The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth


Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edith Wharton

Edith Newbold Jones was born during the American Civil War into a wealthy, long-established New York family. Despite publishing a variety of poems and translations by the age of eighteen, Edith was subjected to the negative pressures of society, which encouraged her to marry young instead of dedicating her energy to literature. At the age of twenty-three, Edith thus married Edward Wharton, although she never found in him an artistic and intellectual equal, and later divorced him after nearly thirty years of marriage. In the meantime, Edith Wharton proved a highly prolific and successful writer, establishing her reputation as one of the most important literary figures of the period. Among the forty volumes of work she published during her lifetime, she is best known for her novella Ethan Frome (1911) and novels such as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920)—for which she received the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a woman—which depict the life of New York’s high society with vivid realism and irony. Throughout her life, Edith Wharton formed part of the intellectual and artistic circles of the time, and also devoted her energy to international affairs. During World War I, she set up various programs in support of the French war effort, for which she was later appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.
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Historical Context of The House of Mirth

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), the United States experienced rapid economic growth in the North and the West, while the South remained economically devastated and plagued by racist violence. This period, known as the Gilded Age (1870-1900), allowed the U.S. to establish its position as the world’s dominant economic, industrial, and agricultural power. At the same time, rapid industrialization also brought inequality to unprecedented heights. As most of the wealth became concentrated in the hands of the rich, the working-class, largely composed of millions of poor immigrants from Europe, was forced to live in squalid conditions. The following decades, known as the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), saw a rise in political activism aimed at fighting poverty and making politics more democratic. The first wave of feminism culminated (and ended) during this period, as in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment gave white women the right to vote. The Progressive Era also impacted America’s international relations. In 1917, moved by a belief in bringing democracy to the world, despite widespread public opposition, President Woodrow Wilson decided to enter World War I (1914-1918), which allowed the Allied powers to win the war.

Other Books Related to The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) and, later, The Age of Innocence (1920) belong to a category of novels known as the “novel of manners.” Aiming to describe the conventions, habits, and ideology of a given society in all of its complexity, the novel of manners usually presents one character’s efforts to fight against restrictive rules and traditions, with varying degrees of success. As in The House of Mirth, this often involves a woman’s effort to find freedom in constrictive domestic and public spheres. British novelists Jane Austen and William Thackeray, American writer Henry James, and French writer Honoré de Balzac are considered notable writers of the genre. At the root of this novelistic tradition lie the literary movements of realism and naturalism, which aim to represent reality faithfully, with quasi-scientific precision and detachment. French naturalist author Émile Zola, in particular, is known for depicting his characters as victims of their fate, condemned to following the cruel rules of their social world.
Key Facts about The House of Mirth
  • Full Title: The House of Mirth
  • When Written: 1905
  • Where Written: Lenox, Massachusetts
  • When Published: October 14, 1905 (after serialized publication starting in October 1905)
  • Literary Period: Naturalism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: The high society in twentieth-century New York City
  • Climax: Lily burns Bertha Dorset’s love letters to Selden
  • Antagonist: Bertha Dorset
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for The House of Mirth

Designer and Architect. Despite her success as a writer, Edith Wharton considered her skills in design and architecture to be one of her most important gifts. At the age of twenty-five, she co-authored the non-fiction book The Decoration of Houses (1897), which became surprisingly successful. She later designed her own estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, and, impressed by the result, concluded that she was “a better landscape gardener than novelist.”

Tidy Drawing Rooms. Edith Wharton had a strained relationship with her mother, who tried to stifle the young girl’s early efforts at literary composition, even prohibiting her from reading novels before marriage. At the age of eleven, Edith showed her mother a short story she had written, which began with a woman complaining about having to tidy the drawing-room for a guest. She later described her mother’s reaction: “Never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when [my mother] returned it with the icy comment: ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’”