House of Mirth

Labor and Class in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth

Edith Wharton's IThe House of Mirth] tells the story of Lily Bart's fall from the upper reaches of the social spectrum to the lowly depths of the working class. The characters in the novel represent all levels of society, from the urban poor to the extremely wealthy. Wealth, however, is not the sole factor in defining the characters' social status. The method of acquiring money, and most importantly, the need to do work is what defines an individual's social rank. Lily wavers between the leisure and working classes; although she is not independently wealthy, she initially scoffs at the idea of working because it is her idleness that allows her to maintain her social status. As an aristocrat, working for a living would be unthinkable; but once she is abandoned by her friends, her unwillingness and inability to do work lead to her downfall.

The uppermost reaches of society are occupied by people with "old money" (such as the Trenors, the Dorsets, and the Van Osburghs). These families were born wealthy and have never needed to work to earn a living. Born into a family of rich bankers and merchants who were among the early settlers of New York, Wharton herself was a member of this leisure class, and thus...

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