The House of Mirth is a novel about the personal struggle to fit into society and, ultimately, to get married. This places the book in a long-standing literary tradition known as the novel of manners, a form developed most notably by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are pioneer works of this literary genre. The tradition developed in England throughout the 19th century, as authors such as George Eliot and Henry James explored the place of women in society and the social effect of marriage, showing in particular the problems that come with marriage and conforming to society. In America, the novel of manners genre has included works such as Hannah Foster's The Coquette, the novels of James, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and even Kate Chopin's The Awakening.
The form developed some specific conventions in the 19th century. First, the protagonist is usually a single woman looking to get married. Second, socio-economic class must be a factor in determining whom the woman will marry. Third, the novel must include many scenes that portray the proper and improper way to act within high society, and also outline differences and relations between classes. And finally, the novel of manners usually ends with either the marriage or death of the female protagonist. Austen's Sense and Sensibility is a good example of this form. The protagonist, Elinor, is looking to get married, preferably to someone of a higher social class, and after many scenes of London society seen in dinner parties and elegant balls, Elinor marries Edward Ferrars. Foster's The Coquette has the same elements, but it ends in the death of the female protagonist.
During the late 19th century, the novel of manners was one of the most popular novel genres, but it was also a predominantly British form. Many people questioned whether such a genre could exist in America, where there are no official social classes. Wharton, as we can see, adapted the form in her own way to better suit the New York society. Instead of a legitimized aristocracy, Wharton creates a social circle comprised of elegant New York snobs. Class mobility, not present in most British manners novels, is a large factor in The House of Mirth, which shows the attempts of Lily to assimilate herself into the elite group, only to slide down the social scale into the working class before her death. In fact, Lily's primary goal is not to marry for happiness, as is seen in many Austen characters, but rather for social security. A marriage to Percy Gryce, Lily decides at the beginning of the novel, would be the best way to assure herself of good social standing and a steady income.
The House of Mirth also examines the long physical and mental decline of a young woman who, because of her own cowardice and indecision, slips out of social prominence into poverty and dinginess. The novel presents a very harsh dose of reality and ends rather pathetically. Instead of marrying and living happily ever after, or tragically dying during childbirth (the two most common endings in the genre), Lily fades away slowly and commits suicide, perhaps unintentionally, as a means of escaping from a lower-class world in which her upper-class sensibilities cannot survive. Lily's life is the antithesis of nobility or glory; she had every opportunity to live the type of life she dreamed about, but lost it all.
Wharton's manipulation of the genre makes the novel a good example of the American realism movement, which began roughly after Reconstruction (the late 1870s) and lasted until just after World War I (the early 1920s). The English novel of manners was developed during the Romanticism movement, which placed a literary emphasis on emotion rather than reason, and the ideal rather than reality. Realism, to which Wharton subscribed, grew out of Darwinist ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest. To Wharton, the existing novel of manners had not adequately dealt with the fall from society that many people in New York experienced if they ran out of money or did not marry well. The House of Mirth, then, can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to add a very dark truth to an otherwise optimistic genre, an attempt consistent with the literary spirit of the time in which Wharton was writing.