The House of Mirth (1905)
The Age of Innocence (1920; Pulitzer Prize)
Prolific and masterful, Wharton was appreciated both in her own time and in ours. Her delicately scathing (yes, you read that right!) novels about upper-class society in turn-of-the-20th-century America reveal the scandals, hypocrisies, and delusions that went to its very core. What makes her novels so timeless is Wharton's ability to write about a group of people from the inside out, having lived the life she skewers and examining its elements with a cold, often dispassionate, eye.
Despite the 15 years that separate The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, these novels ask us to think about many of the same issues: the fates of women exiled from "society;" its complex and complicated taboos, traditions, and expectations that hamper self-expression and passion; and the ways in which characters seek release and affirmation beyond its confines. Wharton's prose mimics the politeness and correctess of the group she studies, inviting us to enter a world that soon resembles a gilded prison. The parties, operas, balls, lunches, and "at homes" are the backdrops against which characters scheme and plot their way into profitable marriages or business partnerships.
Both of these novels leave the reader hopeful and hopeless at the end: hopeful, because one or two characters said, "to hell with stupid, unspoken rules that breed unhappiness;" hopeless, because those very characters were ultimately broken down and ground to bits by the machine they tried to stop.