70 pages 2 hours read

Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1905

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Set in New York’s high society at the turn of the 20th century, The House of Mirth (1905), was the second novel by renowned American writer Edith Wharton. Wharton drew upon her own privileged upbringing in a wealthy, long-established New York family for her astute observations of this social milieu during the Gilded Age, a period marked by economic disparities and ostentatious materialism. Prior to the novel’s publication in October 1905, The House of Mirth was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. An immediate best seller, the novel established Wharton’s reputation as a serious novelist and anticipated her later Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of upper-class New York society, The Age of Innocence (1920). Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Literature.

The House of Mirth tells the story of 29-year-old Lily Bart, a beautiful woman whose upper-class background and financial insecurity prompt her to pursue marriage as a means of acquiring wealth. As Lily’s independent spirit conflicts with the rigid conventions and commodification of people in the materialistic society, her marital prospects decrease and she experiences social ostracism, leading to a life of misery and loneliness over a two-year period. Satire, romance, realism, and naturalism are blended in the portrayal of Lily Bart’s downfall, enlarging the scope of the traditional “novel of manners.” The House of Mirth has been adapted for the stage, radio, TV, and cinema, most recently in 2000 by English film director Terence Davies.

Plot Summary

Narrated from the third-person omniscient point of view, the novel begins at New York City’s Grand Central Station at the end of the 19th century. Lawrence Selden, a young lawyer with a modest income, encounters a lovely and well-connected acquaintance, Lily Bart. Lacking the financial resources to maintain her upper-class status, the 29-year-old socialite seeks to marry a rich bachelor. When Lily misses her train to journey to a house party at Bellomont, she impulsively visits Selden’s apartment to take tea during her wait for the next train. When Lily later exits the apartment building, she meets Mr. Rosedale, a Jewish businessman and owner of the building. Previously, Lily snubbed the social-climbing Mr. Rosedale. Fearful of potential scandal, Lily foolishly tells the obvious falsehood that she was visiting her dressmaker.

Lily aims to capture the attention of her marital prospect: shy, wealthy Percy Gryce, whom she contrives to “accidentally” meet on board her train to Bellomont. While attending the house party hosted by the affluent Judy and Gus Trenor, Lily schemes to elicit a marriage proposal from Percy during an afternoon walk. The unexpected arrival of Lawrence Selden distracts Lily from her plan. The presence of George and Bertha Dorset, a wealthy couple attending the Trenors’ gathering, further complicates the situation. Bertha once had a romantic tryst with Selden and is now jealous of Selden’s attraction to Lily. When Bertha informs Percy of the gambling debts Lily incurred playing bridge, she scares Percy away from proposing to Lily.

As a result of the financial ruin of Lily’s father, the orphaned Lily resides with her wealthy aunt, Mrs. Peniston, and depends on her occasional gifts. Lily’s failure to marry a rich man and her increasing debt make her desperate for quick cash. Lily asks Gus Trenor to invest money in the stock market on her behalf. Gus agrees, and soon Lily enjoys receiving sizable checks. Later, a char-woman, Mrs. Haffen, who witnessed Lily’s exit from Selden’s apartment on the day Lily missed her train, tries to blackmail her. The char-woman pieced together torn love letters that she found during her cleaning of Selden’s rooms. Lily realizes that this correspondence was written by Bertha to Selden. To protect Selden, Lily purchases the letters, which the char-woman believes were written by her.

Lily receives an invitation to dine with Judy at the Trenors’ townhouse. When she arrives at the Trenors’ residence, Lily finds only Gus present. Gus did not convey the message to Lily that his wife cancelled the engagement, remaining instead at their country estate. Shocked at being lured to the townhouse alone at night under false pretenses, Lily attempts to leave this situation which would compromise her reputation. When Lily tries to retreat, Gus informs her that the money Lily thought she earned in the stock market was from Gus’s own bank account. Gus demands to be reimbursed with physical intimacy, which horrifies Lily, and she flees the house.

Selden decides that he loves Lily, and he begins to imagine rescuing her from a materialistic society that does not appreciate her higher qualities. Walking in New York City at night, Selden accidentally sees the Trenors’ door open with Gus and Lily silhouetted against the hall light when she exits the residence. Assuming that the scandalous rumors about Lily are true, Selden does not keep his next day’s appointment with Lily. Lily later reads in the newspaper that Selden sailed for the West Indies.

Emboldened by Lily’s earlier display of her beauty in the tableaux vivants at the Wellington Brys’ party, Rosedale believes that Lily would be the perfect wife for his ascent in society. He tells Lily that he knows she has had financial worries and he will spend millions on her after their marriage. Although she dislikes Rosedale, Lily does not want to risk offending him because he knows too much about her. Lily postpones replying to Rosedale’s proposal. Not long after, Lily receives an invitation to join George and Bertha on a Mediterranean cruise. Bertha only invites Lily on the cruise to distract her husband from discovering a tryst Bertha is having with young Ned Silverton. When Bertha stays out all night with Ned, she tries to conceal her affair by falsely accusing Lily of trying to seduce George. On the French Riviera, Bertha publicly rebuffs Lily in front of society women who follow her lead.

Lily returns to America where she learns of the sudden death of her aunt. As the presumed heir of Mrs. Peniston’s estate, Lily hopes to be able to settle her debts. Unfortunately, news about the scandal in the Mediterranean prompted Lily’s aunt to change her will, leaving her estate to a cousin, Miss Grace Stepney. Lily is bequeathed only $10,000, almost the exact amount she owes Gus Trenor, and this legacy may not be paid for a year. Devastated, Lily turns to her remaining friends, Gerty Farish and Carry Fisher. Carry earns a livelihood by assisting the ambitious Mr. and Mrs. Wellington Bry and the Sam Gormers to gain acceptance into high society. Carry arranges for Lily to take over her role as a social guide with the Gormers, but Bertha turns Mrs. Gormer against Lily by spreading malicious rumors. Carry places Lily with Mrs. Hatch, a woman further down the social ladder. When Lily must leave the disreputable circle surrounding Mrs. Hatch, Carry gets her a job at Mme. Regina’s fashionable millinery establishment.

Rosedale offers to marry the socially disgraced Lily only if she reconciles with the wealthy, powerful Bertha. He encourages Lily to use the love letters she bought from the char-woman to blackmail Bertha. Lily struggles with the prospect of wrecking the Dorsets’ marriage, despite pleas from George to provide evidence for a divorce. Lily refuses, falling deeper into a state of poverty. Unaccustomed to manual labor, Lily is fired from the millinery for incompetence. Lily starts taking the prescription drug chloral to help her sleep at night.

Living destitute in a boarding house, Lily reluctantly decides to try Rosedale’s blackmailing scheme. On her way to the Dorsets’ residence with the love letters, Lily experiences a sudden moral epiphany. She visits Selden instead to thank him for having been a good friend to her when he criticized her earlier plan to marry for money. At Selden’s apartment, Lily burns Bertha’s love letters without his knowledge.

Arriving back in her room later that night, Lily finds that her $10,000 legacy has finally come. Lily writes Gus a check for $9,000 and pays her other bills before swallowing an increased dosage of chloral to ease her sleeplessness. Whether intentional or not, Lily fatally overdoses. The following morning, Selden realizes that he is still in love with Lily. He speeds to her place to propose marriage, only to find Lily dead. Selden sees the evidence of her integrity in the settling of her debts. As the tragic novel ends, Selden’s love for Lily is stronger than ever.