The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth (1905) is a satirical novel of manners by American author Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Lily Bart is a young woman who feels trapped by the expectations of others. While the men and women of polite society expect her to find a husband and settle down, Lily dreams of gaining financial independence. Having grown up in New York's high culture, Edith Wharton uses Lily's story to analyze class, gender, and morality themes.  

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Table of contents

    The House of Mirth Wharton StudySmarterFig. 1 - Edith Wharton was one of the first writers to expose the life and secrets of New York's high society.

    The House of Mirth: Summary

    Lily Bart is a 29-year-old socialite running out of time to find a husband. Having lost her mother at a young age, Lily, who lives with a frugal aunt, dreams of one day living the type of extravagant lifestyle enjoyed by the rest of her social class. After attending a party hosted by the wealthy Trenor family, she realizes that to attain her dreams, she must find a rich husband or make her fortune.

    One of Lily's suitors, Lawrence Selden, a young lawyer from a humble background who worked his way up, cares deeply about Lily but does not have the requisite wealth to secure her hand in marriage. She is also dissatisfied by another suitor, Simon Rosedale, who has the means to provide for her but is arrogant and self-obsessed.

    What are Lawerence and Lily's conflicting views of the world? How did their upbringing influence these views?

    Lily is prepared to settle for the rich but dull Percy Gryce. However, her chances are ruined when Bertha Dorset spreads rumors about Lily's behavior. Jealous of Lily's relationship with Selden, she tells Percy that Lily gambles and plays cards. Fearing scandal, Percy immediately distances himself from Lily. A short time later, one of the Dorset's cleaners sells Lily a bundle of love letters that Bertha wrote to Selden.

    The House of Mirth New York StudySmarterFig. 2 - Lily battles against the oppressive social expectations of both class and gender in the New York social scene.

    Determined to secure her financial independence, Lily asks Gus Trenor to invest her money in the stock market. Gus is secretly attracted to Lily and agrees to help her, believing the scheme will bring the two closer together.

    As Lily’s stock begins to rise, Gus gives her cash which she spends lavishly. Other members of the New York social scene notice the change in Lily's fortunes, and rumors soon spread that Gus is secretly funding her extravagant lifestyle.

    The House of Mirth has been adapted for the stage, screen, and radio numerous times.

    When Gus unsuccessfully propositions her, a disgusted Lily demands he cash out her stocks. Gus admits he never made the investments and used his money to pay for her lavish spending. He reasons that Lily is indebted to him and it would be shameful for her not to pay off her debts. He suggests that she spend time with him as a means of paying back the money.

    Penniless and distraught, Lily refuses the offer but promises to honor her obligation. She attempts to talk to Selden but discovers he is touring Europe. When George and Bertha Dorset invite Lily to join them on their upcoming European tour, she jumps at the chance, hoping she will run into Selden.

    Gus Trenor and Bertha Dorset are shown to take advantage of Lily's naïveté. Which deception had a more significant impact on Lily's life?

    The party sets off, accompanied by a young man named Ned Silverton, and attends lavish dinner parties hosted by the upper tier of European society. Lily is an immediate success with her European hosts, rousing jealousy in Bertha. It is revealed that Bertha is having an affair with Ned, and she had invited Lily on the trip to act as a distraction for her husband. Bertha insinuates Lily is conducting an inappropriate relationship with Ned, causing George to insist that Lily leave the trip.

    Returning to New York, Lily discovers her rich aunt has died and has left her a $10,000 inheritance. The money is enough to pay off her debts to Gus Trenor but leaves her penniless. She finds work as an assistant to several high-society ladies but finds her tenure is cut short due to her reputation. Forced to live in a grimy apartment, Lily ultimately falls from grace and can only find work in hatmakers. She finds herself caught in a dead-end life of a constant struggle against mounting debt and turns to chloryl hydrate, a sleeping draught, to get to sleep.

    The House of Mirth Bottle StudySmarterFig. 3 - Battling depression and debt, Lily takes sleep medication to get some rest.

    Rosedale approaches Lily with an offer of marriage on the condition that she uses the letters to expose Bertha's relationship with Selden. Knowing that this action would ruin Bertha and Selden's reputation but improve her situation, Lily reluctantly accepts the offer. On her way to expose Bertha, she suffers an attack of conscience and burns the letters. Lily then attempts to reconcile with Selden, but neither can admit their true feelings for the other.

    The following day, Selden goes to Lily’s boarding house, intent on professing his love but discovers that Lily has died of an overdose.

    Wharton considered the titles A Moment's Ornament and The Year of the Rose before settling on The House of Mirth.

    The House of Mirth: Characters

    As Lily struggles to climb the social ladder, she encounters a cast of characters who embody the petty nature of upper-classes.

    Character Description

    Lily Bart

    The novel’s protagonist is a 29-year-old woman who desperately wants to secure her future. Although she is connected to the New York upper classes, she does not enjoy the financial security of her peers. Obsessed by materialism, Lily often makes herself unhappy in her search for a man of a higher social status, which eventually leads to her downfall. Lily's kind and naive nature are reflected in her name, representing purity and moral goodness.

    Lawrence Selden

    Having worked his way into New York’s high society as a successful lawyer, some people look down on Selden because of his humble upbringing. However, he rejects their vanity and materialism for a more independent sense of freedom. Unlike Lily's other suitors, Selden cares for her and sees her as more than a trophy wife.

    Gus Trenor

    Gus Trenor is living the lavish life of Lily's dreams. Financially secure and living in a country mansion, Gus is free in the ways Lily considers essential. When Lily approaches him about investments, he weaponizes Lily's desires and reputation against her to attempt to control her.

    Bertha Dorset

    Like Gus, Bertha attempts to manipulate Lily for her gain, using her as cover for the affair with Ned. Bertha also spreads a series of vicious, untrue rumors about Lily, which hamper her ability to make a living and have successful relationships. Unlike many men in the story, Bertha is more interested in destroying Lily's reputation than controlling her ambitions.

    The House of Mirth: Themes

    In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton drew on her background to explore themes of social class, gender, and the emptiness of materialism.

    Class and Materialism

    Lily has grown up in the upper classes of New York society; however, shortly before her father's death, he announced that he had lost the family fortune, leaving Lily with a precarious future. She knows that to maintain her social standing, she must marry or make her fortune. No alternatives exist for a woman like Lily, so her actions throughout the book are driven by social pressure to secure wealth and status.

    Wharton uses The House of Mirth to critique the shallowness of New York’s high society and its obsession with wealth. Although Lily sees people like the Trenors and Dorsets as her social betters, they are in reality morally bankrupt and petty. They scheme and conduct affairs while judging Lily's actions and spreading false rumors. Still, Lily is trapped in this social class and cannot forge her path in the world.

    Lily has several chances to live a comfortable life with any of her potential suitors but keeps turning them down in the hope that a wealthier bachelor will come along. Even as she falls down the steep social ladder and can barely make ends meet, Lily still strives to fulfill her social obligations by ensuring she pays off her debt. Ultimately, Wharton uses Lily's story to warn about the dangers of pursuing materialism and trying to live up to others' expectations.

    Edith Wharton was born into New York's upper-class establishment and was well-equipped to give the world an inside look at the lives of New York's snobbish upper classes. Born during the American Civil War, Wharton grew up in an established New York family that enjoyed the privileges of generational wealth and meaningful social connections.

    During her childhood, a vast expansion known as the Gilded Age radically transformed cities throughout America. New York, in particular, went through rapid industrialization and modernization. New industries and technologies sprung up overnight, creating a new set of powerful and wealthy families. Since these families had not inherited their money and were not of the privileged lineage that dominated the upper classes in New York, they were looked down upon as "new money."

    During the Gilded Age, members of the "new money" class enjoyed unprecedented wealth and opulent lifestyles, which many "old money" class viewed as vulgar and tasteless.

    The House of Mirth Snobs StudySmarterFig. 4 - Having grown up in high society, Wharton was able to present an accurate portrayal of the snobs who judge Lily.

    In her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), Wharton describes the upper classes of her day as “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers.” With The House of Mirth, Wharton criticized the shallow nature of the Gilded Age and yearned for a more dignified time.


    The novel is set in a time and social setting where gender expectations limit women’s choices and opportunities. As a woman in this era and social class, she must adhere to society's expectations and sacrifice her desires. Lily is expected to find a rich husband, marry, and have children. Although she yearns for love and a sense of self-fulfillment in life, these ideals would have been considered frivolous for women of the era. Wharton reflects the period's social expectations by continually describing Lily as an ornament expected to act as decoration for her future husband.

    When Lily attempts to challenge the social limitations of her gender, she is punished. Her meetings with Trenor spark a set of rumors and labels her immoral. Trenor uses her efforts to achieve financial independence to place her debt. After Lily is left destitute, she struggles to find work because she has not been trained with any skills since her society has only prepared her to become a wife.

    Lily's gender also impacts her downfall. The damaging rumors that Bertha spreads about Lily hinge on the idea that she is a "loose" woman and unsafe around men. While similar stories about a man would have been socially damaging, they would not have caused the man to be excluded from society and allowed to slip into poverty.

    The House of Mirth: Analysis

    The House of Mirth contains elements from several different genres but is best described as a novel of manners.

    A novel of manners is a piece of literature concerned with a social class's techniques, traditions, and behavior. The characters and plot in this genre are often controlled by the custom of their social setting and class.

    Some novels of manners, like The House of Mirth and Jane Austen's (1775-1817) Sense and Sensibility (1811), use the genre's conventions to satirize the hypocrisies of class conventions. These novels do this by taking standard novel of manners conventions and turning them on their head to make a point.

    With Lily's story, Wharton challenges the narrow gender and class manners of her day. While the upper classes view themselves as refined and dignified, Wharton exposes them as vindictive and manipulative.

    Lily's story is ultimately a tragedy caused by her social settings and personal actions. She rejects several offers from viable suitors, holding out for a man of more wealth, and never allows herself to fully embrace her need for independence. Even when she visits Selden for the final time, she is limited in what she says, fearful that it could be construed as improper.

    The House of Mirth High society StudySmarterFig. 5 - Wharton critiques the manners of high society, which she views as hypocritical and limiting.

    The House of Mirth first appeared in a serialized form in Scribner's Magazine in January 1905. The story was an immediate success with readers who were keenly interested in the private lives of New York's high society. Read by both men and women, the story developed a passionate fanbase keen to find out if Selden and Lily ended up together. When the book went into print in October 1905, it was an immediate success and sold over 140,000 copies by the end of the year. The book's popularity helped to secure Wharton's place on the American literary scene.

    The novel’s title deals with the idea of morality and suffering, originating in a Biblical quote:

    The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. — Ecclesiastes 7:4

    The "mirth" refers to the upper classes' obsession with materialism and pleasure. Since their energies are focused on empty pursuits and status, they remain foolish and unenlightened. Lily becomes caught up in this mindset and seeks to define herself through a husband or money, but neither can make her happy or wise. Trapped in this insulated world, Lily cannot learn anything about herself or life. It is only when she loses everyone and slips into poverty that she gains wisdom, though at this point, it is too late.

    The House of Mirth: Quotes

    The following quotes highlight the novel's themes of social limitations and Lily's attempts to forge her own identity.

    "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.” (Ch. 1)

    While Lily yearns for a life of her own, the society in which she lives has left her unequipped to gain independence. Wharton presents Lily as a woman trapped in a gilded cage, so scared of slipping out of the comfort of upper-class life that she cannot forge a true sense of self.

    “From everything--from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a king of republic of the spirit--that's what I call success" (Ch. 6)

    Selden rejects the trappings of materialism and sees true independence as having freedom. The most caring of Lily's suitors, Selden, has had to work for everything he has and knows the value of material possessions.

    The House of Mirth - Key takeaways

    • The House of Mirth is a novel by American author Edith Wharton.
    • The story follows Lily Bart, a young woman trapped by social expectations who tries to gain her independence and ends up falling from grace.
    • The novel deals with themes of gender, class, and materialism.
    • Edith Wharton drew on her own life as a member of New York's wealthy elite to paint a cutting portrait of the status-obsessed upper classes.
    • The work is an example of the novel of manners genre.


    1. Fig. 1 - Edith Wharton by Unknown Photographer,
    2. Fig. 2 - 5th Avenue looking north from 33rd Street by Unknown Author,,_New_York_City_1908.jpg
    3. Fig. 5 - John Sloan, "Fifth Avenue Critics" from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,,_%22Fifth_Avenue_Critics%22_2013_9v1.jpg
    Frequently Asked Questions about The House of Mirth

    What are the themes in The House of Mirth

    The House of Mirth deals with class, gender, and materialism themes. 

    When was The House of Mirth written? 

    The House of Mirth was written in 1905. 

    What is The House of Mirth about? 

    The House of Mirth follows Lily Bart, a 29-year-old socialite trying to live up to the expectations of others. While society dictates that Lily's only goal should be to secure a husband, she secretly wishes to ensure her financial independence.  

    Who wrote The House of Mirth

    Edith Wharton wrote the House of Mirth

    Who is the main character in The House of Mirth

    The main character in The House of Mirth is Lily Bart, a 29-year-old socialite looking for a wealthy husband.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The House of Mirth is an example of which genre? 

    The House of Mirth first appeared in serialized form in which publication? 

    The novel's title is taken from which Biblical book? 


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