American Dreams: Edith Wharton Takes Down High Society in ‘The House of Mirth’

Like a slow-motion car pile-up that you can’t stop watching, Wharton’s ‘House of Mirth’ describes a socialite’s decline and fall in pitiless, addictive detail.

02.01.15 11:45 AM ET

About this series:

This monthly series chronicles the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2015. Each column a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written.

Dr. William Osler, a founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, gave a speech on February 22, 1905, that traumatized America. “I have two fixed ideas,” he announced. The first was “the comparative uselessness of men above forty”; the second was that most of the world’s evils “may be traced to sexagenarians.” He proposed that every man, on his sixtieth birthday, enter an institution for “a year of contemplation” followed by “a peaceful departure by chloroform.” Osler’s prescription of mass euthanasia was facetious, but it wasn’t received that way around the country, where it inspired outraged editorials and letter-writing campaigns. Osler, wrote historian Mark Sullivan, was surprised and “deeply pained” at the public’s inability to take a joke. But the mere suggestion that men over forty were useless, and over sixty were better off dead, was no laughing matter.

That women in 1905 were considered useless beyond the age of thirty, however, is implicit in the premise of Edith Wharton’s first novel, The House of Mirth. Lily Bart is 29 and still beautiful, but rapidly approaching a crisis of superannuation. Right away we learn that her “girlish smoothness” is beginning to roughen, and soon after she notices with terror the inscription of “two little lines near her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of the cheek.” This is a nightmare because she has not yet married and, thanks to her late father’s clumsy business decisions, she has a much smaller fortune than she admits to the aristocratic New York society to which she belongs. “I am horribly poor—and very expensive,” she says, only half joking. “I must have a great deal of money.” Her mother has long promised Lily that she would be able to exchange her beauty for wealth. “You’ll get it all back,” she says, “with your face.” But Lily has already refused several proposals, and now her face is going.

Lily sets off for a week with friends at a country estate, and the scene is set for a conventional comedy of manners. Will she choose love (the canny, charming, but relatively poor Lawrence Selden) or money (the outrageously wealthy bore Percy Gryce)? Can she suppress her disgust with high society long enough to secure its favor? Will she be able to disguise her financial troubles? Is there anything she do about those wrinkles? The novel’s title—from Ecclesiastes 7:4, “the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”—would seem to forecast a frolic through the garden of earthly delights. But Lily manages to blow it with both Selden and Gryce, and the wind shifts. Years pass. A cold front sets in.

In the last two-thirds of the novel Lily’s fortunes spiral precipitously, as she stumbles down the social ladder, hitting herself on every rung. Wharton charts the fall with satisfying precision, as Lily first alienates her closest, richest friends, then their husbands, their hangers on, and the hangers on’s hangers on, before sinking finally into the working class and drug addiction, barely a half-step above prostitution. With each grasp for redemption she only worsens her prospects further. She thwarts—sometimes purposely, sometimes inadvertently—a succession of increasingly grotesque suitors, culminating with the “little Jew” Rossdale, until her banishment from society appears irrevocable.

The House of Mirth has long been advertised as a tragedy, but it is not a tragedy in any conventional sense. Lily is not virtuous. Her high social status is due entirely to factors beyond her control: her beauty and her father’s wealth. It occurs to Selden at the beginning of the novel that “the qualities distinguishing her … were chiefly external, as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay.” And vulgar she is, coveting not only her friends’ wealth, but also “their elegance, their lightness, their lack of emphasis.” She wants money in order to live a life of “obtuseness” and “aloofness.” At times she recoils—“How dreary and trivial these people were!”—but not for long, as no better option arises. Though she is eager to assert “her own eager individuality,” there is no individuality to be found. “My story?” she asks. “I don’t believe I know it myself.”

Lily’s flaws lack the grandeur of a typical tragic heroine; they are minor, even pedestrian. She fails to attract a wealthy husband because of flightiness and poor calculations. She’s sloppy, naïve, careless. It is difficult to empathize with her. Even her suicide is a botched job. There is no decisive tragic moment, no fork in the road where she chooses poorly. There is only a succession of minor errors. The real source of the novel’s tragedy—and also its perversity—lies in the realization that Lily has been doomed from birth.

The House of Mirth sold 140,000 copies during the year of its publication, receiving nearly unanimous praise. Among the few naysayers was a Chicago minister who accused Wharton of wallowing in “the degeneracy [of] what is falsely called ‘the higher circles’ or the ‘favored classes.’” But Wharton and the minister were not as far apart as he might have suspected. The American high society that Wharton describes is degenerate; it is also vacuous, petty, hermetic, and even primitive in its transactional nature. The tragedy is only that Lily has been born into this life, and is unaware of any other. She can see no plausible alternative to marrying well, but nor can she see any joy in marrying well. She cannot escape, doesn’t know how to escape, and doesn’t know where to escape to. She never had a chance.

Other notable novels published in 1905:

The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon Jr.
The Millionaire Baby
by Anna Katherine Green
In the Name of Liberty
by Owen Johnson
The Game
by Jack London
by George Barr McCutcheon
The Conquest of Canaan
by Booth Tarkington

Bestselling novel of the year:

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Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs
1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy
1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman
1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright
1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle
2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James
1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1924—So Big by Edna Ferber
1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
1954—The Bad Seed by William March
1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow
1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson
1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez