The House of Mirth (1905), by Edith Wharton, is a novel about New York socialite Lily Bart attempting to secure a husband and a place in rich society. It is one of the first novels of manners in American literature.
The title derives from Ecclesiastes 7:4: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Of all of Edith Wharton's best-known novels about Old New York, The House of Mirth is the most conventionally tragic, for it shows the heroine's squalid death.
Like most Wharton novels, The House of Mirth examines the conflict between rigid social expectation and personal desire. Lily Bart is intelligent and adept at playing society's games, which expect her to arrange an advantageous marriage for herself. Yet she sabotages all her potential marriages; she wants more for herself, but is too enamored of luxurious living to marry for love alone. Gradually she loses the good opinion of her wealthy social circle until she is left to try to survive below the level of "dinginess" of her only true friend, Gerty Farish.
It is made clear from the beginning of the book that Miss Bart has had many occasions for wealthy marriages, but has sabotaged them all. In her past there is an allusion to putting off a marriage to an Italian Prince by flirting with his son. As the book begins Miss Bart discusses her intention to marry the tedious and prudish Mr. Percy Gryce, who is evidently infatuated with her. She sabotages this relationship when she skips attending church with him. Her lawyer friend, Lawrence Selden, finds her attractive and delightful, but does not seriously attempt to engage her affections, as he knows that he is not rich enough and that she is unwilling to consider marrying for love.
A wealthy Jew, Simon Rosedale, has a significant role in Lily Bart's fate. Wharton portrays him as a social climber whose commercial success has admitted him partially into elite society. Rosedale courts Miss Bart until her social disaster renders her maritally useless to him. Though he does offer real help after she has "fallen from grace," he requires that she re-enter society before he can marry her, thus securing his own social position with a beautiful wife who is well-versed in society's rules.
Lily's decline begins when she loses the favor of Judy Trenor after taking money from Mr. Trenor. Rumours of the debt shake the foundations of her social standing. The venomous Bertha Dorset invites Lily to travel on a yacht along with her and her husband, then falsely implies Lily has committed adultery with her husband in order to distract his attention from her own infidelity. The ensuing scandal socially ruins Lily, causing her straight-laced Aunt Julia to disinherit her for all but a small amount. Lily has the power to defend herself from Bertha's attacks -- she has evidence of Bertha's infidelity but suffers the consequences of the scandal rather than blackmail Bertha.
Gradually dropped by almost all of her society friends, Lily is forced to seek work. She first takes a job as a social secretary to a disreputable woman, but her dignity forces her to resign. She takes a job working in a millinery, but produces poor work and is fired at the end of the season. Eventually, she receives her meager inheritance. After paying her debt to Trenor, Lily kills herself (perhaps accidentally) with an overdose of the sleeping draught to which she had become addicted.
The book received an enthusiastic review in the New York Times upon its original publication, which called it "a novel of remarkable power," and which read in part "Its varied elements are harmoniously blended, and the discriminating reader who has completed the whole story in a protracted sitting or two must rise from it with the conviction that there are no parts of it which do not properly and essentially belong to the whole. Its descriptive passages have verity and charm, it has the saving grace of humor, its multitude of personages, as we have said, all have the semblance of life.
There followed months of letters to the Times, arguing over the book. Some readers were enthusiastic fans, while others felt that the book unfairly impugned the city's social elite.