Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton|
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THE HOUSE OF MIRTH: FREE ONLINE LITERARY CRITICISM
In 1913, she divorced her husband. From that time forward, Edith Wharton lived in France where she had a villa not far from Paris.
Her best known short novel, Ethan Frome (1911) departs from the subject matter of her other fiction in its setting in rural New England. She steadily published in the years following. Among these are The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913),and Summer (1917). Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds.
Edith Wharton also wrote non-fiction. She wrote an important treatise
on writing, called The Art of Fiction in 1925. Her autobiography,
A Backward Glance (1934) is an excellent source of information
about her life and her view of writing as well as a good read. She died
Edith Wharton wrote in a style called social realism. The proponents of social realism are very varied, ranging from Mark Twain to Henry James, from William Dean Howells to Sinclair Lewis. Literary realism, like all styles of literature arose out of a social moment, a historical context, and its proponents rarely agreed on what constituted realism. William Dean Howells, influential because an editor, wanted his colleagues to write of the "smiling aspects of life," not the grubby world of prostitutes and melodramas, and so he inspired a generations of younger writers like Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser to do just that and so we have novels like Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and Sister Carrie. Edith Wharton, though, not averse to tackling the frowning aspects of life, is much closer to William Dean Howells in literary taste than she is to Crane or Dreiser. Her closest ally among the realists was Henry James. There is a famous story of literary collaboration and advice here as with many writers. When Henry James read Wharton’s novel The Valley of Indecision, he wrote to her his praise of it, but then wandered around with his characteristically wandering prose to get to the point that she should confine herself in her subject matter to New York. He wrote, "Do New York! The first-hand account is precious." She did so with great success for the rest of her career.
The House of Mirth grew out of a fragmentary novel, which Wharton had provisionally titled "A Moment’s Notice." She wanted to write about the deterioration of New York society. She called it "a society of irresponsible pleasure seekers." It was a society of which Wharton clearly disapproved. In 1920, she looked back with nostalgia on an earlier New York society in The Age of Innocence. The House of Mirth was published, as many novels of the day were, in serialized form in Scribner’s Magazine. It was wildly successful. The last segment was read with high excitement. When she published the novel as a whole, it was a instant best seller and remained one for an entire year. Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Age of Innocence in 1921. She published thirty books in her lifetime. Her autobiography is titled A Backward Glance and was published in 1934, three years before her death.
The excitement which greeted the publication of The House of Mirth was caused by a number of its elements, the critique of patriarchy not being among them. People were interested in hearing the inside business of rich people in New York, families whose public lives were chronicled on the society pages of newspapers, but included only such things as descriptions of their clothes, guest lists, and vacation itineraries. Sometimes the public was satisfied to hear of some scandal, but the lives of the wealthy were generally off limits. Wharton’s book, which treats these people with no small amount of scorn, but moreover, with a great deal of familiarity, a matter-of-factness, was fascinating for people who were permanently on the outside of that social sphere. The novel was also popular for its portrait of Lily Bart, the feminine version of the rags to riches narrative. Of course, Wharton’s version is quite a twist on that narrative her protagonist is born into the social circles of old wealthy but her family’s fortunes have fallen. Instead of working her way to the top with hard work and thriftiness as Benjamin Franklin would advise a man to do, her tools of success are her beauty, her wit and charm, her ability to listen submissively to boring men, and her willingness to spend huge amounts of money she doesn’t have on luxury items which indicate her ability to keep afloat along with the rest. It is certainly a strange rags to riches story, perhaps because it takes the economic position of women into account. The third element explaining its popularity was the lightly drawn romance between Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart. Wharton received a flood of mail as the novel was being serialized, much of it came in a great wave with the last installment. It consisted largely of people wanting her to resurrect Lily Bart and marry her to Lawrence Selden.
Though it is clear from Wharton’s correspondence and her autobiography, that she intended the novel to be a critique of the changes occurring in the old social circles of New York, especially the entrance of the new rich into the social sphere of the old rich, it is impossible to miss the critique of patriarchy which informs the deep structure of the plot. In Lily Bart’s plight, Wharton is careful to indicate, lies the plight of all women of the early twentieth century. In order to drive this point home, Wharton includes a working class character, Nettie Struthers, who attempted to earn her living by working in an office, but when seduced and abandoned by a superior, is left to starve and die. It is only with the happenstance charity of Lily Bart herself that Nettie Struthers was able to live happily ever after. It is no mistake that Wharton went so determinedly against the tradition for novels and refused to close down the critique of patriarchy by having her protagonist get married and live that happy life.
There certainly was not a thriving feminist discourse happening at the time
of the novel’s publication. The last wave of feminism had occurred at
the end of the civil war, when women abolitionists took their organizing
skills and applied them to the rights of women. However, the language
of critique, especially as regarded women’s economic viability, or lack
thereof, was around. Two famous examples of the critique of patriarchy
are Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights
of Women and John Stuart Mill’s essays on women’s position
in the economy which, in large part, paraphrase Wollstonecraft. These
writers argued forcefully that marriage as it was presently organized
was compulsory, and as such, it was a form of prostitution. That is, if
women cannot earn their living in any way other than marriage--they are
marrying for money--then they are selling themselves for economic advantage.
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