Despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Wharton became an extraordinarily productive writer. In addition to her fifteen novels, seven novellas, and eighty-five short stories, she published poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism, and a memoir.
Wharton first began inventing stories when she was six. She would walk around the living room holding a book while reciting her story. In 1873, Wharton wrote a short story and gave it to her mother to read. Her mother criticized the story, so Wharton decided to just write poetry. While she constantly sought her mother's approval and love, it was rare that she received either. From the start, the relationship with her mother was a troubled one. Before she was fifteen, she wrote Fast and Loose (1877). In her youth, she wrote about society. Her central themes came from her experiences with her parents. She was very critical of her own work and would write public reviews criticizing it. She also wrote about her own experiences with life. “Intense Love’s Utterance” is a poem written about Henry Stevens.
In 1889, she sent out three poems for publication. They were sent to Scribner’s, Harper’s and Century. Edward L. Burlingame published “The Last Giustiniani” for Scribner’s. It was not until Wharton was 29 that her first short story was published. "Mrs. Manstey's View" had very little success, and it took her more than a year to publish another story. She completed "The Fullness of Life" following her annual European trip with Teddy. Burlingame was critical of this story but Wharton did not want to make edits to it. This story, along with many others, speaks about her marriage. She sent Bunner Sisters to Scribner’s in 1892. Burlingame wrote back that it was too long for Scribner’s to publish. This story is believed to be based on an experience she had as a child. It did not see publication until 1916 and is included in the collection called Xingu. After a visit with her friend, Paul Bourget, she wrote “The Good May Come” and “The Lamp of Psyche”. “The Lamp of Psyche” was a comical story with verbal wit and sorrow. After “Something Exquisite” was rejected by Burlingame, she lost confidence in herself. She started “travel writing” in 1894.
In 1901, Wharton wrote a two act play called “Man of Genius”. This play was about an English man who was having an affair with his secretary. The play was rehearsed, but was never produced. She collaborated with Marie Tempest to write another play, but the two only completed four acts before Marie decided she was no longer interested in costume plays. One of her earliest literary endeavors (1902) was the translation of the play, "Es Lebe das Leben" ("The Joy of Living"), by Hermann Sudermann. “The Joy of Living” was criticized for its name because the heroine swallows poison at the end, was a short lived Broadway production. It was, however, a successful book.
Many of Wharton's novels are characterized by a subtle use of dramatic irony. Having grown up in upper-class, late-nineteenth-century society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics, in such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.