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American Literature 76.1 (2004) 149-175

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Misreading The House of Mirth

Marquette University

With her first best-selling novel, The House of Mirth (1905), Edith Wharton came face-to-face with a reading public determined to have a happy ending for its upwardly mobile heroines. The Detroit Post recounted the story of one indignant reader who chastised Wharton as she was walking in her adopted hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts: "[I]t was bad enough that you had the heart to kill Lily. But here you are, shamelessly parading the streets in a red hat!"1 For this stranger, Wharton's insufficient grief over the death of her heroine is confirmed by her public appearance and underscored by her preference for red over black. In the ostentatious hat, Wharton may even have appeared complicit in the social and economic structures that created Lily's painful final days in the milliner's shop. Wharton's Lenox neighbor was not alone in her dismay. The death of Lily Bart seems to have fundamentally affronted Wharton's 1905 readership, and there were many readers to affront. The book sold 30,000 copies during the first three weeks, a number that doubled to 60,000 within a month. The numbers then increased exponentially: after ten more days, sales had reached 80,000, and after another ten days, 100,000. The book was soon one of the three most requested adult fiction titles at the New York Public Library.2 Such figures would be more than respectable for a literary author today; for Wharton's time, they were astonishing.

Astonishment at The House of Mirth's popularity has become commonplace in Wharton criticism, and every critic seems to have a favorite explanation for the novel's appeal. Why indeed would a vast reading public, attracted primarily to escapist romances and rough-riding [End Page 149] adventure stories, feel drawn to the story of a socialite's disenchantment, marginalization, and eventual suicide? And why would middle-class readers—who made up the bulk of Wharton's audience, we must assume—take a critique of high society to heart, given the general culture's fixation on and idealization of upward mobility?3 Lily's tragic fate may well have touched Wharton's early-twentieth-century readers, moved them to tears, and elicited resolutions to thrift. But these readers just as surely imbibed the novel's lush descriptions of Lily's surroundings, the details of the lives of her wealthy friends, and the particulars of the elaborate social rituals by which members of the haute bourgeoisie could recognize each other. So one must wonder whether Wharton's contention that "a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys" also reflected the attitude of her readers.4 Perhaps for most readers, the novel's tragedy was not Lily's destruction itself but her inability to remain in the society in which she nearly had a foothold.

In this light, Lily's tale may be an admonitory one only insofar as it instructs young social climbers what situations they should avoid—or avoid getting caught in—at all costs. Lily is thus a sacrificial lamb not only in the realm of Wharton's novel but also in the world projected by the readers who would take its lessons to heart. Although Wharton scorned the reader who focused on "getting the most out of books," disdaining these "sense-of-duty readers" as a destructive force in American literature,5 Lily's story became a flashpoint not for critique of high society but for lengthy debates in several newspapers' editorial pages over Wharton's cruelty in refusing to imagine a different end for her heroine. Contemporaneous discussions of Lily's fate were concerned less with descrying the evils of a high society that devoured its margins than with condemning Wharton for refusing to imagine other options for her heroine. The thematics of the novel and the debates it occasioned present a compact, yet complex, portrait of the practice I call "reading up," which approaches all books as how-to...


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pp. 149-175
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