Considered by most to be Wharton’s first significant work of fiction, House of Mirth was an immediate best-seller, selling out its first printing of 40,000 and its second printing of 20,000 in two weeks. By the end of 1905, it had sold 140,000 copies. It was the most successful book that Scribner’s had published to date. The title comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The house of the wise is in the house of mourning/ The house of the fool is in the house of mirth.” The novel follows the tragic heroine Lily Bart, dangerously single at 29, as she struggles to survive aristocratic New York society with dwindling funds and dwindling future possibilities. Over the course of the novel, her prospects decline from house parties at which she is still welcome as long as she helps out her hostess with various duties, to being a sort of hired guide by the nouveau riche who need help navigating the unfamiliar waters of aristocratic society, to finally near-destitution as she works unsuccessfully in a millinery shop. After using the last of her funds to pay off her debts, she dies of a suspicious overdose of sleeping drops.
The novel is an accusatory examination of what Wai-Chi Dimock has characterized as the marketplace logic at the heart of the novel. As Lily explains,
You think we live on the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense—but it’s a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars—yes, but there’s a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries….the girl pays it by tips and cards…and by going to the best dress-makers, and having just the right dress for every occasion, and always keeping herself fresh and exquisite and amusing!” (279-80)
Lily’s problem is that she cannot ever completely give herself over to the kind of mercenary self-commodification required for financial success in this society. Every time she is on the verge of marital success—for example, when Percy Gryce is in love with her enough to only require her to attend a church service with him and his mother, Lily instead goes for a walk with her friend Selden.
Selden is perhaps the most infuriating character in the book, in his love for Lily never completely translates in his marrying her. Rather, in the frequent visions of Lily presented from his point of view, he fails to see her as either completely human or as innocent of artifice as she at times genuinely can be. Indeed, from the opening scene forward, Lily is presented as a commodity to be appraised and exchanged. Selden thinks to himself that “she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her” (5). Lily, brought up by a mother who instills above all an absolute fear of anything resembling what she characterizes as “dinginess” and a father who dies after losing his fortune, is poorly prepared for adult responsibility. A exemplar of Naturalism, leaving Lily vulnerable to cruel and heartless society, Wharton places her tragic heroine, Lily Bart, in a society that she describes as a "hot-house of traditions and conventions.”