The House that Wharton Built

An individual’s preferences in entertainment, be it films, television, books, or music, are obviously deeply personal and varied. Everyone brings unique experiences to bear on how they receive a particular story. There are also times when a book or film can come along and capture you even though one or more elements of it are not what typically pleases you the most. Such was my experience with The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Despite a lead character who differs greatly from me and its tragic ending, The House of Mirth still impressed me as an excellent, impactful narrative.

Published in 1905, Wharton’s The House of Mirth traces the social and romantic situation of Lily Bart during a two-year period. Lily is beautiful and charming but struggles with balancing her need for wealth and status with the cutthroat nature of society while trying to land a husband. Lawrence Selden proves to be her best match, but he is not rich, and outside forces conspire with Lily’s own failings to rob her of any chance at happiness. Wharton was born into the upper classes of Gilded Age New York, so her perspective is that of an insider and this makes the novel feel realistic. They released a film adaptation, starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz and directed by Terence Davies, in 2000; it is an outstanding production.

For me, a tale has the best chance to be captivating if the main character is one I can relate to, and Lily Bart doesn’t seem much like me on the surface. However, universal qualities can reveal themselves and engage the reader. This happens with Lily. She may be more social than I am, and be attractive in varied ways unlike me, but she also faces a situation many can empathize with. She needs money to survive, as everyone does, and the societal restrictions of the time for women limit her options to combine wealth with status. People face this conflict less often today but it still engenders sympathy in the reader or viewer. Additionally, Bertha Dorset’s vicious lies against Lily strengthen that feeling.

Aside from this, I also find a happy or upbeat ending much more satisfying than one that is not. The House of Mirth does not have this type of conclusion. Lily receives a small inheritance from her aunt after months of living in poverty, but she must use all of it to pay off a debt she incurred in a misguided way, and then overdoses on sleeping medication. Selden finds her body after deciding to propose to her. It is a deeply sad finale, and one which would usually prevent my wholehearted enjoyment of the story, but it fits the bleak and realistic overall tone of the novel. After what has already happened to Lily, a sudden change to a sappy resolution wouldn’t feel right.

No matter the medium, when a story features elements you normally don’t enjoy yet it still captures your emotions and imagination, that is something special. This is what The House of Mirth did for me. Despite what I usually prefer, this novel became one of my favorites. I recognize why many literature scholars have such a high opinion of it. The struggle Lily Bart endures between money and emotional well-being is timeless, and experiencing it made me glad to be open to more than what I expect to like.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.

One thought on “The House that Wharton Built

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  1. I own this book but have yet to read it. I was shocked by how much I loved Wharton’s Age of Innocence the first time I read it.


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