, and a conscience. However, she does not know how to align these attributes, with her ornamental avocation, and her ambitions to marry a wealthy man of good birth.
As expected, Lily is popular with both bachelors and married men. Most of the bachelors propose marriage at on time or another. The only man she has real affection for is her dear friend, Lawrence Seldon, a barrister, whose lack of income makes him entirely unsuitable as a husband. Lily had developed a gambling habit to support her lifestyle, and supplement her allowance. An unfortunate losing streak has put her into debt. In her naivete, she forms an unsavory business alliance with a married man. Later, she is unjustly accused of having an affair with him and their business arrangement also come to light.
Her family cuts her off without a penny. Society friends and connections reject their former darling, trying to extricate themselves from any repercussions Lily's indiscreet behavior may have on their reputations. Former friends turn vicious. The irony is that Lily has never committed any of the sins she is accused of. Several of her friends have, and frequently...but their sins are committed with the utmost discretion. Lily's crime is indiscretion. Her beaus disappear, as do her marriage prospects. The hypocrisy of her class becomes more apparent to her, as she searches for a means to survive, with all the familiar doors closed in her face.
Lily seeks employment as a seamstress in the New York City slums, and lives there also, in a humble room with no refinements. Having no formal training and no real ambition, (her ambivalence about work is obvious), she sinks into deep depression and begins to decline. Laudanum helps her to sleep, and she becomes dependent on the drug.
Lily's descent, from society's beautiful darling to a disheveled, desperate woman living in a shabby hotel room, addicted to drugs, is disturbing reading, to say the least. Her decline seems inevitable, especially after we read of her many poor and self-destructive decisions. She seems to sabotage herself. However, Lily Bart is ultimately the victim of a cruel society that sacrifices anyone who does not conform to its expectations.
After reading "House Of Mirth," for the first time several years ago, Lily's character has remained clear in my mind. I think of her from time to time with great poignance and a sense of personal loss.
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Published in 1905, The House of Mirth offers a blistering social commentary on the lifestyles and behavior of super-rich society. Having grown up in this society, Wharton evaluates it here as an insider, and her trenchant observations give this early novel a liveliness and verisimilitude not characteristic of "aristocratic" novels written by outsiders. Set at a time in which the old, moneyed aristocracy was being forced to admit newcomers who had made their recent fortunes through industry, the novel shows moneyed society in flux, the old guard ensuring their exclusivity against parvenus who are not the "right type," at the same time that their sons and daughters were often securing large fortunes through marriage into some of these new families.
Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman of good family whose father lost everything when she was only nineteen, is left dependent on wealthy relatives in this society until she can charm a financially secure suitor into marriage. At age twenty-nine, she is no longer a debutante, and the pressure is mounting for her to marry, though she lacks the unlimited financial resources of social rivals. Still, her wit and charm make her a delightful companion, and she is never at a loss for suitors. Intelligent enough to want a real marriage and not just a merger between families, she has resisted making a commitment to date, though the clock is ticking.
As Lily tries to negotiate a good marriage and future for herself, she is aware that the competition is fierce. Women "friends" pounce on the latest gossip and spread rumors to discredit rivals, and Lily's reputation is tainted with hints of impropriety. Her opportunities for a good marriage begin to dwindle, and when her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, dies and leaves her a bequest that covers only her debts, Lily is no longer able to compete in the society so attractive to her and begins her downward spiral.
Wharton creates a complete picture of turn-of-the-century New York society and its "important" people--their lack of scruples, their opportunism, their manipulations, and their smug self-importance, characteristics one may also see in Lily when she is part of this society, though there is a limit on how far she will stoop. But Wharton also shows how quickly a woman may become an outcast when the money runs out and she is thrown on her own resources without any training for any other kind of life. A well-developed melodrama filled with revealing details, this novel established Wharton's reputation as a novelist/commentator on the manners and morals of high society and those who would participate in it. n Mary Whipple
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2001
I have read this book many times and it is still one of my favorites. I read the reviews, of which some people have no "pity" for Lily - she doesn't want it! While Lily has many chances to take care of herself financially, she is unwilling to let go of her moral character. Quite a position for one who requires (or so she believes) the approval and financial support of society! Obviously those who pan this book as "that was the way it was then" are not old enough to realize that to some degree, that is the way it is now. You are still judged socially by your occupation, home, financial wealth, etc. Lily is a wonderful heroine. Although you want to talk to her and explain to her the other choices, knowing Lily as you come to, you understand her choice. Very wonderful book. I will not see the movie, because I have my own mental images of Lily, Selden and the gang, which I do not want disturbed.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2002
High school students are often assigned Ethan Frome, and the Age of Innocence gained many readers because of the movie, but this is the Edith Wharton book that everyone should read. In many ways, this is similar to a Jane Austen book in which a member of the upper echelon of society has money problems and needs to marry well in order to stay at the same level of society. Forces and other people are contriving against her, but there seems to be at least one man who would be a good match for reasons of love. The first twist here is that the good match is not financially well off and therefore won't be able to support the heroine as she wants to be supported.
Lily Bart was orphaned many years ago, and her family had been financially ruined before that. However, she is accustomed to beautiful things and wants to continue to live at the top level of society. Unfortunately, her heart and soul long for more than these creature comforts. She yearns for excitement, intellectual and emotional honesty and probably true love, although she is confused about that. As she has gotten towards her late 20s, her prospects are dwindling and the only person who has the resources to support her and is already a part of polite society is Percy Gryce, a singularly boring man.
Lily rebels against Gryce just as she is about to marry him when she has a couple of heartfelt conversations with Lawrence Selden, a person she decides she might love, but who makes clear that he is not rich enough to support her as well as she should be supported.
Her choices other than Gryce are slim. There is Simon Rosedale, who is portrayed as an upwardly mobile person and therefore undesirable. He is also Jewish, which Wharton never overtly says is a problem with him for Lily, but probably figures into Lily's calculus (Wharton mainly talks about his Jewishness in the context of saying that Rosedale is more patient and able to face disappointment than others in his position because of what his people have dealt with over the centuries).
I have to admit that, unlike Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, it took me a while to get into this book. Perhaps, I picked up this book to read a story of Old New York and manners and was not ready for such an intense character study. But once I got to page 100, the last 250 pages went by in a flash. It is beautiful and eminently interesting. You will be interested in every twist in the story.
A couple of words of caution. If you buy this edition with the Anna Quindlen introduction, DON'T READ THE INTRODUCTION FIRST. It gives away too much in the first page--when I stopped reading it until after I finished--and the rest of the introduction gives away the rest of the plot. Finally, as with Jane Austen books, the actions of the male characters are often either inscrutable or irrational. It may be that men actually acted like this in the early 20th Century (or 19th for Austen). But I think it more likely that Wharton is misconstruing the male characters in ways that male authors almost always do with female characters. But this is a minor flaw, especially since Lily is so central to this book.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2006
The world that Edith Wharton felt comfortable with was the one that was located in the fashionably expensive upper east side of New York City of the mid 1870s. There were plenty of newly rich businessmen who had made fortunes after the Civil War, and the attitudes of "hit `em hard" that made money then worked pretty well later too. Such attitudes were often grounded in a smugness that said, "I got mine, and you didn't." In THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, Wharton examines several figures whose lives intersect at a junction that separates those who have money from those who don't. The losers in such a confrontation are not only the ones who wind up broke--they are simply the most obvious--but the so called winners are also losers in that Wharton shows them as losing their humanity even if they maintain their fortunes.
Lily Bart is a very pretty but poor young woman who likes to wear nice clothes and travel in high class society. Since she is poor, she has no choice but to marry into money, and so she spends most of the novel looking at one man and then another, before deciding which man has enough money to guarantee her entrance into the world of which she can only dream. When Lily sees her upper class companions, she does not see them as three-dimensional fully-fleshed individuals, for if she did, she would notice that under the fancy clothes and expensive jewelry are people with the same weaknesses of character as anyone else. For their part, when Lily's rich friends see her, they either recognize her for what she is as a girl on the make or they try to help her gain entrance into their world of money and privilege. The problem with Lily is that she is simply not ruthless enough to get what she says she wants. On one hand she has been taught from childhood that the only way for a poor but pretty girl like her to get money is to marry it. On the other, however, when she does have the chance to marry into money, her "good" side stops her from taking advantage of a wealthy man who sees only a fine looking lady like Lily. Such a rich man is Mr. Rosedale, who may not be the handsomest man in the world or the most classy of individuals, but he does ask for her hand, which Lily refuses since she thinks she can do better. In the world of fiction, or perhaps in the real world as well, such a refusal often leads to a later regret that a golden opportunity was missed. And indeed, when Lily's standing in the rich community takes a tumble, so does her reputation, and when Lily looks up Mr. Rosedale to tell him that she has reconsidered his offer, he tells her to take a hike. Lily's fall from grace reads like a soap opera. She alienates the one true if poor man who would have been happy to marry her. She allows a rich man to try to seduce her in the most caddish of ways. And she gets involved in a life style that costs considerable sums to maintain, the result of which is to bankrupt her. She takes a dead end job in a factory, and on top of all that she is being blackmailed by that cad seducer. For her, there is no way out but suicide.
THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is not quite the drama of naturalism that some see it as. In the world of brute naturalism, the world conspires to crush you without mercy or hope. But in Lily's case, there are others who are good and are not crushed, her would be lover Selden, for example, is hurt by her death but otherwise uninjured. In Lily's demise, Edith Wharton recreates a world that entices one to play a deadly game, the rules of which are stacked against the player from the start. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH can still be seen as a cautionary tale against playing that most deadly of games.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2009
Edith Wharton's prose is, of course, exquisite, but don't buy this digital version. The formatting has no table of contents and there is no indication of where one chapter ends and the other begins (with occasional page numbers in the middle of words).
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 1999
This is the third novel by Wharton I've read (the other two, of course, are Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence). Unlike the others, The House of Mirth is an accessible read with characters one can relate to. Wharton's attention to detail is impressive (yet slightly boring), and the subtlety of how the story moves from fluff to tight human drama is superb.
Finally, despite being written a century ago the main theme of The House of Mirth is very much applicable to today's materialistic yuppie society. Great stuff!
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Nothing I could say could do justice to this masterpiece.
This is a brilliant and compelling character driven Novel of Manners set during the American "Gilded Age". Lily Bart is such an interesting character. A girl you want to dislike, but don't. in fact you end up rooting for her despite the many times she will frustrate you with her indecision and conceit. Thats not to say that I loved everything about the book, at least not at first.
When I read the last chapter I was very angry and would have thrown the book at a wall had I not been reading it on my kindle. I didn't see it coming and was so cross, not only with how Lily's story played out but also the fact that, that bitch Bertha Dorset didn't get any come uppance, especially when the means to effect her downfall were myriad and all within Lily's power. Come on!!! So much to say about that little storyline...
Having read many british classics in school and beyond I am struck by a stark difference between british and American Lit. With few exceptions British lit always seems to end happily with a wedding or a birth and all the main characters story-lines get resolved in a satisfying way. Good and bad characters get their just rewards. Not so with American Lit. The endings are often unhappy and, especially in the case of The House of Mirth, the villains get away with it and even profit from their bad acts.
As an aside, this book has to win the prize for the most ironically titled book I've ever read. Id love to know who after reading this named it so. What a sense of humor!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2005
The book tells the sad tale of Lily Bart living in New York at the end of the 19th century. Her fate appears so real, merciless and inevitable because Edith Wharton's family history was acquired with the great names of the old New York society. The author manages to create a protagonist who at twenty-nine is already past the age of marriage which would be her only chance to secure a safe and comfortable future. But her character is complex and contradictory and the causes for her destruction lie within her own psyche. That is why she manages to cut herself at every turn by a combination of lack of judgement, lack of care and a great deal of arrogance towards the men who show interest in her. And so her decline, misstep after misstep, appears both gradual and inevitable.
The author remarkably shows the social claustrophobia under which Lily Bart suffers. She evolves in an airless world of tight corsets, heavy draperies and closed rooms where she attempts to gasp for fresh air but fails and suffocates. She doesn't acknowledge that a woman of her class and situation can only support herself through an advantageous marriage. Edith Wharton clearly both disapproves of the wealth of the very rich and portrays them as inevitable. Because such people are invincible, Lily Bart is the agent of her own decline since she refuses to bargain with them in order to triumph. In this sense she is finally a victim because she cannot resolve the conflict between her ideals and her comfort or between what she aspires to be and what society insists she becomes.