This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The House of Mirth (1905) is Edith Wharton’s first major novel, and perhaps her finest. It richly deserves its status as one of the greatest works of American fiction. Wharton’s protagonist, Lily Bart, is like a Jane Austen< heroine reimagined in tragic terms. She is an unmarried, upper-class New York woman who is intelligent, strikingly beautiful, and immaculately well mannered, but she also has a sense of integrity that manifests itself as a subtly contrary willfulness. Everything about her is cultivated to make her the perfect wife in Gilded Age high society, but she ultimately cannot help but turn away the attentions of prospective husbands and sugar daddies. And for all her deftness in social encounters, she is also possessed of an ingenuousness that makes her an easy target for those who wish to discredit her out of envy, spite, or personal convenience. The novel chronicles her fall from high society’s embrace. But the tragic flaw that dooms Lily is not so much the character’s as society’s. What brings about her ruin are her social class’s petty mores and intrigues, none of which serve any admirable or productive end. Wharton has no illusions about Lily; she is described as “brought up to be ornamental” and “failing to serve any practical purpose.” However, the reader is also made fully aware that her ornamental quality is her only means of success in her world. All that appears important to the members of this societal elite is maintaining appearances for appearances’ sake. Wharton has a brilliantly incisive eye as a social critic, and she matches it with her rich sense of characterization and unsurpassed narrative craft. Her rendering of Lily’s downfall has a grave beauty, and she catches the reader up in the machinations of Lily’s world with the flair of a first-rate thriller writer. The nuanced precision of her sentences is nothing short of extraordinary. Few novels are more elegant, compelling, or powerful.