The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton was this season’s classic selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons. Most members loved the book, but not all. A few found the writing too dense, too flowery, too old-fashioned. Hm…well, the majority of us loved it and thought it was brilliant. Many members said they can’t wait to read more Wharton! So, YES, your book club should read this literary treasure!!!
So, what can your book club discuss? Please note there are some SPOILERS BELOW!!!
SO MUCH!!! but in order to have a reasonable length post, I’ll just go over a few topics, just to get you started!
Warp-speed plot summary: It is the Gilded Age in New York City and the stunningly beautiful Lily Bart is running out of time to find a rich husband who will secure her future. Her options are plentiful and dazzling at first, but Lily is holding out. For whom? For what? As the story progresses, Lily’s suitors become fewer and much less alluring. Complicating matters is Lily’s dire financial situation as well as the rumors swirling about her behavior. Will Lily’s Prince Charming arrive in time? Will Lily save herself? If you think this story sounds vapid, you are seriously mistaken! This novel is so layered and nuanced; it will get you thinking–and keep you thinking!
AND DON’T TRY TO CHEAT BY WATCHING THE MOVIE! Part of the pleasure of The House of Mirth is the prose. You WILL want to discuss this. Wharton is witty, ironic, satirical, but best of all she evokes visions in your mind as you read. It’s as if scenes are playing out, one after the other. All inspiring writers would do well to study the craft of Edith Wharton! I kept thinking about Jane Austen’s writing as I read this novel, and I also thought of the scenic quality of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. It is no wonder that these authors’ works are turned into films; they are masters at the “screenplay” style!
There are many interpretations of this novel, so if you want to do some research, you’ll find feminist, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, and Marxist readings of it, to name a few. It’s not necessary to read any of them, of course; you can simply discuss your own “reading” of House of Mirth, but I am highlighting here that your book club may all “see” the story very differently. That’s one of the beauties of the book!
You’ll want to “dig deep” into Lily. What motivates her? What does she want and why? Does she even know what she wants? Do her desires change over the course of the novel? Talk about how Lily has been raised and how this has affected her. Talk about the other influences in her life also. Who/what has defined who Lily is?
Is Lily a sympathetic character? The answer to this seems to color a lot of how readers feel about the entire story, so it’s a simple but important question. What makes her sympathetic or not? Does she have a moral compass?
You’ll want to invite Lily to lie down on the couch! What is going on with her and the decisions she makes? Is she being self-destructive? Why? Is her behavior being motivated by unconscious desires? Is she an early feminist? How would she have become one? Is she simply clueless as to the consequences of her actions? Or does she know exactly what she’s doing? Is she a case of arrested development?
Is Lily a victim of the times and society in which she lives? Or is she complicit in her demise?
Does Lily end her life on purpose or accidentally?
If there is one point in the novel where you would put Lily on a different path, where would that be?
You’ll want to talk about LOVE in this story. Does anyone love anyone else? Connected to this, no doubt you’ll talk about marriage and how it is portrayed. How do the husbands fare? How do the wives fare? You’ll talk about the transactional nature of marriage, and who gets what from the deal.
Power is a huge theme in this novel, so you should talk about this! What gives the characters their power? Money? Beauty? Reputation? Personal contacts?
Money is also prominent in the story. Old money versus new money is one of the major themes and plays out in every way: how the characters live, entertain, travel, dress, emote–how they come about their money–in virtually every aspect of their lives. Yes, you can “dig deep” into what the book is saying about money, class hierarchy, and their complicated relationship.
Related to the above, you may want to discuss the time period of the novel and the changes that were going on during the Gilded Age. This may give you some interesting insight into the story. Ask yourselves, what is the book saying about the values and mores and the high society people of the Gilded Age?
You will of course want to discuss the other characters! How do you feel about Seldon? Does he truly love Lily? What does he desire and why? Is there any “good” character in the story? How do you feel about Carrie Fisher? How do you feel about Rosedale? Wow–these are complicated characters!
Here’s something to debate: When Rosedale tells Lily he will marry her if she brings down Bertha Dorset, the next morning Lily knows her decision. However, we as readers do not. Does Lily decide to do what Rosedale has suggested? What stops her from doing so? Or has she decided upon waking that she cannot?
You should discuss Gerty and her purpose in the novel!
I am leaving out SO MANY characters here that you’ll want to discuss, each one representing a different strata of society–make sure you “dig deep” into each one!
Save time to discuss the imagery in the novel!!! Notice the theme of imprisonment, note the water imagery, note the references to mythology! Note how nature is portrayed and the characters’ relationship to it. Note the architecture and the clothing! What about the names?
What about the title? It is taken from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” How does this influence your understanding of this book? The original title was A Moment’s Ornament, and Wharton’s working title was The Year of the Rose. What do you think of this?
We are just scratching the surface here!!! However, I’ve probably tried your patience by making you read this far. One more thing, though: make sure to discuss what this book is about. Why do we read it year after year? What is it saying? Is it relevant to us today? (I think so!!!) Is it an important novel?
Let me know how your book club gets on with this literary treasure!!!
2 thoughts on “Should Your Book Club Read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton?”
It's a wonderful book, Liz, and your eloquent remarks and questions take a reader to the heart of it.
Thanks so much, Ian, for your kind words! I could discuss House of Mirth forever and see/learn something new each time. Wouldn't it be fun to take a classic such as HOM and read it every decade, say as one turns 20, 30, 40, etc? It would be fascinating to see how differently one would view the book as one accrues more life experiences.