Novelist Edith Wharton wrote her defining work, 1905's the House of Mirth, on a subject she knew all too well: the style-over-substance realm of New York's upper-crust society during the Gilded Age. Having been raised in this "fashionable" society, Wharton knew both its intricacies and cruelties firsthand. The triumphant rise and tragic fall of protagonist Lily Bart demonstrate both the "sunshine and shadow" of the Gilded Age. The House of Mirth not only exposes the reality of how "the other half live," but also satirizes and condemns their elitist existence.
Historians refer to the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s as America's "Gilded Age." This was essentially a time when stock market trading and industrial expansion widened the chasm between America's "haves" and "have nots." This economic disparity is the basis for Wharton's novel. She set her cautionary tale in New York because, as a physical setting, it encapsulated the Gilded Age's wealth distribution gap. The filthy, vermin-infested tenement houses of factory workers were situated just blocks from the palatial, million-dollar mansions of railroad tycoons and oil magnates. Lily Bart exists in a torturous state of limbo between socio-economic classes. She is the meager niece of the wealthy Mrs. Peniston, and as such, is on the "outside looking in" on polite society. However, Lily's impoverished childhood has left her with a hatred for all things "dingy" and an insatiable desire for the luxurious
and elegant. Because the Gilded Age was still a time when women held little clout in social "politics," Lily's only way of securing her presence in elite society is to find a wealthy suitor and marry him. Her obsession with money and social standing prevent her from marrying the only man she truly loves, Lawrence Selden, because his modest means could not possibly support her. This obsession also leads to excessive spending and gambling, which ultimately factor in Lily's downfall.
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