About The House of Mirth
Wharton's novel is alternately described as a satire of New York City's wealthy and a tragedy about a physically attractive woman whose beauty causes men to desire to possess her and women to be jealous of her. Tragedy, in the classical sense, relates the downfall of a powerful individual that is brought on by his or her own arrogance or "hubris" (impetuous behavior brought on by excessive pride). The story of Lily Bart's descent from a former ingénue, still beautiful at the age of twenty-nine, to a destitute and haggard woman in her early thirties is certainly a tragedy of sorts, but Lily's tragedy is not so much borne out of her own hubris than it is caused by the unwavering attitudes of a society that is both desirous and envious of her beauty and spirit — facts that prevent the novel from being considered a tragedy in the classical sense of the genre. The tragic elements of The House of Mirth, however, serve as convenient plot devices for Wharton in that they enable her to structure the novel's story much like a tragedy while never adhering entirely to the genre's structure.
The book's satirical elements are in many ways more pronounced than its resemblance to classical tragedy. The spoken observations of Lawrence Selden serve as one way by which Wharton is able to lampoon some of the seemingly absurd strictures of the wealthy class. Selden's character, however, is two-faced in the contempt he feels for the wealthy and his simultaneous desire to live among them. Lily is far more honest with herself — and Selden — when she defends the rites and conspicuous consumption of the wealthy as a way of life that she has been raised to accept and consider normal. Lily, however, also recognizes that the wealthy are able to follow their rules in an arbitrary fashion when she inadvertently crosses Bertha Dorset. Lily's ironic observation that it takes money to associate with the wealthy in order to play cards, tip, and dress appropriately is tragic in relation to her situation at the time, but also is consistent with Wharton's satirical tone. Perhaps the most significant aspects of Wharton's satire are the social-climbing Simon Rosedale and the Wellington Brys. Both parties are unpolished, nouveau riche newcomers to New York society. Their acceptance is contingent upon their learning the manners and customs of the wealthy. In Bry's case, however, he is much better accepted into society — particularly the European set — for simply being himself than is his pretentious and climbing wife.
The House of Mirth is often compared to the novels of Wharton's contemporary Henry James in their depiction of America's idle wealthy classes and the social codes to which they adhere. The novel is also compared favorably with the social novels of Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and Theodore Dreiser (McTeague and Sister Carrie). This writer also finds similarities between The House of Mirth and Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Each of these novels indicts the hypocrisies of American value systems of different social classes. Such value systems, these writers hint, are antithetical to the promise of the American dream, which is a common theme of writers of the Gilded Age (a term used to describe the opulent America of the 1870s; the term is taken from the title of a novel written by Mark Twain and C.D. Warner that satirizes the era). Following such social codes without question, at best, leads to unrealized loving relationships; at worst, this adherence to convention can lead to the unnecessary concentration of wealth within a small-minded minority of a nation's population, as well as the pointless deaths of those needlessly trapped in impoverished circumstances.