Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is an examination of the American upper class in the early 20th century. Lily Bart lives in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, when women were expected to marry. Women were judged by their beauty and how well they married, and if they did not manage to marry well they were left without financial security. Lily Bart is beautiful, independent and intelligent, with a good education. She was able to hold on to an independent lifestyle because of her father’s money and connections. However, when her father dies she loses his assistance and money starts to become an issue for her. It becomes clear that Lily will have to start looking for a husband in order to maintain her lifestyle. But Lily does not want to marry just anyone, she wants to marry for love. She sets out to find a man who loves her rather than one who merely wants her as a trophy wife.
The novel follows Lily as she attempts to find someone who loves her while maintaining her upper class status among the other young women in New York City. The characters in the novel are richly drawn and believable, and show how much society has changed over time (and still hasn’t).