This black comedy traces the downward spiral of a wellborn but penniless heroine, Lily Bart, who lives among the nouveau riche of New York City. Wharton presents a subtle but searing commentary on a society that desires women to be little more than hothouse flowers yet is willing to destroy such women should they dare to defy the dictates of artificial conventions.
One of Wharton's earliest descriptions of her heroine, in the library of her bachelor friend and sometime suitor Lawrence Selden, indicates that she appears "as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room." Indeed, herein lies Lily's problem. She has, we're told, "been brought up to be ornamental," and yet her spirit is larger than what this ancillary role requires. By today's standards she would be nothing more than a mild rebel, but in the era into which Wharton drops her unmercifully, this tiny spark of character, combined with numerous assaults by vicious society women and bad luck, ultimately renders Lily persona non grata. Her own ambivalence about her position serves to open the door to disaster: several times she is on the verge of "good" marriage and squanders it at the last moment, unwilling to play by the rules of a society that produces, as she calls them, "poor, miserable, marriageable girls.
Lily's rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner's assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. "Once--twice--you gave me the chance to escape from my life and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward," she tells Selden as the book draws to a close. All manner of hideous socialite beasts--some of whose treatment by Wharton, such as the token social-climbing Jew, Simon Rosedale, date the book unfortunately--wander through the novel while Lily plummets. As her tale winds down to nothing more than the remnants of social grace and cold hard cash, it's hard not to agree with Lily's own assessment of herself: "I have tried hard--but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else." Nevertheless, it's even harder not to believe that she deserved better, which is why The House of Mirth remains so timely and so vital in spite of its crushing end and its unflattering portrait of what life offers up. --Melanie Rehak