1 Ecclesiastes / Qohelet
1.1 A short Introduction
1.4 “the works that are done under the sun”
2.1 Interpretation: the House of Mirth
2.2 Lily Bart and Khayyam, Edith Wharton and the Preacher: a Parable?
2.3 Interpretation: the House of Mourning
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” It was this quote from Ecclesiastes 7:4 that gave name to Edith Wharton's novel “The House of Mirth.” Taking for granted that the author did not choose the title of her work deliberately, it surely might be interesting to have a closer look at why the author chose to name her work the way she did. Therefore, the world view and philosophy depicted in Ecclesiastes shall be inspected. Furthermore, it shall be analyzed whether and how the characters and the plot of the novel are affected by the ideas expressed in Ecclesiastes.
2. Ecclesiastes / Qohelet
2.1. A short Introduction
Due to its pessimistic conclusions, the book Qohelet or Ecclesiastes is one of the most controversial writings of the Old Testament. Some people call it the book in the Bible you definitely should not read if you plan to have a positive outlook on life and existence itself. The author calls himself “The Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem” and probably wrote the text during the 3rd century B.C. Dating the text to this period of time is only an assumption, because there is no evidence when exactly this person lived and whether it was a historical person at all or rather a pseudonym for a group of writers. Since these facts represent knowledge that was not yet available in Wharton's days, the figure of the Preacher will be regarded as a really existing king of Israel, as indicated in Eccl 1: 12 “I the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.”
Unlike most of the other writings in the Bible, Ecclesiastes represents personal observations and thoughts about the meaning of life and existence itself made by a single man. It reveals a cyclic view on history and the whole universe, expressed at the very beginning in Eccl 1: 1-11 in the concept of generation after generation entering and leaving this world without fully grasping it. This cyclic view on things leads the author first to the assumption that “there is no new thing under the sun” and eventually to the question of the meaning of life, especially regarding death. He states that “all are of the dust, [...] all turn to dust” again and that therefore “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” He then ventures out to verify this hypothesis by achieving wisdom and wealth and by observing “all the works that are done under the sun.”
The observations he makes on these issues and the conclusions he draws will later on be applied to the actions and attitudes of the novel's characters and their social surroundings.
At first, the Preacher gives his “heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly.” He observes that “wisdom excelleth folly” and that the wise man can see, while “the fool walketh in darkness.” Therefore, wisdom appears important and desirable to him.
This view changes when he comes to the conclusion that there is much grief in much wisdom and that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” In other words, you have to have a certain intellectual level in order to recognize problems. If you lack that ability, i. e. if you happen to be walking in darkness as the fool, you will not recognize problems and therefore you virtually will not have any. Of course it could be argued that wisdom and knowledge would also aid in solving the problems at the roots of the sorrow and grief mentioned by the author. Unfortunately, this point of view does not take into account that the author's main statement is that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” An explicit expression of this belief can be found in Eccl. 9: 13-16 in the parable of the poor wise man who saves his hometown in times of war and is forgotten afterwards. There simply does not seem to be any use in being wise.
The thought of intelligence directly causing hopelessness and not being appreciated would be depressing enough, but the Preacher goes on and points out that everyone, regardless of intellect, will eventually die. In his point of view, the fact that death cancels out everything people achieved in their lives reduces knowledge and wisdom to nothing more than vanity and vexation of spirit. On these grounds, he draws the conclusion that you should not intend to become over wise in order not to destroy yourself.
After the realization that knowledge and wisdom are vanity and vexation of spirit, he turns toward material wealth in order to find out whether this is the key to the meaning of life. The Preacher accumulates unmeasurable wealth in gold and silver, he builds palasts and gardens, owns gargantuan hordes of cattle, his houses are filled with servants and maidens, he even collects kings and their provinces as a sort of pastime or hobby, he enjoys the pleasures of wine and women. Whatever he might desire, his wishes are fulfilled, while he remains wise at the same time.
He realizes that this too is vanity and vexation of spirit, since, regardless how much he might be able to accumulate, he will nonetheless leave this world “as he came forth of his mother's womb, naked [...], tak[ing] nothing of his labour” with him. And after his death, he will leave all his wealth to a successor he does not believe to be worthy of it.
Another thing he observes is the fact that the things he owns end up owning him. He illustrates this point with the example of the rich man who is no longer able to sleep peacefully at night because of being far too preoccupied with his fear of losing his possessions, whereas the “sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much.”
In amounting more and more material wealth, he recognizes that “he that loveth abundance [shall not be] satisfied with increase,” illustrating the pointlessness of striving for excessive riches since there are no limitations to accumulation and decadence.
Again, the Preacher draws the harsh conclusion that all is vanity and vexation of spirit, since all the effort he put into the pursuit of material wealth will be rendered meaningless the moment he dies. That way, he illustrates the pointlessness of making your life miserable in order to live a life in luxury and abundance.
2.4 “the works that are done under the sun”
Contemplating the importance of wealth and wisdom in life, the Preacher notices many other social evils. There seems to be oppression everywhere around him, without anybody actually caring about or even taking notice of all the misery in the world. Those who are better off socially or monetary are envied by others for their success. He observes that there are people wasting their lives in the attempt to the increase their possessions, people who are rich but lonely, lacking a family and social relations because of an obsession of wealth. He sees that in the “place of judgment [there is] wickedness; and [in] the place of righteousness, that inequity [is] there.” He asks himself how it is possible that evil people prosper and live long and happily, while at the same time good and decent people have to struggle. The conclusions the Preacher draws from these observations shall be portrayed in the following chapter.
 Eccl. 1: 1;
 Eccl. 1: 4;
 Eccl. 1: 9;
 See Eccl. 1: 3;
 Eccl. 3: 20;
 Eccl. 1: 14;
 Eccl. 1: 14;
 Eccl. 1: 17;
 Eccl. 2: 13;
 Eccl. 2: 14;
 See Eccl. 9: 13;
 See Eccl. 1: 18;
 Eccl. 1: 18;
 Eccl. 1: 14;
 See Eccl. 2: 14-16;
 See Eccl. 2: 16;
 See Eccl. 7: 16.
 See Eccl. 2: 4-10;
 Eccl. 5: 15;
 See Eccl. 2: 18-19;
 See Eccl. 2: 23; 5: 12;
 Eccl. 5: 12;
 Eccl. 5: 10;
 See Eccl. 4: 1;
 See Eccl. 4: 4;
 See Eccl. 4: 8;
 Eccl. 3: 16;
 See Eccl. 8: 14;
- Quote paper
- Anonymous, 2003, "The House of Mirth" and Ecclesiastes: an Interpretation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/24684