Places: The House of Mirth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1905

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Grand Central Station

*Grand House of Mirth, TheCentral Station. Major railroad terminus in New York City. The first scene in the novel is set in the afternoon rush at Grand Central, but there is much more significance to this railroad station. Trains play a large part in Lily Bart’s life: They are the means of transportation to and from the country houses where she spends her weekends and where she is supposedly seeking a husband. The train is also an apt metaphor for Lily’s life: a journey with a number of stops along the way, but generally headed downhill socially and economically.

Benedick

Benedick. Apartment house near Grand Central Station. When Lily meets Lawrence Selden at the station, he invites her to tea at his apartment at the top floor of a building fronted by a “marble porch and pseudo-Georgian façade.” Benedick means “bachelor,” and it is a perfect name for Selden and his lodgings for he is confirmed in his single state. Lily meets Sim Rosedale, the owner of the Benedick, on her way out and lies to explain where she was. This is the first in a series of untruths which help propel her journey downward.

Bellomont

Bellomont. Country home of the Trenors, located on the Hudson River several miles north of the city. Most of the upper-class characters in The House of Mirth maintain apartments in the fashionable sections of New York City but also have country homes a few miles outside the city. Lily exists on the edge of this society: She lives at the home of her wealthy aunt and is dependent on the hospitality of friends for her social life. Lily’s beauty and charm are apparently the compensation for her lack of money. She ought to be trying to catch a husband; however, she cannot bring herself to do it. At Bellomont, for example, she allows the wealthy Percy Gryce to elude her. Rather than attend church with him, she slips away to spend time with Selden, who is unable to make a commitment to her. At a later visit to Bellomont, Lily participates in a tableau vivant, a “living picture,” in which she holds a pose many of the men find seductive.

Mrs. Peniston’s house

Mrs. Peniston’s house. Lily Bart’s aunt’s house on Fifth Avenue. Since her parents’ deaths, Lily has lived with Aunt Julia. When Mrs. Peniston hears rumors about Lily and Gus Trenor, she tells Lily that she has been disgraced and refuses to help her with her financial troubles.

*Monte Carlo

*Monte Carlo. Capital of the principality of Monaco on the Riviera known for its casinos and luxurious hotels. Lily is saved from her aunt’s fury by an invitation to accompany the Dorsets on their cruise to the Mediterranean. Bertha Dorset has invited her to come in order to hide her own affair with Ned Silverton. Lily meets Selden here, who warns her to abandon the yacht before she is further compromised, but it is already too late. In Monte Carlo, the American upper class appears even more decadent and immoral than at home in New York.

The pace of Lily’s descent quickens in the last third of the novel. Mrs. Peniston dies, and Lily is disinherited. She is forced to become a social secretary for Mrs. Hatch, who lives in a fashionable New York City hotel. When she loses that position, she briefly gets a job at Madame Regina’s, a fashionable haberdasher. She is “a star fallen” and even stays in the rooms of Gertie Farish, a friend as impoverished as herself. She makes a final visit to Selden’s apartment in the Benedick, and visits the small, clean rooms of Nettie Struther, a working-class woman Lily has earlier helped, and then returns to her own poor room, where she dies from an overdose of sleeping pills. Edith Wharton shows that Lily has been the victim of a rigid social class system that allows women few opportunities in their lives and little freedom. Lily finds, not a “house of mirth,” but the house of death.

BibliographyBendixen, Alfred, and Annette Zilversmit, eds. Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Essays on various aspects of Wharton’s art. In “Reading Mrs. Lloyd,” Judith Fryer analyzes the cultural significance of the tableaux vivants with illustrations of the paintings that Lily Bart enacted. Elaine Showalter, a feminist critic, in “The Death of the Lady (Novelist)” sees the death of the “lady” necessary for the birth of the woman artist.Goodman, Susan. Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990. A study that moves back and forth between Wharton’s relationships in life and her fictional characters.Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of some of the pioneering essays on Edith Wharton. Irving Howe’s essay, “A Reading of The House of Mirth,” praises Wharton’s style though he regrets her somewhat overcharged rhetoric. Diane Trilling in “The House of Mirth Revisited” stresses the heroine’s moral ambiguity.Lauer, Kristin O., and Margaret P. Murray. Edith Wharton: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990. A useful, extensive, and annotated bibliography of the criticism of Wharton’s fiction.Lawson, Richard H. Edith Wharton. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. Discusses the ways in which The House of Mirth was a turning point in the development of Wharton’s professional writing skills.McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1976. In chapter 2, the author draws a parallel between Lily Bart’s gradual destruction by a hostile society and her growing aspiration to become independent and responsible. Also contains an excellent annotated bibliography and chronology.Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. A landmark study that is still highly regarded. The first book-length study to treat Wharton as a major author.Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Edited by Shari Benstock. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Contains the complete, authoritative text, as well as a brief biography and historical context, critical history, and essays from cultural, Marxist, feminist, deconstructive, and psychoanalytic perspectives.
Categories: Places