The House of Mirth
Study Questions & Essay Topics
1. What is the symbolic value of money in the novel? What does it mean to different characters?
2. Does Lily change over the course of the novel? What motives her, and how do her motivations change?
3. What do you think it Lily's biggest flaw as a character? What is her "Achilles' heel"?
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Is Lily's death inevitable and necessary, or could she have recovered and found a way to get back into society? In other words, is Lily fated to die?
2. Describe the differences between Lily's outlook on society and Selden's. What views do they hold in common? On what viewpoints do they differ?
3. Many of the married men in this novel lead boring and sad lives. Compare the attitudes and characterizations of Gus Trenor and George Dorset to those of Lawrence Selden and Simon Rosedale. What do they have in common with one another? What are their differences?
4. How does the novel work with behavioral details? Pick three tiny details that Wharton uses to give the reader a clue as to what a character is thinking. You may want to consider Lily's blushes and smiles in the novel, as well as the role of lighting cigarettes in the novel. Or you can look at the opening scene, in which Selden plays a mind game with Lily to determine by her actions what she is doing.
5. How does this novel compare with another novel of manners you have read (see "The Novel of Manners" section)? You may wish to consider the novels of Jane Austen, Henry James of George Eliot.
6. Lily goes through some sweeping mood swings in the novel, fluctuating rapidly between happiness and despair. Pick two or three scenes in which Lily goes from happy to distressed, and analyze how this happens.
7. How does Selden change over the course of the novel? Explore his struggle between his desire to stay detached from society and his love for Lily.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!