“It was only at The Mount that I was really happy,” recalled Edith Wharton about the Berkshires country home where she wrote The House of Mirth (1905), the book that would mark her debut as a major American novelist. Yet the scandal surrounding the novel and its satirical depiction of Gilded Age society would cut her off permanently from America – and the Mount. She would reside the rest of her life in France.

Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth, is also without a home. Orphaned at an early age and without a fortune, she grows up to become a famous society beauty, but finds herself unable to make the splendid marriage expected of her. Only one man interests her, the intellectual lawyer Lawrence Selden, who belongs to her class, but lacks the means to provide for her.

A biting comedy, a classical tragedy, a 19th-century novel of manners written with 20th-century frankness, The House of Mirth explores questions of love and money, freedom and responsibility, family and inheritance, and home and heart.

Image: Frieze, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Film Adaptation of The House of Mirth


Cheryl Miller

Cheryl Miller is executive director at the Hertog Foundation. Previously, she served as deputy director of research in the Office of Presidential Speechwriting and as research assistant to David Brooks at The New York Times. Her reviews and commentary have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard. She graduated from the University of Dallas with Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Politics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



  • Beauty
  • Lily’s upbringing
  • Lily & Selden
  • Gus Trenor

Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe Lily’s beauty. In what way(s) is she beautiful? Susan Sontag writes, “Beauty, women’s business in this society, is the theater of their enslavement,” but Lily sees her beauty as a source of power (p. 35). Who is right?
  2. What kind of family life does the young Lily experience? What is her inheritance from her parents?
  3. Lawerence Selden calls Lily an “artist” (p. 66). Is she an artist, and if so, what kind of artist is she?
  4. What attracts Lily to Selden, and Selden to Lily?
  5. What is Selden’s “Republic of the Spirit” (p. 68)? What are Lily’s objections to it?
  6. Lily throws away her chance with Percy Gryce by running away with Selden – and with Selden, by running back to Gryce. Why?
  7. What is the nature of Lily’s deal with Gus Trenor? How much does she really understand about the deal they have struck?
  8. Selden sees Lily as a “victim of the civilization which had produced her,” “chained” to her “fate” (p. 7), yet is attracted to a “streak of sylvan freedom in her nature” (p. 13). Is Lily fated or free in her choices?



  • Class, money, & power
  • The letters
  • The tableaux vivant
  • Gerty Farish
  • Selden, Trenor, & Lily

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who has power in this society, and how is that power exercised by men and women? Discuss Bertha and George Dorset, Judy and Gus Trenor, Carry Fisher, Mrs. Peniston, and Simon Rosedale.
  2. What is Lily’s first impulse upon receiving Bertha Dorset’s letters? Why does she keep them?
  3. From the letters, Lily learns that Selden had an affair with Bertha, which he ended. What might have attracted Selden to Bertha? Is Bertha in any way like Lily Bart?
  4. Why does Lily choose the portrait of Mrs. Lloyd for her tableau vivant? How is it revealing of her? Is the tableau a success or a mistake?
  5. Describe Gerty Farish. Does she offer an alternative path for Lily? Would you want to be “a Gerty Farish” (p. 25)?
  6. What do we learn about Selden’s early life? What example of love and marriage do his parents leave him?
  7. Why does Selden leave New York? Is his judgment of Lily – however mistaken in the particulars – and their compatibility correct?



  • The Sabrina
  • Return to New York
  • Dorset & Rosedale

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why has Bertha invited Lily to accompany her and George on the Sabrina? Why does Lily accept the invitation? Does she understand the role she is expected to play?
  2. Why does Lily ignore Selden’s advice to leave the yacht? Does her choice to stay make her, in Selden’s words, “matchless” (p. 216), or is she deluding herself about her role in the drama?
  3. Is society’s punishment of Lily fair? Does she deserve to lose the inheritance? To be snubbed by Judy Trenor and others?
  4. Why doesn’t Lily use the letters against Bertha – whether to marry George Dorset or Sim Rosedale? Should she?



  • The debt
  • Nettie Struther
  • Lily & Selden

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is Lily’s situation at the Emporium Hotel? How is she serving Mrs. Hatch? Why does Selden object to her situation, and is he right that she is in a “false position”?
  2. Is Lily right to insist on paying back her debt to Gus Trenor, even if it ruins her? Is her action “fine,” as Rosedale says (p. 293)?
  3. Why does Lily go to Selden’s one final time? What is her initial motive, and what does she decide on after talking with Selden?
  4. Who is Nettie Struther, and why is her story included? What does it reveal about Lily’s own fate?
  5. Ecclesiastes, the Biblical book from which Wharton took her title, claims that “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.” Is Lily’s end better than her beginning? Is she – or has she become – an “upright” woman?
  6. What is “the word” that Lily “must tell Selden,” and that Selden “meant to say to” Lily (pp. 323–24)? Is it the same word? And does it make “all clear” (p. 329)?

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