Like most Wharton novels, The House of Mirth examines the conflict between rigid social expectation and personal desire. Lily Bart is intelligent and adept at playing society's games, which expect her to arrange an advantageous marriage for herself. Yet she sabotages all her potential marriages; she wants more for herself, but is too enamored of luxurious living to marry for love alone. Gradually she loses the good opinion of her wealthy social circle until she is left to try to survive below the level of "dinginess" of her only true friend, Gerty Farish.
It is made clear from the beginning of the book that Miss Bart has had many occasions for wealthy marriages, but has sabotaged them all. In her past there is an allusion to putting off a marriage to an Italian Prince by flirting with his son. As the book begins Miss Bart discusses her intention to marry the tedious and prudish Mr. Percy Gryce, who is evidently infatuated with her. She sabotages this relationship when she skips attending church with him. Her lawyer friend, Lawrence Selden, finds her attractive and delightful, but does not seriously attempt to engage her affections, as he knows that he is not rich enough and that she is unwilling to consider marrying for love.
A wealthy Jew, Simon Rosedale, has a significant role in Lily Bart's fate. Wharton portrays him as a social climber whose commercial success has admitted him partially into elite society. Rosedale courts Miss Bart until her social disaster renders her maritally useless to him. Though he does offer real help after she has "fallen from grace," he requires that she re-enter society before he can marry her, thus securing his own social position with a beautiful wife who is well-versed in society's rules.
Lily's decline begins when she loses the favor of her friend Judy Trenor after asking Mr. Trenor to speculate for her. Instead he merely gives her the money. Rumours of the debt shake the foundations of her social standing. Meanwhile another of Lily's friends, the venomous Bertha Dorset, invites Lily to travel on a yacht along with her and her husband, then falsely implies Lily has committed adultery with her husband in order to distract his attention from her own infidelity. The ensuing scandal socially ruins Lily, causing her straight-laced Aunt Julia to disinherit her for all but a small amount. Lily has the power to defend herself from Bertha's attacks—she has evidence of Bertha's infidelity—but suffers the consequences of the scandal rather than blackmail Bertha, because exposing Bertha would also expose Lawrence Selden, the man Lily loves.
Gradually dropped by almost all of her society friends, Lily is forced to seek work. She first takes a job as a social secretary to a disreputable woman, but her dignity forces her to resign. She takes a job working in a millinery, but produces poor work and is let go at the end of the season. Eventually, she receives her meager inheritance. After paying her debt to Trenor, Lily kills herself (perhaps accidentally) with an overdose of the sleeping draught to which she had become addicted.
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