First published in 1905, Edith Wharton's
THE HOUSE OF MIRTH was an instant sensation and best-seller, the book that put her, once and forever, on America's literary map. The novel -- which takes its title 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" -- relates the slow social downfall of Lily Bart, a beautiful and once-wealthy New York socialite. As the book opens, Lily is orphaned, reliant on the undependable charity of her aunt, and, at 29, quickly approaching spinsterhood. Lily still has charm and beauty, however, as well as valuable social connections, which she cleverly parlays into invitations to house parties, week-long retreats in the countryside, and even a trip to the French Riviera. Lily's ever-mounting dressmaking and gambling debts mandate that she find a rich husband, and quickly. But every time she comes close to coaxing a proposal out of a man she could never love, something inside her rebels. Why, she wonders, must she "pay so dearly" to flirt with a dull, wealthy man "on the bare chance that he might ultimately do her the honor of boring her for life?"
As Lily's financial woes mount, first one group of friends and then another ostracize her. Still, despite the numerous moral compromises Lily makes as she juggles her debts and jockeys for social standing, she will not -- and perhaps cannot -- bring herself to make the final compromise of a loveless marriage. An air of inevitability seems to accompany her descent from a life of glamour and ease to one of destitution and disgrace. As Lily herself notes, she had been raised to be an ornament and little else: "I have tried hard -- but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else."Born into New York's social elite, Edith Wharton once wrote, "A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys." THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is a brilliant novel of manners and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the social elite -- and yet, paradoxically, also a story of redemption, as what Lily loses in social standing she seems to gain in spirit, independence, and integrity. Previous