The House of Mirth
Having gained recognition for her short stories and her first novel The Valley of Decision (1902), Edith Wharton felt ready to address a contemporary problem in her next major work. She turned her attention to the social world of New York, a familiar terrain she viewed with a critical eye. She began work on The House of Mirth in 1903 and agreed to its serial publication by Scribner's in 1905, before the manuscript was complete. The novel was well received by critics and readers, but for different reasons. Critics praised the novel for its realism and satire, while readers were drawn to the love story between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden (Hoeller, Dialogue 96-102). Terence Davies' film adaptation of the novel released in 2000 foregrounds the love story between Lily and Selden, allowing the audience's preference for romance to overshadow the more troubling questions raised by the novel.
Wharton's original title for the novel, “A Moment's Ornament,” captures the decorative role that a beautiful, wealthy woman played in Lily Bart's era as well as the brevity of her reign. Through the experiences of Lily, Wharton reveals the fleeting power that beauty enjoys, especially when it depends upon the appreciative gaze of others. Wharton took the title of the published novel from a Biblical verse, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). This verse, one of a