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The House Of Mirth
by Edith Wharton
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"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth," warns Ecclesiastes 7:4, and so does the novel by Edith Wharton that takes its title from this call to heed. New York at the turn of the century was a time of opulence and frivolity for those who could afford it. But for those who couldn't and yet wanted desperately to keep up with the whirlwind, like Wharton's charming Lily Bart, it was something else altogether: a gilded cage rather than the Gilded Age.
One of Wharton's earliest descriptions of her heroine, in the library of her bachelor friend and sometime suitor Lawrence Selden, indicates that she appears "as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room." Indeed, herein lies Lily's problem. She has, we're told, "been brought up to be ornamental," and yet her spirit is larger than what this ancillary role requires. By today's standards she would be nothing more than a mild rebel, but in the era into which Wharton drops her unmercifully, this tiny spark of character, combined with numerous assaults by vicious society women and bad luck, ultimately renders Lily persona non grata. Her own ambivalence about her position serves to open the door to disaster: several times she is on the verge of "good" marriage and squanders it at the last moment, unwilling to play by the rules of a society that produces, as she calls them, "poor, miserable, marriageable girls.
Lily's rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner's assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. "Once--twice--you gave me the chance to escape from my life and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward," she tells Selden as the book draws to a close. All manner of hideous socialite beasts--some of whose treatment by Wharton, such as the token social-climbing Jew, Simon Rosedale, date the book unfortunately--wander through the novel while Lily plummets. As her tale winds down to nothing more than the remnants of social grace and cold hard cash, it's hard not to agree with Lily's own assessment of herself: "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." Nevertheless, it's even harder not to believe that she deserved better, which is why The House of Mirth remains so timely and so vital in spite of its crushing end and its unflattering portrait of what life offers up. --Melanie Rehak
From Library Journal
Wharton's account of the ill-fated life of Lily Bart receives a perfunctory treatment in this audio program. It is New York in the early 20th century; Lily loves Lawrence Selden, but he sees her as a fortune hunter, with tragic consequences. The author excels at delineating the ways money, romance, and social standing intertwine in the society of the time. Included is a lengthy introduction by Wharton biographer R.W.B. Lewis that sets the work in the context of the writer's life and career. Casual listeners may consider the preface too long and scholarly, and those coming to the novel for the first time may be put off by learning the outcome and by hearing Lewis's uncertainty about whether it is a masterpiece. Anna Fields handles the narration adequately but strains to create masculine voices and makes most of the women too flighty. As a result, the characters seem more trivial than Wharton intended. Not recommended. Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Study guides arrive in a new format with this audio series on classic literature. This program includes an introduction to Edith Wharton and her context, dramatic readings, a plot synopsis and analysis. The readings provide particular insight though the other elements use the audio medium to good effect.as well. Similar to a single-class seminar, the program offers both solid information and an overview. DiMase's readings are a great asset, and teachers should consider using them for classes, then providing their own discussion and review. Her voice is rich and fluid, and it transports listeners to the turn-of-the-century setting. The series is worth looking into as a teacher resource or for individuals interested in self-study. R.F.W. (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine
From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Caren Town
The most compelling aspect of The House of Mirth is watching Lily Bart descend the social ladder, changing from an alluring, fashionable decoration at lavish country estates to a wild-eyed, dishevelled woman living in a shabby hotel, addicted to tea and sleeping drops. The most frightening aspect of the book is that the progress seems somehow both inevitable and avoidable at nearly every turn. Here is a physically beautiful and psychologically complex woman who has become or been made into an object for consumption by a society that values the material world exclusively. As Lily approaches thirty, still unmarried, and without financial resources, her value - in this society - declines. Part of the responsibility for her fate can be placed on her lack of a maternal influence, on her own irresolution, on the weakness of her primary suitor, on the viciousness of the other rich women in the novel, but the ultimate blame has to fall on a society that made her "so evidently the victim of the civilization that produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate." Nearly a century after its publication, this novel is chillingly accurate in its remorseless critique of a society willing to sacrifice any and all who do not conform to its expectations. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14.
Uniquely authentic among American novels of manners.
"Beautifully produced, this may well become the standard reading text."--E.N. Feltskog, University of Wisconsin
"Essential reading to know this chronicler par excellence. Great for english, humanities and women's studies courses."--J.C. Moore, Scottsdale Community College
"I always choose Oxford World Classics editions whenever I can because their introductions and notes are the most useful and the texts are clearly the most carefully prepared. This book looks to be no exception!"--Laura Dabundo, Kennesaw State College
"Beautiful, thoroughgoing, very professional--a complete 'treatment' of the text from Introduction to Chronology to Bibliography and Notes. Plus the great affordable price! A really terrific edition."--John Dempsey, Brown University
"Excellent, reasonably priced edition. . . . introduction [is] useful for background and critical information."--Lynn F. Williams, Emerson College
Gore Vidal There are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as "major," and Edith Wharton is one.
Since its publication in 1905 The House of Mirth has commanded attention for the sharpness of Wharton's observations and the power of her style. Its heroine, Lily Bart, is beautiful, poor, and unmarried at 29. In her search for a husband with money and position she betrays her own heart and sows the seeds of the tragedy that finally overwhelms her. The House of Mirth is a lucid, disturbing analysis of the stifling limitations imposed upon women of Wharton's generation. Herself born into Old New York Society, Wharton watched as an entirely new set of people living by new codes of conduct entered the metropolitan scene. In telling the story of Lily Bart, who must marry to survive, Wharton recasts the age-old themes of family, marriage, and money in ways that transform the traditional novel of manners into an arresting modern document of cultural anthropology.
The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
Novel by Edith Wharton, published in 1905. The story concerns the tragic fate of the beautiful and well-connected but penniless Lily Bart, who at age 29 lacks a husband to secure her position in society. Maneuvering to correct this situation, she encounters both Simon Rosedale, a rich man outside her class, and Lawrence Selden, who is personally appealing and socially acceptable but not wealthy. She becomes indebted to an unscrupulous man, has her reputation sullied by a promiscuous acquaintance, and slides into genteel poverty. Unable or unwilling to ally herself with either Rosedale or Selden, she finally despairs and takes an overdose of pills.
From the Publisher
10 1.5-hour cassettes
Inside Flap Copy
Introduction by Pamela Knights
From the Back Cover
With an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick,
Contemporary Reviews, and Letters
Between Edith Wharton and Her Publisher
" A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys."--Edith Wharton
Lily Bart knows that she must marry--her expensive tastes and mounting debts demand it--and, at twenty-nine, she has every artful wile at her disposal to secure that end. But attached as she is to the social world of her wealthy suitors, something in her rebels against the insipid men whom circumstances compel her to charm.
"Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape," Lily muses as she contemplates the prospect of being bored all afternoon by Percy Grice, dull but undeniably rich, "on the bare chance that he might ulti-
mately do her the honor of boring her for life?" Lily is distracted from her prey by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, handsome, quick-witted, and penniless. A runaway bestseller on publication in 1905, The House of Mirth is a brilliant romantic novel of manners, the book that established Edith Wharton as one of America's greatest novelists.
" A tragedy of our modern life, in which the relentlessness of what men used to call Fate and esteem, in their ignorance, a power beyond their control, is as vividly set forth as ever it was by Aeschylus or Shakespeare." --The New York Times
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in
1920 for The Age of Innocence. But it was the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 that marked Wharton's coming-of-age as a writer.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, Martha Banta is the author of Imaging American Women: Ideas and Ideals in Cultural History (New York, 1987).
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