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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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The protagonist of a story is the main character, who traditionally, undergoes some sort of change. He or She must usually overcome some opposing force. In this novel the protagonist is Lily Bart, a woman born into New Yorkís old rich society, but whose familyís fortunes have fallen. Her task is to find a rich husband, but she cannot bring herself to carry through with such an mercenary scheme.


The antagonist of a story is the character that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. On one hand, the antagonist is Lily Bartís double nature she desires luxury, but she is not able to sell herself to win it. On the other hand and more pervasively, the antagonist of the novel is the economic position of women in the early part of this century. Women of Lilyís class were necessarily dependent on a family fortune or their looks and grace in winning a fortune through marriage.


The climax of a story is the major turning point that determines the outcome of the plot. It is the point to which the rising action leads. The novel climaxes when Gus Trenor, a married man of Lilyís acquaintance, attempts to rape her in exchange for having given her money in a bogus investment scheme.


Also known as the resolution or denouement, this is the place in the plot where the action is resolved or clarified. Lily is ostracized from society and disinherited by her aunt. She dies penniless in a run-down boarding house after having paid back her debt to Gus Trenor.


The House of Mirth is divided into two books of roughly equal length, with Book I being thirty pages longer. In the beginning of Book I, the protagonist Lily Bart is twenty-nine years old and recognizing that she is on the verge of losing her powers to stay in society by virtue of her looks and charm alone. She needs to get married quickly. The course of Book I describes Lilyís problems in reaching this goal. By its end, Lily has survived an attempted rape which nevertheless hurts her reputation and causes her to lose the esteem of Lawrence Selden and is hopelessly in debt. Book II, begins in Monte Carlo with further and irrecoverable scandal, moves to New York and further debt. It ends in poverty, loneliness, and an accidental death that could easily be called a suicide.

In chapter 1, Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden happen to meet each other at the train station. She is waiting for the next train going out the countryside where she plans to spend the week at the Trenorsí house party. She asks Selden to spend the time with her as she waits. They go out of the station and, after some discussion despite the unconventionality of the choice, decide to go to his apartment in an all-menís apartment building. When she is leaving his building to go back to the station, she runs into Simon Rosedale, a very wealthy man who is trying to get into society. In her flustered state at being caught coming out of a manís apartment building, she makes up an obvious lie and then refuses to let him drive her to the station.

In chapter two, Lily worries about her poor strategy in dealing with Simon Rosedale. She knows she could have easily told him the truth and avoided looking guilty. Moreover, she could have let him take her to the station and flattered him out of using the information against her. On the train, Lily arranges herself to look attractive. Mr. Percy Gryce gets on board and she manages to get him to sit with her. She is very careful in her strategy of listening to him and talking to him. He is a very boring young man, but very wealthy. She has decided to try to marry him. When she runs out of things to talk about, she brings up the subject of Americana, his hobby. Just as she has him fascinated with her, Mrs. Bertha Dorset gets on the train and interrupts their conversation.

In chapter three, Lily is going upstairs after having played bridge until very late. She has lost a good deal of money. She looks down at the party and sees Bertha Dorset is pulling Percy Gryce off to the side. She is only slightly worried about Mrs. Dorsetís powers to ruin her chances with him. In her room, she thinks of how boring Percy Gryce is, but thinks that the alternative to marrying him is living as her friend Gerty Farish lives, in a tight, close apartment. She thinks she cannot stand to live without luxury. She realizes that lately her hostesses are making her pay her way at their parties by doing secretarial work, entertaining boring husbands, and playing bridge. She sits down to do her finances and realizes she only has twenty dollars left. When she undresses for bed, she sees in the mirror that she has acquired some lines on her face. She thinks of her mother and father. Her mother was a determined socialite, overspending every thing her father made or didnít make. Her father was a driven businessman who finally went broke and died. Her motherís idea of life was that if one didnít have the nicest things, that one was living like a pig. Lily got the idea from her that being poor was a matter of choice and poor taste. When Lilyís mother died also, Lilyís relatives had gathered and Mrs. Peniston, an aunt, had agreed to try Lily for a year. She had liked Lily a great deal, but did not give her a regular income, only occasional lavish gifts.

In chapter four Lily must help Mrs. Trenor with secretarial work. She tells Mrs. Trenor she is confident that she has won Percy Gryce. Mrs. Trenor wants to call Lawrence Selden to come and distract Mrs. Dorset, but Lily insists that it isnít necessary. Out in the garden later that morning, Lily is feeling sure of her success in winning Percy Gryce when Lawrence Selden arrives. In chapter five Lily wakes up with the intention of going to church. It is another step in her strategy to win Percy Gryce. She knows he is conservative and has pleased him by acting as if she is too. Mr. Gryce waits for a long time for Lily, but she never shows up and the bus leaves without her. The night before Lily had sat at the dinner table and noticed how much more intelligent Selden is than the rest of the men. He seems to be someone who is able to live on the border between the inner circle of New Yorkís old families and another life. At present, life on the outside seems attractive to Lily. She had pulled herself back from such thoughts though when she realizes that if she doesnít marry Percy Gryce, she might have to marry someone like Simon Rosedale. Nevertheless, on Sunday morning she cannot bring herself to put on the gray dress and go down to church with Mr. Gryce. Instead she puts on a gay dress and goes downstairs looking for Lawrence Selden. She finds him in the library with Mrs. Dorset and then leaves them to take a walk toward the church, intending to meet with the church party and tell Percy Gryce that she missed the bus by accident. Instead, Lawrence Selden catches up with her and they take a walk together.

In chapter six, Lily and Lawrence Selden enjoy a perfect afternoon together. Lily has sent Percy Gryce off with the rest of the guests on a motoring outing, saying she is feeling poorly. She and Selden discuss his idea of the "republic of the spirit," the idea that there is a group of people linked to each other in their desire for freedom from social constraint and conventionality. Lily feels badly about her choice of searching after luxury in the midst of this kind of talk. She asks him why he makes her feel badly about her choice when he has nothing to give her in return. He agrees that he has nothing to give her. She cries. They half-joke about getting married. Lily says she cannot live without luxury. She suddenly realizes she has stayed too long and will be found out in the lie. Her haste in leaving annoys Selden who calls her attention to the fact that he can be as friendly as he wants with her since she will never take him up on anything.

In chapter seven, Lily is scolded by Mrs. Trenor about ruining her chances with Percy Gryce just at the moment when she had him. Mrs. Dorset, angry that Lily went off with Lawrence Selden, told Percy Gryce all kinds of gossip about Lily and made him so nervous that he left the house on the first train. Judy Trenor sends Lily to go to the train station to pick up her husband, Gus Trenor. When Lily picks him up, he complains about how hard he has to work to pay for the expense of living as they do. When he mentions a stock tip, Lily asks him to give her a tip. He agrees to do so. In chapter eight, Lily receives her first thousand dollar check from Gus Trenor. Lily attends the wedding of her cousin Jack Stepney and one of the Van Osburgh daughters, a very wealthy family. At the wedding she hears that Percy Gryce is engaged to marry Evie Van Osburgh. Also at the wedding, she runs into Gus Trenor who has become very pushy in wanting to see her alone. He gives her a four thousand dollar check and asks her to be sociable to Simon Rosedale. Just as she is speaking to Lawrence Selden, Simon Rosedale comes up. After reaching the brink of snubbing him, she takes his arm and walks across the room with him so he can be seen with someone of her social stature. She hates the fact that Lawrence Selden has witnessed this scene.

In chapter nine, Lily is at home at Mrs. Penistonís at a time of year when she is usually on social rounds. She receives a visit from a Mrs. Haffen, a char woman who worked at the apartment house where Lawrence Selden lives. Mrs. Haffen wants to sell Lily some love letters she found in Lawrence Seldenís trash. They are from Bertha Dorset. Lily buys them with the plan to destroy them and save Lawrence Selden from scandal. When Mrs. Peniston reminds Lily of her failure with Percy Gryce, Lily decides to keep the letters. In chapter ten, Lily has been avoiding visiting the Trenorsí country house so as to avoid Gus Trenor. She becomes interested in Gerty Farishís charity work with young working women who have become destitute. Lily gives a good deal of money and enjoys the esteem these gifts win her among the women. She goes to an opera and sits in Simon Rosedaleís box. There she meets Gus Trenor and George Dorset. She is invited to spend time with the Dorsets and accepts the invitation readily.

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