Similes

The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Similes 8 key examples

Definition of Simile
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like" or "as," but can also... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often... read full definition
Book 1: Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Manacles, Bracelets:

Using a simile, the narrator compares the bracelet that Lily wears to the figurative kind of imprisonment that early 20th-century American society imposed on women:

She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.

In this passage, the author uses a simile to compare the “links” of Lily's bracelet to “manacles.” This comparison serves to convey the idea that Lily is constrained or bound by her femininity and beauty. Bracelets are usually associated with adornment and decoration, serving a decorative purpose—a purpose that closely resembles how Wharton portrays the societal role of women in The House of Mirth.

In reference to this, Lily’s status as a “victim of the civilization that produced her” is likened to being imprisoned with “manacles.” These are heavy metal restraints typically used to bind a captured or enslaved person's wrists or ankles. By drawing a parallel between the bracelet and manacles, the author is suggesting that what might externally appear to be a decorative accessory has a deeper significance. The bracelet in this context refers to Lily’s plight, where society “chain[s]” her to the obligations of marriage and the need to be ornamental. The use of this simile indicates that Lily is imprisoned by her “fate” as a woman. Although her jewelry is beautiful, it is also a symbol of the oppression and limitations she faces.

Book 1: Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—Strewn with Wreckage:

In this passage, a miserable Lily goes to see Gerty to try and escape her crushing unhappiness at her Aunt Julia’s house. Wharton uses an oceanic simile to depict the conflicted, beautiful expression on Lily’s face as she puts on a brave front for Gerty:

She rose, stretching her arms as if in utter physical weariness. “Go to bed, dear! You work hard and get up early. I'll watch here by the fire, and you'll leave the light, and your door open. All I want is to feel that you are near me.” She laid both hands on Gerty's shoulders, with a smile that was like sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage.

This simile comparing Lily’s smile to a “sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage” portrays the duality in both her expression and her situation. The smile is radiant like a sunrise: Lily is still a beautiful girl even in her difficult state. However, the “light” of her smile also makes her inner distress even clearer than it was when she was crying in the previous scene. The “sunrise” is beautiful, but it reveals the “wreckage” more clearly. Lily trying to smile through her pain is even harder for Gerty to see than her tears.

Lily’s life is full of problems by this point in the book. Wharton often uses metaphors of the ocean to refer to the powerful movements of society in the novel: this “wreckage” floating on her social life is the result of Lily’s failed attempts to better herself. This simile also speaks to an element of Lily’s character. Even though she is miserable, she doesn’t want to worry her friend. She can maintain a facade of positivity and warmth even when she is internally struggling.

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Book 2: Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Hurt Traveler:

In Book 2, Chapter 1, Lawrence Selden discovers from Carry Fisher that Lily Bart is also on the French Riviera, and he realizes the lingering pain from their relationship. Wharton uses a simile comparing him to a traveler to illustrate this discomfort:

The feeling he had nourished and given prominence to was one of thankfulness for his escape: he was like a traveler so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first, he is hardly conscious of his bruises. Now he suddenly felt the latent ache, and realized that after all he had not come off unhurt.

The simile in this passage illustrates Selden’s denial of the emotional pain caused by his relationship with Lily. Wharton compares Selden to a traveler who is so grateful for being rescued from a dangerous accident that he is oblivious to the injuries he’s sustained. Just as the traveler doesn’t notice his bruises due to his relief, Selden doesn’t recognize his emotional wounds. He was not expecting to be emotionally affected by Lily's presence and is surprised by the “latent ache” he feels when he hears she’s close. By staying away from her, he avoided the knowledge that he had “not come off unhurt.” The potential of seeing her destroys the feeling he had “nourished,” however: he still cares for her.

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Book 2: Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Gleam of a Knife:

In Book 2, Chapter 2, Lily Bart and Bertha Dorset have a conversation on the yacht that touches upon a strained aspect of their relationship. The tension is palpable, and Wharton’s use of simile and tactile imagery help to convey the emotional undercurrents of the scene:

A chill of fear passed over Miss Bart: a sense of remembered treachery that was like the gleam of a knife in the dusk.

The visual imagery of the "gleam of a knife" serves to emphasize the sharpness and abruptness of Lily's recollection of Bertha’s treacherous behavior. The sudden image of a knife in the dusk is alarming, mirroring the unsettling tone of the conversation between Lily and Bertha. The past events that have caused a rift in their relationship are present in all their interactions, showing up like the unexpected “gleam” of a concealed blade.

Moreover, the phrase “a chill of fear” employs the sensory language of touch, making Lily’s emotions around Bertha tangible to the reader. The word “chill” relates both to the cold metal of a knife and the shiver that goes through someone when they are anxious or scared. Remembering Bertha’s treachery is startling, making Lily as anxious as glimpsing light reflecting off metal. This comparison underscores the sense of menace that Lily feels. Her past experiences with Bertha make her wary of any interactions with the other woman. Lily’s sense of unease in this scene reflects the presence of danger and unpredictability in their relationship.

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Book 2: Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—An Anemone:

Late in the novel, when Lily has been consigned to a boarding-house, Wharton utilizes the simile of a sea-anemone to depict her vulnerability and lack of agency:

Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock.

Sea anemones are small, brightly colored jelly-like creatures. They have a limited ability to move or protect themselves. If they are torn from their rocks, they become even more vulnerable—thus, they generally need a solid base to cling to. The description of the anemone being “torn” here evokes a sense of pain and fragility. This mirrors Lily’s state as she is buffeted by social expectations and judgments without the means or the power to firmly establish herself.

This comparison to a sea anemone reflects Lily’s struggles to adapt and survive in a society that gives her a “narrow range” of skills and values her primarily for her beauty. In this world, her worth is contingent on her adherence to social conventions. If she transgresses, she will be “torn from the rock” and unable to survive. By comparing Lily to an anemone, Wharton evokes the image of something delicate, soft, and utterly at the mercy of its environment. This comparison emphasizes how Lily—though beautiful and refined—is helpless within the boundaries set by her social upbringing. She doesn’t have any means of defending herself against the actions of other people or the expectations placed upon her.

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Book 2: Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—The Reynolds Dress:

As Lily unpacks her trunk in the boarding house, Wharton employs an allusion to the artist Joshua Reynolds, a simile evoking the glamorous evening of the Tableaux Vivants, and strong scent imagery to demonstrate Lily’s fall from grace:

Last of all, she drew forth from the bottom of her trunk a heap of white drapery which fell shapelessly across her arm. It was the Reynolds dress she had worn in the Bry TABLEAUX. It had been impossible for her to give it away, but she had never seen it since that night, and the long flexible folds, as she shook them out, gave forth an odour of violets which came to her like a breath from the flower-edged fountain where she had stood with Lawrence Selden and disowned her fate.

In this passage, Wharton invokes the reader's sense of smell with the “odour of violets.” Flower scents would usually be described as appealing, but the word “odour” implies otherwise. The smell is both pleasant and unpleasant because it acts as a trigger for Lily's memories, reminding her of a specific time and place. For Lily, this scent is not just a fragrance; it's a doorway to a past in which she was more hopeful.

Wharton adds more depth to the passage’s smell imagery with the simile she uses here. As Lily inhales the scent of violets, the narrator compares the scent to “a breath from the flower-edged fountain.” This comparison makes her memory of Selden and the moment Lily “disowned” her fate with him more tangible to the reader. The evocative, fresh scent imagery of this "breath" represents an escape from the confines of Lily’s less charming present life. It brings her back to a serene and idyllic moment, contrasting with her present state.

The passage also alludes to Joshua Reynolds’s painting “Mrs. Lloyd.” Lily posed as this painting wearing the violet-scented dress in the tableau vivant at Bellomont. This reference is not just a throwaway detail; it ties Lily to the image of classic beauty and aristocracy represented in Reynolds's painting. By reminding the reader of the grandeur of this moment Lily had in the spotlight, Wharton demonstrates how far she’s fallen from her old position of privilege.

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Explanation and Analysis—Mere Spin-Drift:

At the end of the novel, Lily reflects on her now-realized fears of poverty and solitude, which make her feel rootless and ephemeral. Wharton uses a simile comparing Lily to a plant pulled from the ground, and this simile is accompanied by a metaphor of flooding water:

It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the headless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.

The author gives the reader a sense of Lily’s despair using simile in this passage. Lily is compared to a “stray uprooted growth” being swept away in a current. She has no support system and nothing to cling to. This emphasizes her feeling of helplessness and her total loss of control over her life. This comparison also points to Lily's feelings of detachment from her surroundings. She cannot feel at home or put down “roots” in the boarding-house when she has been used to finer things. The descriptions of a “shabby, anxious middle-age” evoke feelings of despair and bleakness, as Lily dreads the dreary life she believes she is condemned to. Her worst fear—that she will become “dingy”—has come true, and it’s accompanied by an awful feeling of loneliness. The impoverished circumstances in which Lily finds herself are echoed in the passage’s language of grayness, shadow, and shabbiness. 

As if this were not already tragic enough, Wharton closes the description of Lily’s new circumstances with a pitiful metaphor. Lily’s "self," the narrator says, is futilely attempting to grasp at “existence.” Her spirit, with its “poor little tentacles of self” fails to cling to anything before being submerged by the “awful flood” of societal decline and misfortune. Her identity, once so precious to her, has been washed away amidst the overpowering tide of societal expectations and public disgrace.

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Explanation and Analysis—Old Life Lace:

Wharton layers similes and metaphors referring to letters and time passing as she depicts Lily going through her belongings after meeting Nettie Struther unexpectedly. Everything in her trunk of remaining belongings leads Lily to reflect on her past:

An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past. She was startled to find how the atmosphere of her old life enveloped her. But, after all, it was the life she had been made for: every dawning tendency in her had been carefully directed toward it, all her interests and activities had been taught to centre around it. She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.

The simile comparing the details of dresses to “letter[s] in the record of her past” illustrates how Lily's possessions hold memories and associations. These objects serve as tangible reminders of her history, representing her previous, more hopeful existence. With this simile, Wharton emphasizes the sentimental value attached to material objects and their power to bring the past into the present. Lily is forced to re-experience the loss of her prospects for a wealthy and secure future, as unpacking her dresses evokes memories and emotions from her catalog of failures.

The metaphor in this passage depicts Lily as a rare flower grown for exhibition. When flowers are grown for this purpose, gardeners will often clip off all the buds but one. They do this so that the remaining flower can get all the nutrients and grow strong. Lily has had all her “buds except beauty” clipped off. The metaphor summarizes how her upbringing and societal expectations deliberately stifled her potential in any area but marriageability. This is one of many moments in the novel where Wharton criticizes the social rules for women that inhibited the full development of their capacities and talents. By likening Lily to a flower grown only for its appearance, the author comments on the dehumanization faced by women in the early 1900s.

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