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The House of Mirth

Wharton's novel is alternately described as a satire of New York City's wealthy and a tragedy about a physically attractive woman whose beauty causes men to desire to possess her and women to be jealous of her. Tragedy, in the classical sense, relates the downfall of a powerful individual that is brought on by his or her own arrogance or "hubris" impetuous behavior brought on by excessive pride.

The tragic elements of The House of Mirth, however, serve as convenient plot devices for Wharton in that they enable her to structure the novel's story much like a tragedy while never adhering entirely to the genre's structure. The book's satirical elements are in many ways more pronounced than its resemblance to classical tragedy.

Anti-Semitism in The House of Mirth

The spoken observations of Lawrence Selden serve as one way by which Wharton is able to lampoon some of the seemingly absurd strictures of the wealthy class. Selden's character, however, is two-faced in the contempt he feels for the wealthy and his simultaneous desire to live among them.

Literature Help: Novels: Plot Overview 48: The House of Mirth

Lily is far more honest with herself — and Selden — when she defends the rites and conspicuous consumption of the wealthy as a way of life that she has been raised to accept and consider normal. Lily, however, also recognizes that the wealthy are able to follow their rules in an arbitrary fashion when she inadvertently crosses Bertha Dorset.

The House of Mirth - Wikipedia

Lily's ironic observation that it takes money to associate with the wealthy in order to play cards, tip, and dress appropriately is tragic in relation to her situation at the time, but also is consistent with Wharton's satirical tone. Perhaps the most significant aspects of Wharton's satire are the social-climbing Simon Rosedale and the Wellington Brys. Both parties are unpolished, nouveau riche newcomers to New York society. Their acceptance is contingent upon their learning the manners and customs of the wealthy. In Bry's case, however, he is much better accepted into society — particularly the European set — for simply being himself than is his pretentious and climbing wife.

The House of Mirth is often compared to the novels of Wharton's contemporary Henry James in their depiction of America's idle wealthy classes and the social codes to which they adhere.

Furthermore, it was unapologetic in its historical and literary specificity. As announced by onscreen text at the beginning, this is, unalterably, unmistakably, New York, The House of Mirth is a lovingly petrified object, preserved in celluloid amber, perhaps even a cautionary tale, if we choose to see it that way.

As promised by the opening credits, in which a tendrils slither serpent-like across a flat, gray stony surface creating a web of Victorian conspiracy, this is the story of a nest of vipers. Perhaps she aspires to wed for love, but more importantly she refuses to be coerced into a marriage based solely on capital or mutual beneficence—the sorts of unions that society makes all too frequently and eagerly.

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Yet with her parents long gone and her sole income based on allowances from her parsimonious Aunt Julia, with whom she lives, Lily simply cannot live the life of prosperity she so desires. Through an intricate series of events, her existence gradually, terribly unravels, her wisdom, confidence, and morality functioning as though a trap set up to snap shut around her. Starting out vibrant, a heavenly vision with parasol emerging from a cloud of locomotive steam at Grand Central train station, Lily is a candle that burns brightly from within; as the film charts her inexorable decline, she is gradually snuffed out.

The House of Mirth is structured as a series of emotionally loaded two-person encounters, in drawing rooms, parlors, on balconies and lawn chairs. Davies has said that his visual inspiration for this film was the work of painter John Singer Sargent, and indeed many shots here vividly recall his portraits of well-appointed folk idling in sitting rooms, bathed in cool light, just layered with an extra gloss of desperation.