"The heart of fools is in the house of mirth." --Ecclesiastes
Published on October 14, 1905, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth was praised for being one of the first novels to give an accurate representation of American society. One hundred thousand copies were in print as of November 20 and over 140,000 by the
end of the year. The House of Mirth was the best-selling novel across the country, and rivaled successes such as The Garden of Allah by Maxfield Parrish, The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (Lewis, 151).
Despite its huge success, The House of Mirth encountered mixed reactions. Wharton was criticized for having given a negative impression of American society and for having chosen a subject matter that was utterly unsuitable for conversion into literature,
which demands ideals and humor and for not shedding a more positive light on her characters (Lewis, 154). Wharton herself has said, "When I wrote The House of Mirth I held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York socie
ty in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by any novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of traditions and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable" (
Wegener, 265). The bulk of reviews, however, stated that Wharton was one of the three most serious fiction writers of American society and that The House of Mirth was one of her most distinguished novels as of yet. Some argued whether it "could be adjud
ged a masterpiece of whether it fell just short of that final accolade" (Lewis, 154).
Wharton's The House of Mirth was the first full-scale criticism of the "comédie humaine," American style . Set in a contemporary time, it covers the last seventeen months in the life of Lily Bart, a beautiful, penniless young woman in her twenties. Wha
rton first introduced her book in installments and readers became infatuated with the protagonist, Lily Bart, and made her a part of their lives. Total strangers wrote Wharton to share their feelings about The House of Mirth. One woman wrote saying that
she had telegraphed a friend to tell them that Lily was dead and another wrote enclosing a two-cent stamp begging Wharton to write and say whether it was possible for Lily to marry Lawrence Selden (Lewis, 152). The novel obviously became an obsession fo
r many-partly because of its insiders' look into New York's society. Many sought to compare the author to her main character, Lily Bart. Many argued that she embodies many of Wharton's characteristics and features because of her pride, sensitivity, a
nd bitterness. It is said that, "through Lily Bart, Edith Wharton conveyed her sense of herself as essentially unfitted for the only American society she knew, and as gravely misunderstood by that society" (Lewis, 155). Lawrence Selden, interestingly en
ough, is likened to "an emblem of masculinity in Edith's world" (ibid). However, there were many differences in the "outward and material circumstances of Edith Wharton and Lily Bart" (ibid). Also, many reviewers have said that Wharton's soul was pai
ned and trapped, with psychological and physical deprivation (ibid). Essentially, Wharton used Bart as a representation of herself-one which was unfit and misunderstood by American Society. Henry James described The House of Mirth to Wharton as being an
"altogether superior thing?better written than composed. When I do that I shall work in a tribute to the great success and the large portrayal of your Lily B. She is very big and true-and very difficult to have kept big and true" (Lewis, 153).
During the time of the novel's publication, there was not much political activity nor were there any significant events in the media. In fact, the most popular news involved the union tensions and most of what The Jungle had sought to bring to society'
s attention. It is very probable that Wharton's success was self-made and that she relied on her own knowledge of New York society to spark an interest in the minds of many. It is also likely that because of the lack of significant news in the United S
tates, people sought to turn to Wharton's novel in order to fulfill their time and imaginations. Since Wharton's novel was first published in installments, people usually looked forward to the next issues and centered many of their conversations around
Lily Bart and her life. In short, The House of Mirth became somewhat of an escape for many-Lily's life was something that was adventuresome and exciting and during the early twentieth century many people yearned for both of these qualities.
When reviewing her novel, Wharton sought to explain its origins and its existence. She summed it up best when she said, "In my volume of reminiscences, A Backward Glance, I analyzed to the best of my ability, the origin of The House of Mirth, as viewed i
n the author's mind, and the reasons for its unfolding in the particular way it did. Here, on the contrary, I should like to try to describe what happened to it when nit entered other people's minds; for the strangest, and not the least interesting, ad
venture of any work of the imagination is the inevitable distortion it undergoes in passing from the mind of the writer to that of his readers" (Lewis, 268). The rulers of Old New York were disturbed to think that someone was divulging the secrets of the
ir society from the inside; had it been someone from the outside looking in and guessing, it would have been a different matter completely. However, Wharton was the insider telling all the secrets and this only angered and infuriated a small circle of Ne
These New Yorkers were especially angered by the portrayal of Lily Bart-a young girl who smoked, ran herself into debt, gambled, and flirted with bachelors! Wharton said, Ï was not only asking the outer world to believe that such creatures were tolerated
in New York society, but actually presenting this unhappy specimen as my heroine! And the people who surrounded her-dreadful caricatures of this or that cousin or uncle or aunt (for of course my characters were all immediately labeled, and some of them
wore at least three different labels)-well, it was all so painful and surprising and unaccountable that the best way, perhaps, was not to allude to the book in the presence of its author, but firmly to ignore the fact that she had committed this deplorabl
e blunder; a blunder which, like the book itself, would doubtless soon be forgotten" (Lewis, 268).
Wharton had gathered material for her book while living at the Mount. The house had an air of individuality and distinctness; this reflected Wharton's sense of "variety and unity of life and the nature of human relationships" (Lewis, 135). She was simu
ltaneously writing several short stories for her next book of fiction that was also to appear in Scribner's in serial form (Lewis, 144). This was the hardest that Wharton had worked her entire life. As Lewis writes, "It was Edward Burlingame, apparentl
y, who drew Edith back to in August 1904, by begging her to have the novel ready to begin serialization in Scribner's the following January, since another story due to start then had fallen through (Lewis, 151). After a period of "black despair" the nov
el was written in a rush and by October Wharton was pleased with her creation. From January to November 1905 The House of Mirth ran through eleven issues.
Besides being such a critically acclaimed author, Wharton was also a very dedicated critic. She appeared to be honoring the notion of such a "celebrated community of critical women or of an intellectual center presided over largely by members of her own
sex. Yet one remembers, of course, that the ideal salon, in her eyes, nonetheless consisted of women whose listening attentiveness forms a backdrop for the superior conversation among its male participants" (Wegener, 10). Wharton's temperament contribu
ted to her ability to be a critic and her understanding of fiction. Wharton's profound sensibility of nineteenth-century critical traditions aided the construction of much of her critical prose and the discussion of her own work. In addition, many of t
he cultures and languages that she was so familiar with gave her the expanded knowledge and wisdom to criticize others' work. As Wegener says, "Persuaded that the critical art had no room for writers of her own sex, and yet struggling so often and so do
ggedly to express her self as a critic, Wharton occupies a considerable, if problematic and ambiguous, place in a tradition to which so many other previously muted voices have lately been restored" (46). When speaking of her own work, Wharton did not hes
itate to be critical of it:
"That is why, on reflection, I was not afraid of the poverty of my subject, but proceeded to attack it with the first fine careless valour of the inexperienced. And the subsequent career of the book would seem to justify my audacity; for, in spite of the
fact that 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" (266).
In the midst of writing The House of Mirth, Wharton was also dedicated to other activities. She was part of the Lenox Library Committee, the Village Improvement Committee, and the Flower Show Committee. Her interest in travelling did not stop, though.
She was fond of the New England countryside and would make frequent trips to admire its beauty. Lewis said, "There was romance here too, she was discovering, in the somber and changing scene" (137). This said, Lewis makes the connection between her own
life and the life that she creates in The House of Mirth by saying, "It is a modest and well-illustrated thesis is that, confronted by scenes of a conventional and stylized nature, 'it is only in the background that the artist finds himself free to expr
ess his personality.' Such a thesis could also find application in Edith Wharton's fictional portraits of the stirrings of rebellious individuality within conventional society. Perhaps, more obscurely, it might have relevance to the outward and inward
shaping of Edith Wharton's own life and personality" (144).
After divorcing her husband on April 16, 1913, Wharton traveled for the fifteen months; she visited seven countries on three continents. According to Henry James, she had begun to exercise what he called a "fantastic freedom" (Lewis, 339). During the sp
an of the First World War, from 1913 to 1918, Wharton dedicated much of her time to exploring the Walt Whitman side of her by writing poems. Also, she visited the British cavalry and infantry divisions (376).
As the author of two novellas, three collections of short stories, an historical novel, two travel books, and study of the decoration of houses, Wharton spent a great deal of her time writing and not doing much of anything else (Auchincloss, xi). Her int
erest in the elite society contributed a great deal to The House of Mirth's success. Most importantly, however, is the interest the public showed in her main character, Lily Bart. The novel follows Lily Bart's long and slow fall from the social grace
of New York's society. As Auchincloss writes, "she is dogged by her fatally good taste and by a moral code which is in part ethical and in part simply one of good manners?she suffers from her own high standards of what a 'lady,' a real lady, must do o
r not do"(Auchincloss, xii). Auchincloss best describes the great interest in the protagonist when he says, "one feels, the lovely Lily is simply the one and only lady in a tribe of near barbarians" (ibid). Her existence in a society which is contradict
ory to her lifestyle is what creates the intrigue which so many are attracted to. Lily's bad luck and her long descent into poverty deepens the tragedy. Continuing, Auchincloss states, "We feel that nothing could save Lily, that she is irretrievably do
omed by the conflict between her worldly tastes and her moral convictions. If she could only have been a little bit better or a little bit worse, she might have escaped the savage society that seemed to have tasted her blood" (Auchincloss, xiii).
The House of Mirth continues to be widely read today as well as many of Wharton's other novels such as Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. Her novels are read widely by the general public and many of them are taught in the
"There is no way of reacting to any phenomenon but by criticizing it; and to differentiate and complicate one's reactions is an amusement that the human intelligence will probably never renounce." --Edith Wharton