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 The House of Mirth Study Guide (Choose to Continue)

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The House of Mirth: Themes

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Marriage

To secure her position in the higher echelons of society, it is necessary for Lily to marry within this caste of old New Yorkers. As a ‘poor marriageable’ girl who loves luxury, it is also imperative that she marries a wealthy man to maintain the lifestyle she prefers. Her mother warned her against the dangers of a love match and she is intelligent enough to know that a woman of her class has no other use but ornamentation. It is only through marriage or an inheritance that she will be able to secure the financial position she requires and as she gets older and her looks fade the chances of marrying become slimmer. Through Lily, the marketing of female sexuality (by women and men) is seen to be tied to the lack of training and education such women are given. Women such as her, are only prepared to be admired.

From the novel’s outset, when Lily asks Selden about Americana in order to have an advantage when talking to Gryce, it seems apparent that she is determined to be practical. As Carry Fisher points out, though, Lily does not reap what she sows. Instead of attending church with Gryce as she promised, for example, she talks with Selden and later goes for a walk with him. To attain what she wants she has to marry, but is unable and unwilling to go through with this. Her integrity and foundational independent spirit are at war with the idea of an economic match, and this may be seen to haste her descent down the social ladder.

 

Money

Lily’s love of luxury echoes her mother’s similar hatred of dowdiness and drudgery. She aspires to maintain a life that she knew as a child (before her father was ‘ruined’) and is not trained or well-off enough to have this in her own right. Others in her circle are similarly caught up in the desire for comfort, ease, and slowly begin to accept Rosedale when he is one of the few to thrive when others lose on the stock market.

The acquisition of wealth dominates Lily’s thoughts as she dreads the idea of living as Gerty does (independently but impoverished) and connects freedom with the idea of being carefree with money.

 

Social status

Lily is born into the accepted elite and the novel traces both her decline in status and the way she eventually relinquishes the superficial values with which she has been raised. By the end, she finally speaks to Rosedale with sincerity.

This work satirizes the snobbery and emptiness of this dominant group and also highlights the hypocrisy that is embedded in it. Lily comes to regard this set as being comprised of individual atoms that whirl away from each other and only comes to see the point of the continuity of life when she talks to working-class Nettie Struther and holds her baby.




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