Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth documents the moral bankruptcy of wealthy New York denizens during the waning years of the Gilded Age. This indictment of the culture that metaphorically eats one's own reveals Wharton's opinions of such a society, as well as her views on the economic disparities in New York. Her handling of such subject matter prompted critic Alfred Kazin to note in 1941: "It is easy to say now that Edith Wharton's great subject should have been the biography of her own class, for her education and training had given her alone in her literary generation the best access to it." In fact, the passage from Ecclesiastes from which the book takes its title — "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" — indicates that Wharton considered New York society to be vain, petty, and foolish. Wharton's personal familiarity with her subject matter added the weight of tragedy to her often hilariously biting satire of the ways of the wealthy.
The Gilded Age, a term taken from the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, denotes a period "noted for political corruption, financial speculation, and the opulent lives of wealthy industrialists and financiers" (Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition). Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and, later, The Age of Innocence to expose what she knew about the social customs of the wealthy. In a letter to Dr. Morgan Dix, rector of New York City's Trinity Church, Wharton wrote: "Social conditions as they are just now in our new world, where the sudden possession of money has come without inherited obligations, or any traditional sense of solidarity between the classes, is a vast and absorbing field for the novelist."
The attitudes of the Gilded Age were still evident in New York society when Wharton serialized The House of Mirth in Scribner's Magazine from January 1905 to November 1905. Mary Moss, writing in 1906 in The Atlantic Monthly, described The House of Mirth's depiction of New York society: "Mrs. Wharton has no colors too black, no acid too biting, for its unredeemed odiousness and vulgarity. She shows its sensuality to be mere passionless curiosity; she displays its cautious balancing of affairs so that reputations are preserved, not lost, in the divorce courts; her people, with regard to the quality commonly known as virtue, resembling rich defaulters who are lucky enough through a technicality to miss a term in jail."
In what is considered Wharton's first major literary effort, she is credited for presenting a successful blending of social satire and criticism. Critic Louis Auchincloss wrote in 1961, the novel "marks her coming of age as a novelist. At last, and simultaneously, she had discovered both her medium and her subject matter. The first was the novel of manners and the latter the assault upon the old Knickerbocker society in which she had grown up of the new millionaires, the 'invaders' as she called them, who had been so fabulously enriched by the business growth following the Civil War. . . . Mrs. Wharton saw clearly enough that the invaders and defenders were bound ultimately to bury their hatchet in a noisy, stamping dance, but she saw also the rich possibilities for satire in the contrasts afforded by the battle line in its last stages and the pathos of the individuals who were fated to be trampled under the feet of those boisterous truce makers."
According to Auchincloss, Wharton "had a firm grasp of what 'society,' in the smaller sense of the word, was actually made up of. She understood that it was arbitrary, capricious, and inconsistent; she was aware that it did not hesitate to abolish its standards while most loudly proclaiming them. She knew money could open doors and when it couldn't, when lineage would serve and when it could be merely sneered at." Auchincloss continued: "She realized that the social game was without rules, and this realization made her one of the few novelists before Proust who could describe it with any profundity."