The House of Mirth
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Safety of Love and Death
In The House of Mirth, Wharton presents love and death as the only two safe places for a woman to be. Lily especially subscribes to this theory, feeling hounded by her debts and financial woes and surrounded by loveless marriages. Love or death seem to be the only possibilities for salvation. In Book Two, Lily finds herself at a crossroads—either she can choose love, marry Selden, and find happiness without wealth; or she will find rest in the finality of death. Lily’s obsession with wealth and luxury continually prevents her from acknowledging and accepting Selden’s love, and so the safety love can offer is not a viable choice for her. She is left with death as her only option.
The Uncivilization of Manners
The social expectation of politeness, good manners, and the acting required to maintain a constant façade of enjoying one another’s company dominate all of the parties and interactions between the members of the elite circles in The House of Mirth. Lily recognizes the difference between a conversation she has with Selden, where they are both real and sometimes less-than-flattering in the honesty of their responses, and the acting she does with Mrs. Trenor and the other socialites, where they focus solely on gossip and pretense and are constantly calculating in order to manipulate one another. The artificiality of the good manners of the “most civilized” characters in the novel demonstrates just how bad their manners actually are. Lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, spreading rumors, and generally being hurtful and mean are common occurrences within this circle. Lily recognizes this, and at times she longs for the honesty and realness of her relationship with Selden. However, she isn’t able to detach herself from her desire for wealth, which demands that she continue to play the same manipulative game as the other socialites in order to get what she wants.
Freedom vs. Slavery
Lily’s relationship with money is obviously fraught with tension and drama, and she often describes the relationship in terms of freedom and slavery. When she has money and is able to pay her debts, she feels a sense of unparalleled freedom. But when the money is gone and her debts overwhelm her, she likens her situation to that of slavery—she is a slave to the whims and desires of others, a slave to the social demands of the upper-class circles, and a slave to her own inability to be happy without money. The idea of freedom and slavery also fits the different roles of the sexes. Percy Gryce, a wealthy, eccentric young bachelor, has large amounts of freedom, simply by virtue of his being a man. As a young woman, especially one without great wealth, Lily can never live the life of Selden or Gryce, and instead she must find a match that will ensure her protection and security. She will never have the freedom that the men have.
Gambling and Luck
Gambling and luck appear throughout The House of Mirth. Lily gambles at the socialite parties and loses her spending money. She gambles again on the stock market with the help of Gus Trenor. Throughout the novel, she gambles with love, continually staying in the game instead of taking various suitors’ marriage proposals, always believing she can win a bigger and better “hand.” Unfortunately, Lily’s luck takes a definite turn for the worse. She loses her large sum in the stock market, then inadvertently makes an enemy of Bertha Dorset, who spreads rumors that hurt Lily even more. Even Lily’s death can be seen as unlucky—Wharton doesn’t make clear whether Lily intends to overdose on sleeping medication or whether her decision to take a little extra really is because she wants to sleep longer. Regardless, the reader is left with a sense that Lily’s whole life could have been changed drastically were she to have had a little better luck.
The House of Mirth deals with American class hierarchies, which are dictated by money, unlike European classes, where nobility is predetermined and not totally dependent upon wealth. Thus money is the only way in—and out—of the upper class circles that Lily frequents. More than access, money also ranks individuals within the circle. Percy Gryce is the most desired bachelor for a time because of his extraordinary wealth, and the Trenors are continually hosting events because of their financial resources. Money is also linked with power: Bertha Dorset’s version of Lily and George’s relationship is believed over Lily’s simply because Bertha is richer. Money defines characters as well. Selden is partially defined by his lack of desire for wealth, in contrast with the rest of the characters. Most important for this novel, money drives the plot of Lily’s fall from upper-class eligible socialite to outcast working-class spinster.
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