Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Sympathetic, With a Healthy Dose of Amused Detachment
For someone so thoroughly entrenched in the social elite, Wharton maintains a sense of perspective – and a sense of humor – while portraying the crowd she knows so very well. This is one of our favorite droll Wharton moments:
The couple in question were engaged in the same kind of romance. […] Miss Van Osburgh was a large girl with flat surfaces and no high lights: Jack Stepney had once said of her that she was as reliable as roast mutton. His own taste was in the line of less solid and more highly-seasoned diet; but hunger makes any fare palatable, and there had been times when Mr. Stepney had been reduced to a crust. (1.4.69)
Wharton recognizes the absurdity of money-driven marriages, as well as the insipid "jobs" that those in society are forced to fill if they want to keep their spot among the social elite. For example,
Lord Hubert Dacey, a slender shabby-looking man, with a charming worn smile, and the air of having spent his best years in piloting the wealthy to the right restaurant. (2.1.13)
She also keenly identifies the hypocrisy of the society she's observing:
Like many unpunctual persons, Mrs. Gormer disliked to be kept waiting. (2.6.32)
Ha! Funny stuff. At the same time, Wharton is incredibly sympathetic to the young Lily Bart; more so in Book II when the world around her protagonist has crumbled completely. There's nothing funny about Lily's social demise or her physical death at the novel's conclusion. She is every bit a victim of the society Wharton so cleverly exposes in Book I, and House of Mirth makes sure that, when we're done chuckling, we really feel the tragedy of her death in Book II.