The House of Mirth was published in 1905 by Edith Wharton, a well-known writer from a famous and wealthy New York family. Wharton, in many of her novels, explores and exposes the opulent society in which she lived. She knew the ins and outs of high society like the back of her hand, and wealthy New York society is indeed the hot topic of House of Mirth. The novel follows Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman on the hunt for a rich husband, as she navigates the social scene and suffers tragically at its self-serving hands.
At the time of its publication, House of Mirth was critically and commercially a great success. However, it was condemned by some as overly-critical of society's elite – and by "some" we mean, of course, "society's elite" themselves. Literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick writes in her introduction to the 1999 Modern Library edition of the novel that Wharton exposes "the best and the richest society of New York" to be "pimps cruising in Cadillacs." Ouch.
The novel firmly established Edith Wharton as a serious writer, and paved the way for later novels, including The Age of Innocence, for which she received the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. (Wharton was the first woman to receive this award.) House of Mirth was also seminal as an early novel in a genre of literature called "The Novel of Manners." These works explore a particular social system in a particular time, generally elite society sometime around the last half of the 19th century. Wharton was among writers like Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh in pioneering this genre.
Let us ask you a question. When you come across a book written a hundred years ago, and you realize that all the ridiculous drama of cliques, and popularity, and gossip was just as middle school then as it is now, is it reassuring or kind of depressing? Yeah, we don't know either.
Still, the easy comparison makes The House of Mirth way relevant. It's impossible to watch Lily Bart's star fall and her popular circle ditch her in crueler and crueler ways without immediately flashing to your personal own high school nightmare. Not only have we all been there, but we have also all been there on both sides of the ugliness, as the people diving into loserdom, and as the onlookers doing nothing to stop them.
That, friends, is the genius of The House of Mirth. Sure, the stakes are a little over the top and the ending goes for broke with the melodrama, but the book paints a totally convincing picture of the way social life is organized (and apparently has always been organized) around vague and unconfirmed gossip, and the desire to just do whatever everyone else is doing. What's amazing is just how unchanged the whole thing is—particularly the way Wharton shows friends abandoning Lily like the proverbial rats leaving the proverbial sinking ship. Proverbially.
So, what do you think? Are we meant to read this and change our behavior to stand up for the ostracized in our midst? Or is that point here that the well-oiled machine of society will just grind over anyone who sticks out, and that this really isn't even anyone's fault? Is there a character that gets to live it both ways, and do we want to try to be like that character in our daily lives?