Situational Irony

The House of Mirth


Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Situational Irony 1 key example

Book 2: Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Actually Paying Rent!:

After the conditions of Mrs. Peniston’s will have been read, Wharton deploys situational irony in her description of Grace Stepney's complaints to Lily, who has just asked for her inheritance in advance:

Grace, in reply, wept and wondered at the request, bemoaned the inexorableness of the law, and was astonished that Lily had not realized the exact similarity of their positions. Did she think that only the payment of the legacies had been delayed? Why, Miss Stepney herself had not received a penny of her inheritance, and was paying rent—yes, actually!—for the privilege of living in a house that belonged to her.

In this passage, Wharton utilizes situational irony to emphasize the disparity of Grace and Lily's circumstances. Grace has inherited most of Mrs. Peniston’s money, and yet she chastises Lily for asking for the small part she is owed. Lily has inherited only a small percentage, having fully expected to be the beneficiary of the entire estate. The irony here lies in the fact that Grace sees herself as being in a similar position to Lily. Instead of showing sympathy or understanding, Grace is self-absorbed and lacks perspective. Rather than sympathizing with Lily, she feels empowered to tell her off for her request.

This situational irony is part of Wharton’s critique of the lack of empathy present in the society these women inhabit. Grace, like many other characters, is totally unable to see beyond her own self-interest. Interactions like this help build the novel's system of moral bankruptcy and emotional detachment. Behavior like Grace's—Wharton suggests— is characteristic of Gilded Age high society. This conversation also elicits the reader’s sympathy for Lily, who maintains her stoicism and kindness despite these unpleasant circumstances.