- Paperback: 374 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Critical edition (January 17, 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393959015
- ISBN-13: 978-0393959017
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (523 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #117,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The House of Mirth (Norton Critical Editions) Critical Edition
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"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth," warns Ecclesiastes 7:4, and so does the novel by Edith Wharton that takes its title from this call to heed. New York at the turn of the century was a time of opulence and frivolity for those who could afford it. But for those who couldn't and yet wanted desperately to keep up with the whirlwind, like Wharton's charming Lily Bart, it was something else altogether: a gilded cage rather than the Gilded Age.
One of Wharton's earliest descriptions of her heroine, in the library of her bachelor friend and sometime suitor Lawrence Selden, indicates that she appears "as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room." Indeed, herein lies Lily's problem. She has, we're told, "been brought up to be ornamental," and yet her spirit is larger than what this ancillary role requires. By today's standards she would be nothing more than a mild rebel, but in the era into which Wharton drops her unmercifully, this tiny spark of character, combined with numerous assaults by vicious society women and bad luck, ultimately renders Lily persona non grata. Her own ambivalence about her position serves to open the door to disaster: several times she is on the verge of "good" marriage and squanders it at the last moment, unwilling to play by the rules of a society that produces, as she calls them, "poor, miserable, marriageable girls.
Lily's rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner's assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. "Once--twice--you gave me the chance to escape from my life and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward," she tells Selden as the book draws to a close. All manner of hideous socialite beasts--some of whose treatment by Wharton, such as the token social-climbing Jew, Simon Rosedale, date the book unfortunately--wander through the novel while Lily plummets. As her tale winds down to nothing more than the remnants of social grace and cold hard cash, it's hard not to agree with Lily's own assessment of herself: "I have tried hard--but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else." Nevertheless, it's even harder not to believe that she deserved better, which is why The House of Mirth remains so timely and so vital in spite of its crushing end and its unflattering portrait of what life offers up. --Melanie Rehak --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Wharton's account of the ill-fated life of Lily Bart receives a perfunctory treatment in this audio program. It is New York in the early 20th century; Lily loves Lawrence Selden, but he sees her as a fortune hunter, with tragic consequences. The author excels at delineating the ways money, romance, and social standing intertwine in the society of the time. Included is a lengthy introduction by Wharton biographer R.W.B. Lewis that sets the work in the context of the writer's life and career. Casual listeners may consider the preface too long and scholarly, and those coming to the novel for the first time may be put off by learning the outcome and by hearing Lewis's uncertainty about whether it is a masterpiece. Anna Fields handles the narration adequately but strains to create masculine voices and makes most of the women too flighty. As a result, the characters seem more trivial than Wharton intended. Not recommended. Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
But Lily, deep underneath, is larger than her role as a desirable bauble. Selden, a well bred attorney with no fortune, perceives this and is, at varying times in the novel, tempted to open his heart to her. But fate always seems to take a hand. Lily casts away her opportunities to make the ‘right’ match carelessly. Some inner voice seems to be telling her that she would be sacrificing something important, although she seems unable to put her finger on it. She is, when suddenly in temporary clover, given to good works and she senses that she might somehow find some meaning to her life. She is repulsed when it turns out that a very wealthy husband of one of her ‘sponsors’ (she doesn’t really have friends, except the plain, relatively penurious Gerty who tries to save her but fails) expects more than thanks for his assistance to her in business affairs. Her ethical sense compels her to pay him back every sense in spite of the fact that this means financial disaster. It is, in fact, her attempt to at first obtain the money from her aunt that leads to her ultimate downfall.
But her true trial comes when she purchases from a destitute charwoman very incriminating letters from one of her female sponsors to Selden, which reveal her adulterous behavior. She has a moment of moral crises when it is pointed out to her that use of these letters would restore her to her position of society’s favorite, but she, in the end, cannot bring herself to do it.
In a way, you might say that the genesis of Lily’s fatal flaw, her inability to live and act as crassly as does the hoi polloi she swims with, is traceable to Selden who, in a moment of frankness, opens her eyes to the vacuous nature of high society’s pursuits. He might as well have shot her dead. Although a number of people do Lily harm, Selden is the real villain of the piece. Presented with a last chance to save her, he is unable to cast aside his self centered aloofness and realizes only too late what a fool he has been.
The novel is well written, full of spot on characterizations of the Gilded Age. Only the somewhat maudlin finish prevents me from giving the novel a 5. (As an aside, I kept on hoping that somehow Lily would be saved, but given the endings of the 2 other novels by Wharton I have read, Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence, I should have known better)
While this is not my usual cup of tea, I greatly enjoyed reading it, and suggest it to anyone who loves a thought-provoking story.
Edith Wharton is definitely the master story-teller about society in old New York at the end of the 19 Century, coinciding with the French "Belle Epoque." Lily Bart is striving to maintain social status with limited funds, relying on her beauty, charms and the charity of friends and family. For Downton fans, she's a contemporary of Lady Cora and would share her society before Lady Cora married the Earl of Grantham. Lily Bart has the same goal in mind; to marry well, preferably a man with a title. It's a worthwhile read for the look into the social norms of the late 19th Century and the double standards women endured. A word of caution, the treatment of one particular character would not be appreciated today. It's subtly anti-Semitic and would not be considered politically correct.