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The House of Mirth  
The House of Mirth.JPG
The House of Mirth, Penguin Books edition 1993
Author Edith Wharton
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date 14 October 1905
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Illustrations below by:
Albert Beck Wenzell[1]
Original illustration #1
Original illustration #2
Original illustration #3
Original illustration #4
Original illustration #5
Original illustration #6
Original illustration #7
Original illustration #8

The House of Mirth (1905), is a novel by Edith Wharton. First published in 1905, the novel is Wharton's first important work of fiction, sold 140,000 copies between October and the end of December, and added to Wharton's already substantial fortune.

The House of Mirth is a novel of manners set against the backdrop of the 1890s New York ruling class. Wharton places her tragic heroine, Lily Bart, in a society that she describes as a " 'hot-house of traditions and conventions.' "[2]


Derivation of the title

The title derives from Ecclesiastes 7:4: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The manuscript had originally been titled "A Moment's Ornament, a reference to Wordsworth's poem 'She was a Phantom of Delight.'" [3].


Like most Wharton novels, The House of Mirth examines the conflict between rigid social expectation and personal desire. Lily Bart is adept at playing society's games, which expect her to achieve an advantageous marriage. Yet, torn between her desire for luxurious living and a relationship based on mutual respect and love, she manages to sabotage all her possible chances for a wealthy marriage. Gradually losing the good opinion of her social circle, she is left to try to survive below the level of "dinginess" of her only true friend, Gerty Farish.

Beautiful and well-trained as to "proper" behavior, Lily has many opportunites to marry a wealthy man, but none of them ever seem to work out. She avoids a marriage to an Italian Prince by flirting with his son; she sabotages her relationship with the prudish, but very wealthy Mr. Percy Gryce, and so on.

Her lawyer friend, Lawrence Selden, finds her attractive and delightful, but does not seriously attempt to engage her affections, since he is not rich and knows that she is unwilling to consider marrying for love.

Simon Rosedale is a social climber whose commercial success has admitted him partially into elite society. Rosedale courts Miss Bart until her social disaster renders her useless to him. Though he does offer real help after she has "fallen from grace," he requires that she re-enter society before he can marry her, thus securing his social position with a beautiful wife who is well-versed in society's rules.

Lily's decline begins when she loses the favor of her friend Judy Trenor, whose husband gives Lily a large sum of money, which she innocently accepts, believing that it is the return on investments made for her. When rumours of this debt circulate through her circle the foundations of her social standing are shaken.

Another of Lily's friends, Bertha Dorset, invites her to join her and her husband on a trip, then falsely implies that Lily has committed adultery with her husband, thus distracting his attention from her own infidelities.

The ensuing scandal ruins Lily, causing her straight-laced Aunt Julia, who is supporting her, to almost totally disinherit her. Although Lily has the power to defend herself—she has evidence of Bertha's infidelity—she chooses to suffer the consequences of the scandal rather than blackmail Bertha, since exposing her would also expose Lawrence Selden, the man Lily loves...although she never admits it, even to herself

Dropped by almost all of her society friends, Lily is forced to seek work. She takes a job as social secretary to a disreputable woman, but her dignity forces her to resign. She takes a job working in a millinery, but produces poor work and is let go. Eventually, she receives her meager inheritance. After paying her debt to Trenor, Lily dies from an overdose of the sleeping draught to which she had become addicted.

Other Characters

Lawrence Selden

Lawrence Selden is a young lawyer who is fascinated by Lily Bart, whom he admires for her beauty, taste, and intelligence. He falls in love with her even though he knows he cannot support her in the standard of living to which she aspires. Aside from a few stolen moments and chance conversations, determined not to entangle himself emotionally, Lawrence avoids her. Only at the end of the novel, when it's too late, can he express his feelings for her.

Percy Gryce

Percy Gryce is a wealthy and eligible bachelor. Shy and conservative, he is uncomfortable around women, but he takes pride in his inherited collection of Americana books. Lily befriends him with the intention of making him fall in love with her. A consummate actor, she pretends an interest in things that interest him, and plays the role of a prospective wife to the hilt. However, when Gryce discovers her subterfuge, he runs away as fast as he can, eventually meeting and marrying a much more appropriate young woman.

Judy and Gus Trenor

The Trenors are Lily's best friends at the start of the story. Judy is an expert hostess, considered at the top of fashionable society, although the older and more conservative families do not approve of everything that goes on in her household. She wants to help Lily find a husband, but the friendship cools when Lily stirs up trouble at one of Judy's house parties and she suspects that Lily may have slept with Gus.

Simon Rosedale

A wealthy Jewish banker and insightful businessman, Simon Rosedale wants to be accepted into the higher ranks of society. He cultivates people through the Stock Exchange, sharing stock tips with social stars such as Wellington Bry and Gus Trenor.

Rosedale is aware that he makes others uncomfortable, but believes that a respectable and socially astute wife will make him acceptable to society. He therefore determines that he must have such a wife, and chooses Lily.

He insures that Lily gets her hands on Bertha Dorset's incriminating letters to Lawrence Selden, hoping to furnish her with the ammunition to blackmail Bertha into acknowledging her socially.

Bertha and George Dorset

A vicious, selfish woman who thinks of little but her own pleasure, Bertha Dorset has a husband who is completely unaware of her affairs. Scheming to protect herself, and concerned that her husband may be growing interested in Lily, Bertha hints that Lily and George are having an affair. This is the beginning of Lily's ruin. Subsequently, Bertha uses her social position to further isolate and humiliate the young woman.

Gerty Farish

A cousin of Lawrence Selden's, Gerty dearly loves both Lawrence and Lily. When she realizes that Lawrence is in love with Lily, she sublimates her love for him into a desire to help Lily. Mild, generous, and optimistic, Gerty sees the best in everyone. Regarded by Lily as "dingy" because of her simple living conditions, Gerty devotes herself to public service. When Lily comes to her for help, Gerty finds various positions for her, and invites her to live with her in her apartment. This Lily refuses, although she has come to appreciate Gerty's kind heart.

Julia Peniston

Lily's Aunt Julia reluctantly accepted financial responsibility for Lily after her parents died, and has been supporting her ever since. She pays all Lily's expenses, but does not give her a regular allowance. Instead, she makes Lily unpredictable gifts of cash. When presented with the rumors of Lily borrowing money from Gus Trenor and gambling for money, Julia is shocked. After the evidence of Lily's inappropriate behavior becomes overwhelming, Julia disinherits her niece, leaving Lily with barely enough of a legacy to settle her debts.

Carry Fisher

Carry Fisher is a repeatedly divorced woman who relies on her social skills to survive and who occasionally does dirty work for Judy Trenor or Bertha Dorset. Carry sees in Lily a kindred spirit, and attempts to teach Lily the art of social midwifery, but Lily is unable to recognize that the very people she helps to gain a foothold in society will inevitably snub her as they do Carry. When it becomes known that Lily held a position in Norma Hatch's (a gold digger at best and possibly a courtesan of some sort) household, this doesn't hurt Carry Fisher, understood by everyone to be damaged goods herself; but when Norma Hatch nearly succeeds in marrying a naïve young man from a wealthy family, Lily is blamed as having somehow been involved in the conspiracy.


The book received an enthusiastic review in the New York Times upon its original publication, which called it "a novel of remarkable power," and which read in part "Its varied elements are harmoniously blended, and 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."[4]

There followed months of letters to the Times, arguing over the book. Some readers were enthusiastic fans, while others felt that the book unfairly impugned the city's social elite.[5]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations


  1. ^ See attribution category on commons for US Painters: Albert Beck Wenzell and commons:Category:Albert Beck Wenzell
  2. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey. House of Mirth. 2004. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
  3. ^ Lewis, R.W.B. (1984), "Introduction", The House of Mirth, Bantam Books (published 1986) 
  4. ^ "New York Society Held Up to Scorn in Three New Books," New York Times, October 15, 1905
  5. ^ Letter to the editor of the New York Times Saturday Review of Books, March 3, 1906


External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton
Information about this edition
The House of Mirth is a 1905 novel by Edith Wharton. It is centered on Lily Bart, a New York socialite who attempts to secure a husband and a place in affluent society. It was one of the first novels of manners to emerge in American literature.Excerpted from The House of Mirth on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Wharton did not appreciate the illustrations which the publisher commissioned for the work by A. B. Wenzell, and in a letter to Scribner's Sons she wrote ...even when I sank to the depth of letting the illustrations be put in the book--& oh, I wish I hadn't now..."[1]

  1. The Edith Wharton Society
Book 1 Book 2

Gallery of illustrations

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