The House of Mirth was published in 1905 when Edith Wharton was forty-three. She had done very little fiction writing up to that point but had some practice with volumes of short stories and an historical "romantic chronicle" called The Valley of Decision. New York upper-class society presented her with the perfect subject, a subject she had a great deal of experience with. She wrote in A Backward Glance, "There is was before me in all its flatness and futility, asking to be dealt with as the theme most available to my hand, since I had been steeped in it from infancy." Wharton's achievement was not so much the study of high society as her ability to turn the society's debasement of people and values in a work of dramatic significance.
Lily Bart turned out to be the perfect heroine for this type of novel. A weak character, she is able to be intrigued by the society and attracted to it. However, she also has intuition and charm in abundance, allowing her to manipulate people within the world she has chosen to emulate. As such, she is one of Wharton's most memorable characters. Her ability to live beyond her means is coupled with her sense of moral extravagance. She is not able to afford to compete with the wealthy, married women, and as such will succumb to the fate of an outcast, namely death.
The historical context of the novel is important to understand the uses of wealth at the time. In a period of high immigration, there were plenty of servants for the many great houses located in New York. The use of the yacht and motorcar meant pleasure trips were now available anywhere in the world, as can be seen when Lily is passed from one boat to another. The families presented in the novel can be compared to known families; for example, the Van Osburghs are the richest and best family, suggesting the Astors in Wharton's day. Throughout the society there is a sense of old wealth giving way to new wealth, the rise of Rosedale and the fall of the Barts.
Wharton sees this emergence and absorption of new wealth quite clearly and with some resentment. Using people such as Jack Stepney and Carry Fisher, the Rosedales and the Wellington Brys are able to slide their way into the social matrix that comprises Newport. The novel is unique because Wharton is not merely pretending to know about her society; she really has been a part of it.
The House of Mirth is a novel of manners, one of the first to emerge in American literature. Lily's slide down the social ladder, in which each rung is a mere imitation of the one above it, has been compared to the determinist fiction of Flaubert and Zola. However, the strong element of unpredictability and coincidence mostly undermines and deterministic reading of this novel; Lily could just as easily have been lucky and moved up the ladder. The question then emerges as to what specifically dooms Lily Bart. The answer, most prominently, is money. A first reading would imply that Lily is doomed due to the small yet important moral indiscretions. This, however, is simply not correct. The real reason for her destruction is a simple lack of money; she is still kept in the society as long as there is a chance of inheriting her aunt's money, but dropped as soon as she does not. Mrs. Trenor could care less about her husband making love to other women, but will not tolerate him giving them loans.
Wharton never ceased to attack the New York society as she saw it in all its ugliness. Her later books, especially Age of Innocence, allow more independence to women like Lily who desire to move abroad and marry royalty (specifically Ellen Olenska). However, the biting criticism of New York aristocracy remained in all her subsequent novels; a criticism that became sharper when she moved to Europe and became an expatriate.