Literature House of Mirth Term Paper

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House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. Specifically, it will look at the theme of success in the novel, and how a success-oriented society can destroy the weak and untrained.


Lily Bart begins her tumble into poverty from the very beginning of the book, because she does not conform to society, and she cannot become a success in the world of business, because she does not even understand what success is. From the very start of the novel, success is a strong and prevalent theme, and it is clear Lily is not going to be a success, when she does not even understand the concept. "Later he [Selden] inquires: 'Is there any final test of genius but success?' Lily replies: 'Success?' She hesitated. 'Why, to get as much as one can out of life I suppose. It's a relative quality after all. Isn't that your idea of it?'" (Underwood 365).

The only success Lily understands is the success society puts on a well-dressed woman. "The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop -- and if we can't keep it up alone; we have to go into partnership" (Wharton 14). Lily is beautiful, but poor, which means she cannot even be well-dressed, so what chance does she have to "go into partnership." Ultimately, Lily's pathetic idea of success is what society says it is for a young girl, marriage to the right man. She fights against it throughout the entire novel, and in the end, she dies because she cannot conform to this societal idea of success.

From the onset, Lily is painted as a tragic figure, even when she is laughing and "gay." It is clear she is unhappy and even bored with her life, and cannot see any way out except to marry, and who can she marry, when she has "nothing" to offer a husband. She has no dowry, and at best can only hope to marry someone else who is poor, when she longs for the finer things, such as travel. The conversation in the beginning of the novel may be light, but it is clear from the start Lily and success are two words that do not go together. "Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency" (Wharton 289).

Selden's idea of success is fairly similar to whatever Lily may think, "My idea of success, he said, is personal freedom...Freedom from worries...from everything; from money, from poverty, from care and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit,...that's what I call success" (Wharton 68). That idea of success is "rich" in one word. If you are rich enough to be free from worry about money, then you are successful in Selden's eyes, and in society's eyes. If you are poor, you are clearly a failure, and it does not matter if you are happy or not, you are only successful if society says so.

Wharton is satirizing society here, and the rules society imposes on people. She is also attempting to illustrate how society imposes its will on people, and makes them conform, like Lily. Lily tries not to conform, not to marry, to make in on her own, but it kills her in the end. Society is a strict master, and if you go against the "norm," you will probably fail, just as Lily did. Of course, there are exceptions, but if they become truly successful then society embraces them, and they become part of the norm. Eccentric millionaires are a common example. If they were not rich, society would view them as "weird" or "oddball." If they are rich, they are indulged as "eccentric" or "eclectic." Again, you can be as odd as you want if you are "successful," i.e. "rich," but if you are poor, then there is no hope for you. "And the London market is so glutted with new Americans that, to succeed there now, they must be either very clever or awfully queer" (Wharton 184).

Ultimately, Lily is shallow and petty, and Wharton is using this characterization as part of her satire on society. Lily thinks she…

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