Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth explores the rewards and dangers of living in New York’s high society. Lily Bart, a young woman of moderate means, wants to secure her position among the rich upper crust. Convinced that her main purpose in life is to live in luxury and dazzle the people around her with her beauty, she strives to marry a rich man and secure her wealth. However, plagued by reckless spending habits and an inability to secure a stable source of income, Lily soon finds herself in serious financial troubles. Over time, Lily’s economic difficulties lead her to reconsider her entire conception of life. She realizes that her pursuit of material comforts has led her to neglect a much more important aspect of her life: her personal happiness. Through Lily’s descent into poverty, The House of Mirth ultimately shows that, while money might bring transient pleasures, luxury and materialism alone do not bring happiness. Rather, happiness depends on an individual’s internal strength, which can come to light in any set of material circumstances.
Fascinated by the power and comfort that money brings, Lily believes that money will make her happy in life. For much of the novel, it appears that money does indeed make her happy, as the young woman thrives in elegant environments, deriving a sense of power, excitement, and amusement from what money brings. Lily’s ambition consists of becoming rich and powerful. Lily believes that being poor—what she calls “dinginess” or “living like pigs”—is a form of moral dishonor that she must avoid at all costs. Paradoxically, though, her attitude derives less from actual wealth (since her means are low) than from the conviction that spending money is a noble activity. As a result, Lily’s desire to integrate into upper-class society leads her to spend more money than she actually possesses. “I am horribly poor—and very expensive,” she tells her friend Lawrence Selden, revealing a central paradox in her attitude toward money.
Despite the obvious risks that this extravagant lifestyle entails, as Lily does not have a stable source of income to justify her extravagant purchases, she is used to instability and the constant possibility of financial ruin: “All her life Lily had seen money go out as quickly as it came in, and whatever theories she cultivated as to the prudence of setting aside a part of her gains, she had unhappily no saving vision of the risks of the opposite course.” Instead of seeing her inability to save money as a crucial defect, Lily considers her mode of life “heroic”—filled with danger and instability, perhaps, but also with a sense of adventure. Lily thus proves ready to sacrifice economic stability in favor of glamor and excitement.
However, on a more unconscious level, Lily also realizes that she is unwilling to sacrifice her own future for the sake of money alone. Indeed, despite Lily’s professed desire to marry someone rich, her actual behavior reveals the very opposite. On numerous occasions, Lily fails to take advantage of the opportunities that arise for her to marry rich men such as Percy Gryce, George Dorset, and Sim Rosedale, who are attracted to her and would gladly marry her, but whose personalities she finds immensely boring. The novel states, “She would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich: she was secretly ashamed of her mother’s crude passion for money.” This attitude puts Lily in an impossible bind: wanting to live an extravagant, materialistic life without being ready to make the necessary concessions (like marrying a rich man she does not love) to sustain it. Lily thus puts herself in an untenable situation, in which it becomes apparent that she will soon have to decide which kind of life she truly wants: one in which she sacrifices the possibility of marrying for love and happiness, or one in which she sacrifices her desire to belong to high society.
Life ultimately makes that choice for her. When Lily realizes that what she believed to be an honest business deal with Gus Trenor is nothing but a subterfuge, Lily suddenly finds herself plagued with debt and an inability to sustain her expensive ambitions. As a result, she is forced to join the lowest ranks of society. In this context, the only way for Lily to regain control of her life and achieve a sense of satisfaction is to accept that a less glamorous lifestyle does not equal moral degradation.
Lily is forced to re-examine her views about poverty when she joins working-class life. At first, she views poverty as moral failing: “To Miss Bart, as to her mother, acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity; and there were moments when […] she almost felt that other girls were plain and inferior from choice.” Since Lily’s downfall is not actually the result of “stupidity” or “choice,” but, rather, the product of an unfortunate series of circumstances, Lily is forced to accept that poverty is not a sign of moral deficiency or intellectual inferiority.
This mode of thinking crystallizes when Lily meets Nettie Struther, a young woman who has worked hard to recover from illness and achieve economic stability. Lily soon feels inspired by Nettie’s energy and optimism and realizes that being poor is not a disgrace. “It was no longer […] from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper impoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance.” Undergoing a moral illumination, Lily redefines the very concept of poverty, concluding that true poverty relates to internal life, a poverty of the mind, not to external circumstances.
This thought has the potential to allow Lily to begin her life anew, free from the self-imposed pressure to constantly achieve higher wealth. Although Lily soon dies of an overdose of sleeping pills, this moment serves as a beacon of hope in Lily’s life, proving to her that happiness can emerge in any set of material conditions, and that, like Nettie, she too can find the inner strength to overcome her circumstances.
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Money and Happiness Quotes in The House of Mirth
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.
“Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses. […] Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”
She knew that she hated dinginess as much as her mother had hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it, dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success which presented such a slippery surface to her clutch.
“What a miserable future you foresee for me!”
“Well—have you never foreseen it for yourself?”
The slow color rose to her cheek, not a blush of excitement but drawn from the deep wells of feeling; it was as if the effort of her spirit had produced it.
“Often and often,” she said. “But it looks so much darker when you show it to me!”
The fact that her immediate anxieties were relieved did not blind her to a possibility of their recurrence; it merely gave her enough buoyancy to rise once more above her doubts and feel a renewed faith in her beauty, her power, and her general fitness to attract a brilliant destiny. It could not be that one conscious of such aptitudes for mastery and enjoyment was doomed to a perpetuity of failure; and her mistakes looked easily reparable in the light of her restored self-confidence.
All her life Lily had seen money go out as quickly as it came in, and whatever theories she cultivated as to the prudence of setting aside a part of her gains, she had unhappily no saving visions of the risks of the opposite course.
“Sometimes […] I think it’s just flightiness—and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”
It was before him again in its completeness—the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dullness of the talk, in the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance.
“The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper impoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. 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 spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.