Table of Contents
2. New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century
3. The main character: Lily Bart
4. New York’s High Society
a) The Penistons
b) The Trenors
c) The Dorsets
d) Carrie Fisher
e) The Wellington Brys
f) The Gormers
g) Norma Hatch
5. Male characters at Lily’s side
a) Lawrence Selden
b) Simon Rosedale
6. New York’ middle and lower class
a) Gerty Farish
b) Mrs. Haffen
c) The girls at the milliner’s
d) Nettie Struther
8. Works cited
Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is one of the most popular novels of the beginning of the twentieth century. Although written as early as 1905, it is still a joy to read today. The novel, often seen as the very work which helped Wharton on her road to success as an acknowledged American writer, is today mostly praised as a sharp and often ironical view on New York’s High Society of that time. Having grown up in this society herself, Edith Wharton is in fact predestined to give an insight view of the structures and events taking place there. She herself said: “There it was before me in all its flatness and futility, asking to be dealt with as the theme most available at my hand, since I had been steeped in it from infancy.”
For my research paper, I will therefore analyze Edith Wharton’s view on New York’s society in The House of Mirth. After a short glance at New York in general, I am going to take a look at the main character, Lily Bart, showing her social downfall from High Society to complete poverty by looking at the different families from New York’s society. Then, I am going to contrast Wharton’s presentation of families from High Society with those from the middle and lower class and show up the significant differences.
2. New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century
The House of Mirth is set in New York’s High Society at the turn of the century, presenting to us roughly the time of the publication of the novel, 1905. Edith Wharton, being an upper-class New Yorker herself, thus depicts exactly the world she grew up and lived in. Therefore, talking about “views of New York society” in The House of Mirth, the starting point should certainly be a short glance at the New York City of those days in general.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the U.S. stepped right into the “Gilded Age”. This term, coined by writer Marc Twain, denotes a time of industrial and economic prosperity which continues up to the beginning of the First World War. Rising industrial expansion and a good-working stock market are accompanied by extensive social and economic changes as well. The rich get still richer, the poor become even poorer. Cities such as New York become worlds of extremes, showing a deep rift between the upper class on the one hand and the people of the slums on the other hand.
New York’s High Society itself is divided into two parts: One the one hand, there is Old New York, the town’s very conservative old aristocracy. James W. Tuttleton describes it as follows:
For there is no question that Old New York was an imperfectly developed culture – marked by sexual hypocrisy, intellectual narrowness, civic irresponsibility, and class snobbery. But at its best it preserved dignity and decorum; a sensitivity to feeling and emotion, however inhibited by convention; an appreciation for pictorial beauty and a feeling for the grandeur of the English language; an unshakable belief in the civilizing power of education; a high (but conservative) social style; and a commitment to personal rectitude in public life.
In The House of Mirth, Old New York is represented by the Penistons (Lily’s relatives), the Trenors, The Dorsets, The Gryces, or the Van Osburghs.
On the other hand, there are the Nouveaux Riches, the newcomers. They have earned their incredible amount of money with investments during the prosperous years of the “Gilded Age”, therefore, origin and traditions are of minor importance. Some of them also come from aristocratic families in Europe or are from the sectors of art and theater. The Wellington Brys, the Gormers, Simon Rosedale or Norma Hatch are representatives of this group in The House of Mirth.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nouveaux Riches start to pave a way for themselves into the circles of Old New York. Although Old New York looks down on the Nouveaux Riches, disapproving of their lack of taste, traditional values and hereditary succession, the two classes slowly begin to mingle and intertwine. Their materialistic lives, where money is the only thing that counts, are in many ways too similar to prevent the mixing of the two rivaling classes.
This is the situation in New York City during the time Edith Wharton is writing The House of Mirth. In the beginning, she has doubts about the subject of her novel, asking herself what in this particular society could be worth telling. But later, she comes to the conclusion that “the answer was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.”
 Louis Auchincloss. Edith Wharton. A woman in her time (New York: The Viking Press, 1971) 69.
 Cf. Bernd Engler/Kurt Müller(Ed.). Metzler Lexikon Amerikanischer Autoren (Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 2000)154ff.
 James W. Tuttleton. The Novel of Manners in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972)129.
 Cf. Irving Howe(Ed.). Edith Wharton. A collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962)106ff.
 Cf. Irving Howe(Ed.). Edith Wharton. A collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962)34f.
 Millicent Bell. Edith Wharton & Henry James. The Story of their Friendship (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1965)244.
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- Isabel Findeiss (Autor), 2003, Views of New York Society in Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth', München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/68788