With the opening of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”, we get introduced to our protagonist, a 29-year-old beautiful woman, Lily Bart, who is waiting at the Grand Central Station. Like many unmarried woman, Lily too wishes to get married to someone wealthy in order to belong to the higher class and stabilize herself financially.
After the demise of her mother, she started to live with her aunt, Mrs Peniston. She brought Lily to New Jersey and provided for her. While growing up, Lily did not have any bonding with her father, who was financially ruined, the reason why her parents were not together. Her mother had always had loathing towards cheapness and Lily was brought up to love wealth and be attracted to it. Her bringing up influenced her characteristics and she is not to be blamed for it.
Lily is on her way to the place of her elite friend, Judy Trenor, where she usually used to spend much of her time. Judy got married to Gus Trenor when they were very young; they live in Bellomont. Gus is an affluent man and his wife, Judy, would throw extravagant parties, securing themselves a significant spot in the list of high class citizens in the area. Being a lover of wealth and power, Lily associated herself with the Trenors and would visit them very often.
As the story goes, while waiting at the station, she suddenly comes across a friend, Lawrence Selden, who is a lawyer by profession. He invites her to his flat for a cup of tea - Lily agrees and goes with him. Selden is not a very wealthy man but, nonetheless, he fancies Lily and she likes him a lot as well. However, Lily does not want to tie the knot with him because of his lack of luxury. Selden’s parents were not at all wealthy and he has ill feeling towards people who are easily distracted by money. Things are different when it came down to Lily, since, his love for her would cancel out his contradictions.
After Lily and Selden spend some good time over a cup of tea, she hurriedly leaves to catch her train to Bollomont. While she is exiting Selden’s building, she comes across Simon Rosedale. He is an acquaintance of her and he asks Lily about what she was doing there, to which she lies by saying that she came to her tailor. Rosedale figures out the lie and on her way to Bollomont, even Lily is very regretful about the lie she told. Rosedale becomes suspicious about Lily’s behaviour.
As previously mentioned, Lily only connects with the affluent people of the society. Sometimes, she gets carried away and gambles. For rich people, gambling is fun but for Lily, it is a do or die situation, considering the fact she has little money. After losing three hundred dollars, she realizes that she is ruining herself financially completely. Memories of her childhood returns when her father became financially ruined and her mother got separated from her father. It struck her that she could not afford to keep losing money the way she was.
Later in the novel, Mrs Trenor is throwing a party the same week as Maria Van Osburgh, to which Mrs. Osburgh is exasperated for her guests are being stolen. While writing the cards, Lily confesses something to Mrs. Trenor. Lily is twenty-nine and it is high time that she got married but she always keeps rejecting good relationships in the hope of coming across someone better. What she confesses is that she is considering marriage to Peter Gryce because of his social standing and finances. Lily is also very confident about having him under her control.
Selden comes to the party of Mrs. Trenor and his true cause behind it is to see Lily. However, Lily finds him and Mrs. Dorset alone in the library and comes down to the conclusion that he must have come to meet her. Selden later confesses that his true motive is to come face to face with her. Lily wishes she could live a life like Selden, away from all the social rules and ties. Both of them take a walk to the church on a Sunday. They have some deep conversations about success, money and everything that circulates their social lives.
In the meantime, Gryce leaves Bellomont. Lily had cancelled her meet with him because she wanted to spend some time with Selden. She had in mind that she will spend the rest of the day with Gryce, in order to win him over but she learns from Mrs. Trenor that Mrs. Dorset made him aware of Lily’s financial ruins, losses during gambling and everything that she wouldn’t want him to know. Regardless of all that, Lily is still very optimistic about the situation and is confident that she can win his heart.
Lily is buying many dresses, even after losing money during gambling and after having incurred so much debt. She finally realizes it is Bollomont’s fault. She thinks to herself that she needs to return to her aunt’s place as soon as possible. Before leaving, she hears about the stock market and thinks that this could be a way to improve her situation. All she has in mind is resolving all her debts, being able to continue a luxurious life and getting married to someone affluent.
One day, she goes to pick Mr. Trenor when he returns from a business trip. They are having a conversation when she raises the topic of her interest in the stock market. She requests him to invest some money on behalf of her. Mr. Trenor agrees to her request right away. What Lily is not at all aware of is that he has always been attracted to her. He secretly fancies her beauty and outlook and is interested in being involved with her physically. She also tells him about her interest in tying knots with Gryce and to that, he shows no interest. Then, she explains to him that she really needed to be financially stable.
Not very long after that, Lily goes back to her aunt’s house and she starts receiving checks. When the money started coming in, Lily is beaming with happiness. She resolves all her debts and starts spending money without any trouble. She starts feeling superior to the many other women who flirt with rich people to pay off their debts. Later in the novel, Lily faces Mr. Trenor where he confesses to her that the money she was receiving the whole time- it was his money that he was giving to her, not from the stock. This comes to Lily as a big shock. She does not know how to reply to it. Mr. Trenor directly tells her that she owes him and that, in order to pay back the amount, she would have to get involved with him physically. This was his intention from the very beginning and he managed to find the loop when she asked for help. Now, Lily would never do what he is asking her to do. She has her own morals and her own way of doing things. She tells him that she will pay him back. However, she has no source of earning money.
In the meantime, Bertha and George Dorset are taking a vacation to the Mediterranean. Mrs. Dorset asks Lily to accompany them and she gladly agrees. She is not aware of that fact that Mrs. Dorset is having a romantic relationship with Ned Silverton. She asked Lily to come because she thought that while Lily would keep George busy, she could spend time with Silverton. During the trip, Lily starts to associate with European royalty. As she starts growing closer relationships, Mrs. Dorset starts to feel jealous. There is no way to undo what has been done yet her jealousy is increasing endlessly.
What Mrs. Dorset does is, she kicks Lily off of the cruise yacht and also starts to spread dirty rumours about her by saying that Lily is having an affair with her husband, Mr. Dorset. With all these rumors spreading and Lily getting betrayed once again, her hopes are crushed. She is no longer accepted by the society. In the meantime, Lily’s aunt dies. Before her death, the rumours reach her. She would have left all her properties for Lily but after hearing all of that, she decided to only leave her with ten thousand dollars. On top of that, it would take Lily an entire year to get the money. Once she would get the money, she can pay Mr. Trenor back.
Lily then gets herself involved in the working class and starts to work as a secretary and a hat maker. She becomes very lonely and starts taking sleeping pills. Then one day, she finally receives her aunt’s money. The first thing she does is pay Mr. Trenor back and right after that, she overdoses herself, most probably intentionally, and passes away in her own flat. The next morning, Selden goes to her house to ask her hand for marriage but all he finds is her lifeless body.