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5 Must-Read Edith Wharton Books: The Ultimate Gilded Age List

Immerse yourself in captivating stories set against the opulence and grandeur of the Gilded Age.

Last Updated on April 19, 2024 by BiblioLifestyle

5 Must-Read Edith Wharton Books

Prepare to be whisked away on an unforgettable literary adventure with this ultimate list of must-read books by Edith Wharton! As a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Wharton masterfully crafts narratives that explore the complexities of human nature, societal norms, and the intricate dance of personal relationships, all set against the backdrop of the Gilded Age. So you can expect each book on this list to include stories that promise to move, challenge, and inspire you.

There is something about the Gilded Age period in United States history that I’ve often found fascinating. And no one captures its essence quite like Edith Wharton, who lived and wrote during this era of opulence and grandeur. So needless to say, when I first read “The Age of Innocence” many years ago, I was immediately hooked. And since then, I’ve devoured Wharton’s books with the same enthusiasm and admiration. So whether you’re a long-time admirer of Wharton’s work or eager to discover her storytelling magic for the first time, this list of five must-read Edith Wharton books is your gateway to a world of profound emotions, unforgettable characters, and thought-provoking themes. So get ready to immerse yourself in the brilliance of Edith Wharton, and allow her timeless narratives to transport you to another time and place.

About Edith Wharton

A Brief Overview of Wharton’s Life and Career

Edith Wharton was a literary luminary of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born into New York City’s elite on January 24, 1862, she was well-acquainted with the attitudes and lifestyles of the moneyed strata, which she critiqued in her writings. In her childhood, she traveled extensively through Europe—an experience that deeply influenced her worldview. Her literary talents were evident early on, and she wrote her first novel at eleven. She would go on to publish over forty books in her lifetime, including novels, short stories, and non-fiction works. In 1921 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with her novel “The Age of Innocence.” Wharton continued to write until her death on August 11, 1937, leaving behind a lasting legacy of literary brilliance and insight.

What is Edith Wharton famous for?

Edith Wharton is celebrated for her extraordinary literary achievements, particularly her keen exploration of the intricacies of upper-class society in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her fame rests not only on her astute social commentary and the vivid portrayal of the places and times she wrote about but also on her deep understanding of human psychology and the complexities of emotions and relationships. Furthermore, Wharton broke new ground as a female author in a predominantly male literary world, becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921 for “The Age of Innocence.” Her body of work, which includes novels, short stories, and essays, continues to enchant readers with its elegance, wit, and insightful critique of the social mores of her era.

About Edith Wharton Books

The Power of Edith Wharton’s Prose

One of the defining characteristics of Edith Wharton’s writing is her unparalleled command over language and prose. Her writing style is elegant, precise, and evocative, inviting readers into the world she creates with every carefully crafted sentence. Her ability to capture the complexities of human emotions and relationships through words is nothing short of breathtaking. Wharton’s prose is a testament to her mastery of storytelling, and it is what makes her books timeless treasures that continue to captivate readers to this day.

Themes in Edith Wharton’s Books

Edith Wharton’s novels explore a wide array of themes that are as relevant today as they were during her time. Her works delve into the constraints of society, the struggle for individuality and independence, and the complexities of love and relationships. Through her writing, she also shines a light on the class system, its impact on human behavior, and the power dynamics within marriages and families. Wharton’s books hold up a mirror to society, inviting readers to reflect on timeless issues that continue to resonate in our modern world.

Which Edith Wharton book should I read first?

I highly recommend starting with “House of Mirth” first. It is widely considered one of her greatest works and tackles significant themes such as social stratification, societal expectations, and the cost of conformity. In the novel, protagonist Lily Bart navigates the glittering world of New York’s elite while struggling to maintain her social standing and find true love. Wharton’s sharp commentary on the upper class and its suffocating expectations is both compelling and thought-provoking, making “House of Mirth” an excellent entry point into her bibliography.

However, if you prefer a shorter read with a more intimate setting, “Ethan Frome” is an excellent choice. In this novella, Wharton explores the themes of love, isolation, and sacrifice within a bleak New England winter. I promise you, the titular character’s tragic story will stay with you long after you finish reading. Ultimately, whichever novel you choose first, I guarantee that it will leave you wanting to explore more of Wharton’s brilliant works.

The 5 Must-Read Edith Wharton Books

If you’re looking for a starting point or want to discover more of her best works, here are my top five must-read Edith Wharton books:

  1. House of Mirth
  2. Custom of the Country
  3. The Age of Innocence
  4. Ethan Frome
  5. Summer
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

House of Mirth

“House of Mirth” is Edith Wharton’s brilliant critique of the glittering but shallow world of New York society at the turn of the 20th century, seen through the eyes of the captivating but doomed Lily Bart. Lily, a woman of beauty and charm, navigates the precarious social landscape, seeking marriage to secure her place within the elite, all while grappling with her desires for love and freedom. Wharton masterfully portrays Lily’s struggle against the pressures and expectations of society, her moral dilemmas, and the tragic choices she makes that ultimately lead to her downfall. With its richly drawn characters and incisive commentary on wealth, social status, and women’s autonomy, “House of Mirth” offers a timeless reflection on the complexities of societal norms and individual agency. Its poignant exploration of themes such as identity, reputation, and the quest for happiness also makes it a compelling and thought-provoking read.

You can get a copy of House of Mirth by Edith Wharton on Amazon or Bookshop.

Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Custom of the Country

“Custom of the Country” is an enthralling tale of ambition, society, and the pursuit of happiness through the eyes of its unforgettable protagonist, Undine Spragg. Wharton uses her signature wit and penetrating insight to chart Undine’s ascent through New York’s high society, revealing the formidable and often unscrupulous lengths to which she will go to secure her place among the elite. This novel brilliantly dissects the American class system, the roles of women within it, and the relentless pursuit of wealth and status. Through Undine’s experiences, Wharton offers a scathing critique of consumer culture and the destructive power of selfish ambition, making “Custom of the Country” a deeply relevant read that resonates with modern audiences today all set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing America.

You can get a copy of Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton on Amazon or Bookshop.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence

“The Age of Innocence” is Edith Wharton’s captivating exploration of societal norms and the conflict between personal happiness and societal expectations in the opulent backdrop of 1870s New York society. Through the eyes of Newland Archer, engaged to the perfect product of society, May Welland, we are introduced to a world glittering with wealth and propriety but bound by rigid conventions. The story takes a thrilling turn with the arrival of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who brings with her the scandal of a failed marriage and the allure of a more passionate and unrestrained life. Newland’s ensuing inner turmoil and his growing affection for Ellen challenge the very foundations of his previously unexamined beliefs and desires. Wharton masterfully navigates the nuances of love, duty, and the painful sacrifices that often come with following one’s heart. “The Age of Innocence” not only offers a richly textured look at a bygone era but also serves as a timeless reflection on the complexities of human relationships and the social forces that shape them.

You can get a copy of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton on Amazon or Bookshop.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

“Ethan Frome” stands as one of Edith Wharton’s most evocative and heartbreaking works, a vivid portrayal of the struggle against the bleak backdrop of a New England winter. The novel introduces us to Ethan Frome, a man burdened by poverty and a loveless marriage, who becomes enchanted with Mattie, his wife’s cousin, who brings a glimmer of joy to his otherwise dreary life. Wharton masterfully crafts a narrative that explores themes of forbidden love, isolation, and the weight of societal and moral obligations. The tragic events that unfold lead to a poignant and unforgettable conclusion that leaves both Ethan and readers contemplating the cost of choices made and the paths not taken. This novella is a testament to Wharton’s ability to weave despair and hope into a tightly knit story that captures the essence of human longing and the relentless grip of circumstance.

You can get a copy of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton on Amazon or Bookshop.

Summer by Edith Wharton


“Summer” is an enchanting and profoundly moving tale, often considered as Edith Wharton’s warmest and most optimistic work. Set in a small New England village, it tells the story of Charity Royall, a young woman from a disadvantaged background, who desires to break free from the constraints of her small-town life and explore the broader, more exciting world beyond. Wharton masterfully captures the essence of young love, self-discovery, and the complex social dynamics of early 20th-century America through Charity’s eyes. Her relationship with the charming Lucius Harney becomes the catalyst for her awakening, conveying themes of passion, betrayal, and the painful pursuit of personal freedom. “Summer” shines as a testament to Wharton’s extraordinary talent for exploring the depths of human emotions and the societal pressures that shape personal destinies. This novel, with its vivid characters and emotional complexity, is a beautiful, yet bittersweet celebration of growth and the fleeting nature of summer love.

You can get a copy of Summer by Edith Wharton on Amazon or Bookshop.

5 Best Edith Wharton Books

More About Edith Wharton Books

Comparing the Works

Each of Wharton’s works navigates the human experience through different socio-economic lenses. ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘House of Mirth’ operate within the upper echelons of New York society, contrasting the glamor of that world with the emotional desolation it fuels. ‘Ethan Frome’ and ‘Summer’ broach the subject with a keen eye on the struggles of the economically dispossessed, showcasing love as the antidote to loneliness. And ‘Custom of the Country’ serves as a modern parable of the American Dream.

In comparing the novels, it’s evident that Wharton was not only interested in narrating stories but in using the characters as avatars for her exploration of societal ills and the human yearning for connection and self-fulfillment. While each novel has its unique flavor and setting, the overarching theme of human desire tussling with societal expectations unites them, making her bibliography as cohesive as it is diverse.

Why These 5 Books Will Leave Readers Enraptured

Wharton’s works are timeless because they tackle universal themes that resonate across countries and generations. Her characters, born from the conjunction of their times and contexts, remain relevant due to their human essence. We face Newland Archer’s moral dilemmas in contemporary scenarios, Lily Bart’s struggle in our perpetual pursuit of recognition, and the timeless story of Ethan Frome’s adversity and longing in everyday tragedies.

These five books stand out as they encapsulate Wharton’s best craftsmanship, storytelling that seamlessly intertwines with her incisive social criticisms. They are essential reads for anyone seeking not just a good narrative, but a mirror that reflects the human experience in all its varied shades.

Frequently Asked Questions about Edition Wharton

Was Edith Wharton an aristocrat?

Edith Wharton was not an aristocrat in the traditional sense of inheriting a title or being part of a noble family. However, she was born into the upper echelons of New York’s affluent society, the equivalent of American aristocracy during her time. Her family, the Joneses, were part of the social elite, providing her with a lifestyle and an upbringing that allowed her unparalleled insights into the mores, rituals, and expectations of high society. This unique perspective greatly influenced Wharton’s work, giving her a critical eye toward the stratifications and inner workings of the class system she was born into. Her writings masterfully dissect the privileges, pressures, and often invisible boundaries within the social hierarchy of her era, making her stories as enlightening as they are captivating.

Were Edith Wharton and Henry James friends?

Absolutely! Edith Wharton and Henry James shared a remarkable friendship that was as deep as it was enduring. Their relationship was built on mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work, intellect, and character. They were kindred spirits, navigating the literary landscapes of their time with keen insight and a shared sensibility towards the nuances of society and human nature. Their correspondence, filled with witty banter, personal revelations, and professional encouragement, stands as a testament to their close bond. Wharton found in James not just a mentor but a confidant and a source of inspiration, which fueled her own literary endeavors. Together, they traversed the worlds of literature and society, leaving an indelible mark on the literary scene of the early 20th century. Their friendship is a captivating chapter in literary history, showcasing a profound connection that transcended the pages of their books.

How many books did Edith Wharton write?

Edith Wharton published over 40 books in her lifetime, including novels, novellas, short story collections, poetry collections, and non-fiction works. Some of her most well-known titles include “The Age of Innocence,” “Ethan Frome,” and “The House of Mirth.”

What was Edith Wharton’s masterpiece?

Edith Wharton’s magnum opus is unanimously heralded as “The Age of Innocence.” It stands as a breathtaking exploration of societal expectations and personal desires within the opulent backdrop of Gilded Age New York. This novel not only earned Wharton the distinguished honor of being the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but also continues to captivate readers and scholars alike with its intricately woven narrative and impeccable social insight. “The Age of Innocence” masterfully balances the personal with the societal, making it a compelling study of the choices individuals must make within the constraints of their cultural milieu. Wharton’s profound understanding of human emotions and societal pressures shine through, making “The Age of Innocence” a timeless masterpiece and a critical centerpiece in the tapestry of American literature.

Why are Edith Wharton’s books still relevant today?

Edith Wharton’s novels remain relevant because they tackle timeless themes that continue to resonate with readers. From the complexities of human desire and relationships to societal norms and expectations, Wharton’s works probe deeply into the human experience and offer insights that still hold true today.

Have you read any books by Edith Wharton?

What do you think about these Edith Wharton books? Have you read any of them? What books would you add to this list? Let’s talk all about Edith Wharton in the comments below.


5 Must-Read Edith Wharton Books: The Ultimate List

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