Marxist Analysis Of ‘The House Of Mirth’ By Edith Wharton


‘The House Of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton is one of the most memorable Novel Of Manners of all time. Apart from aspects such as marriage , relations and hypocrisy the novel possesses elements that form a reflection of the economic and social scenario of its time . The concept of class structure presented by Karl Marx surfaces at numerous instances in the novel. This paper focuses largely on analyzing those aspects and understanding the extent to which the novel projects the existing class structure of its time. This paper also attempts to ponder upon, ‘What were the main Marxist (class structure) features presented in the novel?’ . It also incorporates aspects that represent how the novel is a representation of the class structure that existed in the society at that time. This paper encompasses a plot overview of the novel, an understanding of the Marxist theory as well as the author’s way of representing the Marxist elements of the society in the novel.


Novels are considered to be an integral part of human history. As times changed, novels also evolved as per the societal norms . right from a collection of letters (epistolary novels) to travel diaries (adventure novels) , novels found their way in different forms into literature just like the water flowing through the slightest cracks in dams . Novels also became a means of expression of one’s opinions thoughts as well as social and political issues. Satires , parodies and mock epics became significant examples of the same. One such genre of novels that flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (traces of which were found even in the early 20th century) is the Novel Of Manners .

The Novel Of Manners

The Novel Of Manners is largely refers to the fictional works that tend to re create the society, rather the social world wherein they portray the morals and associated vices of the complex society especially the highly developed upper class. Class distinction, money, complicated relations as well as the hypocrisy of the classes are seen as the underlying themes of almost every novel belonging to this genre. A number of noteworthy writers have contributed greatly to the Novel Of Manners such as Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, John Marquand and may more. One such significant name associated with this genre is that of Edith Wharton.

Edith Wharton’s Literary Works And Style Of Writing

Known as one of the most famous American writers , Wharton was a novelist and short story writer that tried to showcase the realistic picture of the lives and morals of the New York aristocracy through her works. Her famous works include The Age Of Innocence and a novella called Ethan Frome. One such remarkable novel of Wharton is ‘The House Of Mirth.’

As the novel focuses on a number of economic and financial aspects , it is essential to understand the novel from the Marxist perspective . A number of Novel Of Manners , till date, are seen portraying the Marxist theory through the clear cut distinction of classes. It is thereby vital to understand the subtle Marxist undertones presented throughout the novel in order to gain a broader perspective of the same.

Brief Understanding Of The Marxist Theory Of Class Structure And Class Conflict

As the name itself suggests , the Marxist Theory Of Class Struggle/ Class Conflict is the theory proposed by Karl Marx . Along with Fredrich Engels, Marx propagated his theory through works such as Das Capital and The Communist Manifesto. The term class conflict refers to the class struggle and warfare generated from the different set of interests possessed by different groups of people and thereby different classes . According to the theory of Marxism , every society consists of two classes of people namely ; the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariats. The bourgeoisie posses the means of production and thereby the capital making them the ones that have everything (the haves) . Whereas the proletariats are the working class that provide labour to the bourgeoisie. They do not possess anything of their own and have to work for their survival (the haves not). Karl Marx himself witnessed the class struggle wherein the rich enjoyed the benefits and the poor slogged everyday. He even saw the rising gap between the rich and the poor as the working class had no say in their wages making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. The bourgeoisie then not only control the economic segment but also the the other aspects of the society. Marx stated that there existed two structures of the society ; the base and the superstructure. The base largely referred to the economic and political aspects that were in a way directly controlled by the bourgeoisie whereas the superstructure referred to educational , religious and other social institutions that were mainly governed by the concept of dominant ideology prevalent at a particular time. Furthermore , Marx discussed the concept of ideology stating that it only tends to favour those in power; the dominant class, thereby making the bourgeoisie , indirectly,in control of the superstructure as well. Marx then suggested ways in which the dominant bourgeoisie can be overthrown by the proletariats as he believed that the bourgeoisie were no better than the proletariats and desired equality for all. He stated three steps through which the proletariats could gain power; the economic, political and ultimately ideological means and finally rule out capitalism. This class struggle between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the working proletariats is seen to a large extent in Wharton’s ‘The House Of Mirth.’

Synopsis Of ‘The House Of Mirth’

The story revolves around Lily Bart , the protagonist who belongs to a fairly decent class of the society. She begins living with her aunt Mrs Peniston after the death of her parents. However , having reached the age of twenty nine, Lily is unmarried and thereby spends most of her time at the Bellomont estate hoping to marry someone who is wealthy and belonged to the upper crust of the society. Lawrence Selden is shown to be in love with Lily however she refuses to reciprocate the same considering that Selden was not financially suitable for her. Lily also appears to be addicted to gambling and thereby gets ruined by the same. As the plot progresses, Lily is seen trapped in debts of the upper class through foul play however after numerous ups and down as well as unimaginable struggles , s Lily finally manages to pay off the debt amount ($10000) to Trenor , havng inherited the same from her aunt. However , the constant struggle, loneliness and fear ultimately drive her to death at the end of the novel. ‘The House Of Mirth’ thereby focuses on the life and struggles of Lily Bart in her constant attempt to move upwards in the social structure.

Marxist Analysis Of ‘The House Of Mirth’

The constant class struggle and class distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats as explained by Karl Marx is clearly seen in ‘The House Of Mirth.’ Since the very beginning of the novel, the protagonist Lily , is seen trying to attain a higher social status than her existing one. Her consistent effort to become a part of the upper class (bourgeoisie) is understood as her fear of becoming a part of the proletariats . It appears as if Lily is well aware of the struggles and difficulties of the proletariats and thereby dismisses the very thought of becoming a part of the same. An example of this is her constant refusal of her own feelings towards Selden since he appears to not be a part of the bourgeoisie class of the society. Her willingness to marry almost anyone belonging to the upper class, that possesses wealth and status display desire to be a part of the ‘high society.’ The quality of life , in the novel , is defined by the wealth, social status and material possessed by an individual. The concept of marriage itself is referred to as something economical when , depending on the age of an individual, he/she is considered suitable/ unsuitable for the ‘marriage market’. Relations are based on the financial conditions and materialistic superiority. Lily’s fall from her social status due to her rumoured affair with Gus and her shift to the proletariat class ( hat making taken up by Lily as a profession for a while ) could also be considered as the underlying reasons for her ultimate suffering and death. Not only the protagonist but also every character in the novel is controlled by his/her social status and economic condition. Women infact are considered nothing more that ‘goods’ which the bourgeoisie (here, the upper class) find available and ‘purchasable’ as per their convenience, reducing them to mere ‘products’ of the economic structure. Trenors set the perfect examples of the bourgeoisie exploiting their positions in the society to crumple the proletariats and the women in the novel. Yet another significant character associated with thus concept is that of Simon Rosedale . Appearing as the owner of Selden’s apartment in the beginning, Rosedale is seen as a character that belongs to the proletariat class and dreams of building his fortune in real estate. His journey is seen rather negatively correlated or ‘inversely proportional’ to that of Lily’s. lily’s fall from her social status and loss of her reputation simultaneously leads to Simon’s improving social and financial condition , ultimately leading to his shift from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. The protagonist Lily also becomes an example of the proletariats being exploited by the bourgeoisie. The constant manipulation of Lily by the Trenor’s portrays how the proletariats are considered nothing more than a means to satisfy their whims and fancies by the bourgeoisie. It is also essential to understand that the possibility of upward social moblility referred to by Karl Marx is indeed possible and is showcaed through characters such as Simon. His constant hardwork and struggle final led to his attainment of the bourgeoise status . However, the idea of bringing a change in the ideologies of the bourgeoise by the proletariats upon attaining a higher status remains unexplored in this novel as such.

Representation Of The Marxist Traits Present In The Society By Wharton

Through the various instances and characters in the novel, Wharton has attempted to portray a picture of the reality of the society. Having focused largely on the aristocracy of New York Wharton has presented the truth about the social scenario back then. Characters such as Lily show the desperate need for upward social mobility desired by the working class ( proletariats) in her society . The ideology that ‘reality itself is material and not spiritual’ which was prevalent in the upper class of the society has been depicted throughout the novel. The fact that Lily considered one’s status and wealth as their character defining trait showcases how the society , especially the aristocrats (symbol of the bourgeoisie ) made people believe that financial status is everything. They controlled the ideologies that were expected to govern the society and the same is subtly presented through the actions and thoughts of the characters. Thus, it could be stated that the author has displayed the presence of class distinctions, explained by Marx, in the society of her time.


In conclusion, it would be fair to state that the novel consists of numerous examples that provide and insight on the social condition and class system that existed back them. The traits of Marxism are distinctly seen in Wharton’s novel that is a representation of the society as well. Lily’s struggle to attain the bourgeoisie status as well as Trenors taking advantage of the helplessness of certain characters (proletariats) depict a clear picture of the actual social scenario during Wharton’s time. Hence, Wharton has magnificently hinted at the social structure of her time through the Marxist traits imprinted in her novel.

07 July 2022
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