The House of Mirth is a 1905 novel by the American author Edith Wharton. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a well-born but impoverished woman belonging to New York City's high society around the turn of the last century.[a] Wharton creates a portrait of a stunning beauty who, though raised and educated to marry well both socially and economically, is reaching her 29th year, an age when her youthful blush is drawing to a close and her marital prospects are becoming ever more limited. The House of Mirth traces Lily's slow two-year social descent from privilege to a tragically lonely existence on the margins of society. In the words of one scholar, Wharton uses Lily as an attack on "an irresponsible, grasping and morally corrupt upper class."
Before publication as a book on October 14, 1905, The House of Mirth was serialized in Scribner's Magazine beginning in January 1905. It attracted a readership among housewives and businessmen alike. Charles Scribner wrote Wharton in November 1905 that the novel was showing "the most rapid sale of any book ever published by Scribner." By the end of December sales had reached 140,000 copies. Wharton's royalties were valued at more than half a million dollars in today's currency. The commercial and critical success of The House of Mirth solidified Wharton's reputation as a major novelist.
Because of the novel's commercial success, some critics classified it as a genre novel. However, Wharton's pastor, then rector of Trinity Church in Manhattan, wrote to tell her that her novel was "a terrible but just arraignment of the social misconduct which begins in folly and ends in moral and spiritual death."(310) This moral purpose was not lost on the literary reviewers and critics of the time who tended to categorize it as both social satire and a novel of manners. Carol Singley in her Introduction to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth: A Case Book states, "[The House of Mirth] is a unique blend of romance, realism, and naturalism,[and thus] transcends the narrow classification of a novel of manners." (3) The House of Mirth was Wharton's second published novel and was preceded by two novellas, The Touchstone (1900), Sanctuary (1903), and one full-length novel, The Valley of Decision (1902). Her subsequent important novels are Ethan Frome (1911), The Custom of the Country (1913), and The Age of Innocence (1920) for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. These works influenced a host of American authors for two generations. They include F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Sinclair Lewis (Main Street), John O'Hara (Appointment in Samarra), and Louis Auchincloss (The House of Five Talents).