House of Mirth

Background, theme, and purpose

Wharton considered several titles for the novel about Lily Bart; [b] two were germane to her purpose:

A Moment's Ornament appears in the first stanza of William Wordsworth's (1770–1850) poem, "She was a Phantom of Delight" (1804) that describes an ideal of feminine beauty:

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She was a Phantom of delight When first she gleam'd upon my sight; A lovely Apparition, sent To be a moment's ornament: Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair; But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful dawn; A dancing shape, an image gay, To haunt, to startle, and waylay.

— CLXXIV: She was a Phantom of Delight, first stanza (1804)[8]

"A moment's ornament"[c] represents the way Wharton describes Lily's relationship to her reference group as a beautiful and well-bred socialite. Her value lasts only as long as her beauty and good-standing with the group is maintained. By centering the story around a portrait of Lily, Wharton was able to address directly the social limitations imposed upon her. These included the mores of the upper crust social class to which Lily belonged by birth, education, and breeding.[10]

The final title Wharton chose for the novel was The House of Mirth (1905), taken from the Old Testament:

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 House of Mirth spotlights social context as equally important to the development of the story's purpose, as the heroine.[d] "Mirth" contrasted with "mourning" also bespeaks a moral purpose as it underscores the frivolity of a social set that not only worships money, but also uses it ostentatiously solely for its own amusement and aggrandizement. At the time the novel takes place, Old New York high society was peopled by the extraordinarily wealthy who were conditioned by the economic and social changes the Gilded Age (1870–1900) wrought. Wharton's birth around the time of the Civil War predates that period by a little less than a decade. As a member of the privileged Old New York society,[e] she was eminently qualified to describe it authentically. She also had license to criticize the ways New York high society of the 1890s had changed without being vulnerable to accusations of envy motivated by coming from a lower social caste.[f] She accused her peers of having lost the sense of noblesse oblige of their forebears.

Wharton revealed in her introduction to the 1936 reprint of The House of Mirth her choice of subject and her major theme:

When I wrote House of Mirth I held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York society in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by a novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of tradition and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable.

— Introduction to 1936 Edition, The House of Mirth 32-33[13]

Wharton figured that no one had written about New York society because it offered nothing worth writing about. But that did not deter her as she thought something of value could be mined there. If only the writer could dig deeply enough below the surface, some " 'stuff o' the conscience' " could be found. She went on to declare unabashedly that:

[I]n spite of the fact I wrote about totally insignificant people, and 'dated' them by an elaborate stage-setting of manners, furniture and costume, the book still lives and has now attained the honour of figuring on the list of the Oxford University Press. . . . Such people always rest on an underpinning of wasted human possibilities and it seemed to me the fate of the persons embodying these possibilities ought to redeem my subject from insignificance.

— Introduction to 1936 Edition, The House of Mirth 33[13]

The central theme of The House of Mirth is essentially the struggle between who we are and what society tells us we should be. Thus, it is considered by many to be as relevant today as it was in 1905.[14] If its sole subject had been the excesses and lives of the rich and famous, by themselves, it is doubtful it would have remained popular for as long as it has. The House of Mirth continues to attract readers over a century after its first publication, possibly due to its timeless theme. That the life and death of Lily Bart matters to modern readers suggests that Wharton succeeded in her purpose: to critique "a society so relentlessly materialistic and self-serving that it casually destroys what is most beautiful and blameless within it." [4]

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