An immensely popular bestseller upon its publication in 1905, The House of Mirth
was Edith Wharton’s first great novel. Set among the elegant brownstones of New York City and opulent country houses like gracious Bellomont on the Hudson, the novel creates a satiric portrayal of what Wharton herself called “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers” with a precision comparable to that of Proust. And her brilliant and complex characterization of the doomed Lily Bart, whose stunning beauty and dependence on marriage for economic survival reduce her to a decorative object, becomes an incisive commentary on the nature and status of women in that society. From her tragic attraction to bachelor lawyer Lawrence Selden to her desperate relationship with social-climbing Rosedale, Lily is all too much a product of the world indicated by the title, a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” For it is Lily’s very specialness that threatens the elegance and fulfillment she seeks in life. Along with the author’s other masterpiece, The Age of Innocence,
this novel claims a place among the finest American novels of manners.