Part 2: Serial Reading Guide for The House of Mirth, chs. 1.3 – 1.10.
1. Pause at the end of chapter 1.6 and consider Lily’s options at that particular point. What does she think of them and what do you think of them? Pause again after 1.7 and consider the same questions.
2. Notice how carefully the narrator channels the thoughts and feelings of selected characters throughout the novel, such as the “family flashback” scene in 1.3, which actually reflects Lily’s own judgments, not just an “objective” narrator’s views.
3. Note references in the text to the concepts of perspective and changing point of view, such as the following remark: “Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven; and at present it was turning its illuminating face to Lily” (1.4). What theme, question, or moral is suggested by such references?
4. Notice how calculating the characters are (even when they are sincere) and how closely many of them (particularly Lily) follow conversations. Is the novel suggesting that conversation is really a matter of strategy and competition? Examples abound: consider, in 1.6, the passage about Lily’s “two beings,” and, later, the paragraph beginning “Selden was still looking at her.” Note also Lily’s conversation with Gus Trenor in 1.7.
5. Regarding events in chapter 1.8: Lily’s $1,000 would be worth about $28,000 today (2017).
Literary Criticism: Some Arguments to Consider at this Point (no spoilers)
1. Martha Banta argues that Selden acts as a kind of anthropologist, observing Lily’s cultural circle and, specifically, its social construction. Edith Wharton herself has written that her goal in writing fiction is to “interweave individual and social analysis.”1
2. “Wharton uses Rosedale’s Jewishness to illuminate economic issues and social hypocrisies . . . that would otherwise remain underground.” – Irene C. Goldman-Price.2
3. According to Elaine Showalter, novels such as The House of Mirth and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening “pose the problem of female maturation in narrative terms: What can happen to the heroine as she grows up? What plots, transformations, and endings are imaginable for her? Is she capable of change at all?”3
4. From a July 1905 review (published while the novel was still being serialized):
“We all have . . . iniquity in us, to be sure; but the question is how far right are these authors who prove that the development of the disease depends upon environment? And since it is such an excusing doctrine, it will be easy to inculcate. Then what will be the effect when these people accept it and resign themselves to being the inane creatures of circumstances? If Mrs. Wharton could write a story dramatizing a means of escape for her victims she would do a better business. As it is we would not be convinced even if the heroine marries for love instead of money. . . . We know that in real life the woman could not hold out against such terrible odds.” (emphasis added) 4
5. “Women like Lily who had nothing more to offer than a superb capacity to render themselves agreeable, might be lured by the seductive confusion between representation and reality. Should this confusion occur, the woman would view herself not as a person but as an object.” – Cynthia Griffin Wolff.5
6. The House of Mirth “stakes out fully and for the first time Wharton’s essential criticism of marriage as a patriarchal institution designed to aggrandize men at the expense of women.” – Elizabeth Ammons.6