The House of Mirth


Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Satire 4 key examples

Definition of Satire
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians... read full definition
Book 1: Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Boring Her Forever:

When Lily is forced to discuss the boring subjects that Percy Gryce passes his time “working” on, she thinks about how much she dreads having to marry someone like him. Wharton employs satire and hyperbole to emphasize how displeased Lily is with her lot in life:

She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.

In this passage, the narrator pays close attention to Lily’s psychological state. Through this, Wharton critically examines the social expectations of marriage in the early 20th century. Lily knows she must marry for money, or she will be forced to live a life of relative poverty and hardship. However, she resents the idea of having to marry someone as boring and self-absorbed as Gryce. The author sardonically describes the idea of Percy Gryce proposing as an “honour” while also making it clear that Lily doesn’t think it really is one.

This passage lampoons the repetitive and restrictive life women of Lily’s class were forced to lead. It also reflects Lily’s justifiable dread at the prospect of a life shackled to monotony and a boring man. Her thoughts here mock the idea that marriage in high society is an "honorable" endeavor. Wharton’s suggesting, instead, that it’s often more about societal compliance and financial safety than love or mutual respect.

The author also employs hyperbole to emphasize the social obligations foisted upon the protagonist. As she does in many places in The House of Mirth, Wharton exaggerates and dramatizes situations to satirize high society. The repetition of the word "must" and the phrase "boring her for life" accentuate the weight of expectations Lily faces. It's worth noting also that this passage is all one sentence, which formally echoes what’s going on in the plot. The author is implying that Lily’s life will also be long and full of repetition if she marries Gryce: it will be like a long sentence. The passage's exaggerated language and syntax serve to magnify the dreary nature of the ritualized courtship process Lily must endure.

Book 1: Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Bellomont Omnibus:

When describing the omnibus that the Trenors hire to take them to church, Wharton satirizes the fact that their religious practices are mostly empty and performative:

The observance of Sunday at Bellomont was chiefly marked by the punctual appearance of the smart omnibus destined to convey the household to the little church at the gates. Whether any one got into the omnibus or not was a matter of secondary importance, since by standing there it not only bore witness to the orthodox intentions of the family, but made Mrs. Trenor feel, when she finally heard it drive away, that she had somehow vicariously made use of it.

In this passage, Wharton employs satire to critique the hollow religiosity and hypocrisy of the people who live at Bellomont. Omnibuses were large, enclosed, horse-drawn vehicles. The appearance of this ostentatious conveyance intended for churchgoing is nothing more than a token gesture. It’s the bus itself that Sundays are “chiefly marked by,” not the religious services to which it ferries its passengers.

This passage paints a picture of people much more invested in maintaining a façade of morality than in engaging with any real spiritual practices. On a larger scale, the emptiness of the social ritual of churchgoing also contributes to Wharton's broader critique of the similar empty rituals of high society's social calendar. Going anywhere just to be seen doing so is not portrayed by the narrator as a morally upright thing to do.

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Book 1: Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Omar Khayyám:

Lily is pleased that Selden is regarded as being an intellectual man, especially because she herself carries a book by Omar Khayyám around to demonstrate her appreciation of literature. Wharton makes this allusion satirically, displaying the vanity of this choice:

His reputed cultivation was generally regarded as a slight obstacle to easy intercourse, but Lily, who prided herself on her broad-minded recognition of literature, and always carried an Omar Khayyam in her travelling-bag, was attracted by this attribute, which she felt would have had its distinction in an older society.

In this passage, Wharton alludes to Omar Khayyám, an 11th-century Persian poet and mathematician known for his lyrical poems. Lily “always” carrying a book of his poetry is part of her desire to be known for her “broad-minded recognition of literature.” However, what this demonstrates to the reader isn’t actually Lily’s facility with Persian poetry, but her wish to be seen as sophisticated and cultured. This allusion subtly demonstrates how even supposedly admirable characters like Lily use props to build and maintain a social image.

There's a touch of satire here too. Wharton isn't just making a statement about Lily's taste in literature; she's poking fun at the way high society uses cultural artifacts as accessories. The Khayyám book is depicted as a kind of social currency. The fact that Lily brings it with her is not about personal enrichment or intellectual curiosity. It’s about “being known” a certain way to others. This satirical moment is another comment on the superficiality of the societal elite Lily wants to rejoin, where image almost always trumps moral or intellectual substance.

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Book 1: Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Tableaux Vivants:

As Selden observes the performance of the tableaux vivants (people impersonating famous paintings) at a party at Bellomont, Wharton makes several allusions to art and history. As she describes the fabulously costumed and adorned high-society women, she also employs powerful visual and tactile imagery and satirizes the opulence and silliness of such activities:

The scenes were taken from old pictures, and the participators had been cleverly fitted with characters suited to their types. No one, for instance, could have made a more typical Goya than Carry Fisher, with her short dark-skinned face, the exaggerated glow of her eyes, the provocation of her frankly-painted smile. A brilliant Miss Smedden from Brooklyn showed to perfection the sumptuous curves of Titian's Daughter, lifting her gold salver laden with grapes above the harmonizing gold of rippled hair and rich brocade.

This passage is packed with visual imagery. Carry Fisher is described as a "typical Goya," with her "short dark-skinned face" and the "exaggerated glow of her eyes." The imagery emphasizes the intensity of Carry’s eyes and the distinctness of her facial features, especially when placed next to the pale, “frailer Dutch type” of Mrs. Van Alstyne. The "brilliant Miss Smedden" is described as lifting a "gold salver [...] above the harmonizing gold of rippled hair and rich brocade," allowing the reader to “see” the sumptuousness of her costume and the glowing gold of the “painting.” Every painting is a different explosion of color, Miss Smedden's being the "brilliance" of gold.

The tactile imagery of the passage also adds to its sense of realism. For example, the way Wharton describes the same Miss Smedden’s “tableau” suggests a variety of contrasting textures, from the metallic smoothness of the “salver” to the plush softness of her dress’s brocade. In contrast, Mrs. Van Alstyne is described as dark and dramatic, dressed "in black satin," and the girls next to her as being a riot of pale “sheeny textures” like pearl and marble:

[...] Mrs. Van Alstyne [...] with high blue-veined forehead and pale eyes and lashes, made a characteristic Vandyck, in black satin, against a curtained archway. Then there were Kauffmann nymphs garlanding the altar of Love; a Veronese supper, all sheeny textures, pearl-woven heads and marble architecture; and a Watteau group of lute-playing comedians, lounging by a fountain in a sunlit glade.

These tactile descriptions allow the reader to almost feel the textures of the objects and costumes described, enhancing their sense of immersion in the scene. Everything is expensive, elaborate, and ornate.

By alluding to famous paintings and painters such as Goya, Titian, and Vandyck, the author connects the characters to a wider cultural context. Works by these painters were—and still are—considered valuable and important. People who the reader already knows are wealthy are dressing up as priceless objects. The satire is twofold in this passage, and it’s folded into the allusions to the paintings the narrator makes. Firstly, Wharton is lampooning the ridiculous extravagance and shallowness of this brief entertainment—after all, the paintings aren’t being admired or interpreted in these tableaux. The evening’s entertainment is just an opportunity for the young women involved to be put on display in another way.

Wharton also satirizes Selden's academic and idealistic vision here. By focusing on how perfectly the women fit into the famous paintings and demonstrating his knowledge in identifying them, Wharton highlights Selden’s pretentious intellectualism and scholarly, distanced viewpoint. Tellingly, she also highlights his tendency to see women as objects rather than as individuals with their own identities. Even Selden isn't immune to certain upper-class social instincts, it seems.

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