House of Mirth is a social satire about hoity-toity New York city society in the early 20th century. The title of the novel comes from Ecclesiastes: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. Lily Bart the protagonist of the novel may just dwell in the house of mirth. She is a social climber who cares more about rising in society than her own happiness and well-being.
Lily Bart is a stunningly beautiful, 29-year old socialite who is financially dependent upon a wealthy aunt. Most women her age in her social circle are already married but Miss Bart has yet to find the perfect suitor. Lily’s primary goal in life is to rise to the tip top of New York society. Her planned method of achieving this is by marrying a prominent, rich & powerful man. However, she is torn between marrying for wealth and marrying for love. She comes close to being engaged several times, but in the end sabotages her chances. Lily gets over her head in debt from trying to keep up with the richer members of her social set and struggles to maintain her position. Through her desperation to achieve independence and rid herself of her debt, Lily makes several poor decisions that tarnish her reputation.
It is less mortifying to believe one’s self unpopular than insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of manners. Observing Lily’s downwards spiral was painful at times. I often felt like reaching into the pages and shaking some sense into her. Is it really so much worse to be married to a dull man or a not-quite-wealthy man than to be alone and a social outcast with no income? House of Mirth is a downer of a book but a very good read. Wharton’s descriptions of society are spot-on. After you finish reading it, cheer yourself up by going out and splurging on a new pair of shoes!