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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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THE HOUSE OF MIRTH: FREE LITERATURE SUMMARY / NOTES

SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)


(Continued)

In chapter eleven, Grace Stepney, Lily’s cousin, tells Mrs. Peniston all the gossip about Lily. Mrs. Peniston is horribly shocked to hear that Lily has been gambling, has been seen after dark alone with Gus Trenor, and has been friendly with Mr. Dorset. In chapter twelve, Lily has become involved with the Dorsets. Bertha Dorset wants to pursue an affair with Ned Silverton and she needs Lily to distract her husband’s notice. Lily has visited the Trenors for a weekend party and has been dismayed to find that she is being treated coldly by people of her social set. She is happily distracted by a party put on by a newly rich couple, the Wellington (or Welly) Brys. They are staging a tableaux vivants (living pictures). Gerty Farish and Lawrence Selden, cousins, sit together for the performance. He is totally enraptured by Lily’s beauty as is every other man at the party. He finds her after the performances and takes her to the garden. She asks him why he doesn’t come to see her when he once promised to help her. He tells her he can only help her by loving her. She tells him to love her but not to tell her so. They kiss and she leaves. On his way out, Selden hears Gus Trenor complaining about the bad taste of the party.

In chapter thirteen, Lily wakes the morning after the Brys party and receives two notes. One is from Judy Trenor asking her to meet her for dinner that evening. Lily responds saying she is having dinner at Carrie Fisher’s, but will come by her town house afterwards. The second note is from Lawrence Selden asking her when he can see her. She sends a response telling him tomorrow at four. She goes to the dinner and then leaves to go meet Mrs. Trenor. Gus Trenor opens the door and leads her back to the sitting room and closes the door. He tells her Mrs. Trenor has not come to town after all and he wants to be alone with her. She realizes he wants to rape her. She manages to stay calm and finally he returns to his senses and lets her leave. She is so shaken by the incident that she takes a cab directly to Gerty Farish’s apartment.

In chapter fourteen, Gerty Farish prepares for dinner with Lawrence Selden. She has awakened to her strong feelings for him. She thinks that their fellow feeling the night before in their admiration of Lily Bart means that he returns her affections. For his part, Lawrence Selden has thought of nothing but Lily Bart all day. He has thought of his parents, people who spent above their means, but always on very fine things, and who always loved each other. On his way to Gerty’s, he meets Gus Trenor in his club. Mr. Trenor is slightly drunk and he is repulsive to Lawrence Selden. Selden is horrified to think that Lily’s name has been connected with Mr. Trenor’s in gossip lately. Mr. Trenor urges Selden to have dinner with him since he is alone in town.

When he arrives at Gerty Farish’s apartment for dinner, they have a nice dinner and then he brings the subject around to Lily Bart. They talk about her at length, until Gerty realizes he is in love with Lily. He finds out Lily is dining at Mrs. Fisher’s and decides to go find her there. At Mrs. Fisher’s, Selden finds that Lily has just left. He hears the others gossip about her. Then someone comes in and says Lily has just gone to visit the Trenors, and Gus Trenor is in the city without Mrs. Trenor. Selden leaves in disgust, thinking he will be strong enough to compensate for Lily’s weakness. As he walks home, he runs into Ned Van Alstyne. They talk about the architecture of the houses of the new and the old rich. They pause to admire the discretion of the Trenors’ house when they see Lily emerge from the house, shown out by Gus Trenor. Lawrence quickly walks away. Back in her apartment, Gerty Farish sits in shock at the realization that Lawrence Selden is in love with Lily Bart. She comes to the conclusion that she hates Lily Bart. Then she realizes she has an appointment in the morning and she goes to bed. She is startled by a knock. It is Lily Bart in a distraught state. Lily won’t tell her what has happened to her but asks to spend the night. Gerty takes care of her, lying beside her in the bed stiffly in her hatred of Lily, until Lily asks her to hold her. Gerty holds Lily until Lily falls asleep.


In chapter fifteen, Lily returns home and asks Mrs. Peniston for money to repay her debts. Mrs. Pensiton refuses. Lily is shocked. She feels it is imperative to repay her debt to Gus Trenor, who has led her to believe that he was investing her money, while in fact, he was just giving her money in hopes of sexual favors. Lily waits in the parlor for Lawrence Selden but he never comes. Instead, Simon Rosedale comes. He proposes marriage to her. She carefully puts him off without insulting him. She continues to wait for Mr. Selden and finally gets the evening newspaper which announces that he has sailed for Europe that morning. Back in her room, she sees in the mirror that she is looking old. She is feeling hopeless when she gets a note from Bertha Dorset saying they are sailing for a cruise on the Mediterranean and would like her company.

In Book II, chapter one, Lawrence Selden is in Monte Carlo and it has been three months since he left New York after seeing Lily Bart coming out of Mr. Trenors’ townhouse. He runs into Mrs. Fisher and a group of other New Yorkers. They tell him that the Dorsets’ yacht is landing in Monte Carlo. They tell him about Lily Bart’s success with the old rich European families. Carrie Fisher tells him about the first time Lily Bart came to Europe. She had been courted by an Italian prince and just before the papers were to be signed and she was to be married, his son came to visit and Lily flirted with him. The prince broke the engagement. Selden rushes to his room to pack and leave town before he sees her. At the station he runs into Lily Bart and the group she is with. Lord Hubert hints to him that Lily is in trouble and needs someone to get her away from these people.

Lily finds out in chapter two from Carrie Fisher that she should move away from the Dorsets and on to the Brys. Gossip has been spreading about her and Mr. Dorset. The previous night, Lily was seen with Mr. Dorset at midnight at the train station. Even though they were there to meet Mrs. Dorset who never showed up, Lily’s reputation is in danger. Lily goes onshore where she runs into Mr. Dorset. He tells her Mrs. Dorset came home at seven that morning and he wants a divorce. Lily sends him to talk to Lawrence Selden, whom she is sure will smooth things over. She returns to the yacht and finds out that Bertha Dorset plans to use the gossip about her and Mr. Dorset to save her own reputation. Chapter three describes the final ruin of Lily’s reputation--and in public. She goes to a dinner party with all the important people in Monte Carlo and when it is time to leave, Mrs. Dorset tells her she cannot come back to the yacht. Since it is very late, Lily has nowhere to go. Lawrence Selden helps her by getting her cousin Jack Stepney to take her in for the night, but Stepney does so only grudgingly.

In chapter four, Lily is back in New York. Mrs. Peniston has died and has disinherited Lily. She has left everything to Grace Stepney. Lily leaves the house and sets up in a hotel. She finds out from Gerty Farish that the gossip has been raging against her since the Dorsets returned from New York. She decides to find a way to get back into the good graces of her acquaintances in New York, so she makes a point to be seen in places where they often go. This costs money she doesn’t have. She runs into Mrs. Trenor and a group of friends one day. Mrs. Trenor gently snubs her, letting her know she is really on the outs with this society. She goes to Grace Stepney to ask for a loan and Grace turns her down smugly. In chapter five, it is some time later and Lily runs into Carrie Fisher, who apologizes for participating in Judy Trenor’s snub and who asks her to come spend a weekend with a new couple she is working with, the Gormers. They inhabit a circle beyond even the Brys in terms of their distance from the inner circle of old rich in New York and they have decided they don’t care to go through the trouble to adjust themselves so as to be accepted there. Once there, Carrie Fisher tells Lily she should take the Gormers to Alaska and continue to work with them. Lily is happy for the time spent in luxury, but she finds the Gormers’ manners too familiar and too vague. When she returns to New York, Carrie Fisher urges her to marry either Mr. Dorset after telling him what his wife has been doing, or Simon Rosedale, who has recently made it into the inner circle of old New York society.

In chapter six, Lily is visiting the construction site of the Gormer’s new country house. She takes a walk and runs into George Dorset who begs her to be kind to him and also to tell him what his wife has been doing so he can have some definite proof. She refuses to tell him anything. When she returns, she sees that Bertha Dorset has been visiting Mrs. Gormer. Since Bertha Dorset never associates with the new people or pays neighborly visits, Lily knows she is scheming to get Lily ousted even from the Gormers’ patronage. Back in New York, Lily spends the weekend with Carrie Fisher. At her house, she sees Simon Rosedale. She thinks more kindly of him, but is still repulsed by him. Carrie tells her she must marry soon. In chapter seven, Lily tells Simon Rosedale she is ready to marry him, but he is no longer interested in marrying her since her reputation has been so tarnished. He tells her he will marry her if she uses the letters she bought from the charwoman to coerce Mrs. Dorset into taking her back into society. She considers the plan only for a moment and then refuses it.

In chapter eight, Lily has begun to sink under the weight of poverty and ostracism. Gerty Farish is greatly worried about her and asks Lawrence Selden to go and see her. He is reluctant, but agrees. When he gets to her hotel, he finds that she has moved. When he finds out that the forwarding address is to Mrs. Norma Hatch’s rooms at the Emporium Hotel, he turns on his heel and returns to his own home. In chapter nine, Lily is at the Emporium Hotel acting as adviser to Mrs. Hatch. Mrs. Hatch is even further from the inner circle of New York society. She has no sense of constraint, discipline, distinction, or even schedule. Lily is having trouble remaining with her when she finds that Ned Silverton and another man are scheming to get the young Freddy Van Osburgh to marry Mrs. Hatch. This scheme is so horrifying to Lily that she decides to leave Mrs. Hatch’s employ to distance herself from it. Before she does so, Lawrence Selden calls on her. He is so abrupt in insisting that she leave Mrs. Hatch’s employ, that Lily acts proudly and tells him she is doing fine.

Chapter ten finds Lily working in a millinery shop trying to learn how to sew and decorate hats for society women. She is confused and cannot concentrate. Carrie Fisher and Gerty Farish had gotten her the position, but she feels as if it won’t last. She hasn’t told them that she plans to give all the money she will get from Mrs. Peniston’s estate--ten thousand dollars--to Gus Trenor to repay her debt to him. When she gets off work, she goes to a chemist and gets a prescription filled for sleeping medicine. The chemist warns her not to take any more than the prescribed amount since the drug is dangerous and can kill her with only a few more drops. As she leaves, she runs into Mr. Rosedale who is horrified at her tired appearance and her new residence. She is touched by his kindness, but still refuses to use Bertha Dorset’s letters to get back into society. When she returns home, she realizes how lonely she is. She has nightmares about Lawrence Selden coming to her in kindness and she worries that when she gets her legacy she will not be strong enough to pay it all to Mr. Trenor.

In chapters eleven and twelve Lily has been fired from the millinery shop and she is now on her last dollars. She returns to her rooms and finds Mr. Rosedale waiting for her. He is again horrified that she is having to work for a living and is living in such a poor place. He volunteers to let her borrow money, but she refuses. When she goes to her room that evening, she decides not to take sleeping drops. The next morning, she goes out for tea at a restaurant then comes back home and gets Bertha Dorset’s letters. On her way to see her, she goes past Lawrence Selden’s rooms. She decides to go up and see him. She tells him she is sorry for having been rude to him. She tells him she will no longer be the same person she once was and asks him to keep her old self in safekeeping. Then she changes her mind. She asks him to build up his fire and goes to it and acts as if she is warming her hands. She throws in the packet of letters. Then she kisses his forehead and leaves.

In chapter thirteen, Lily is on her way home. She is so exhausted that she sits on a park bench to rest. One of the women from Gerty Farish’s charitable society, Nettie Struthers, a woman whom Lily had helped send to a sanitarium with a large donation, recognizes her. Lily goes home with her for a cup of tea. She is warmed by Nettie’s kindness and she holds Nettie’s infant child. She goes home and finds a check for ten thousand dollars from Mrs. Peniston’s lawyer. She writes out all her bills, leaving only a few dollars left for herself. Then she cleans the room and puts all her things in order. Then she goes to bed and takes her sleeping drops. She hasn’t slept for two days and fears nightmares, so she takes extra drops. As she is falling asleep, she imagines that she is holding Nettie Struthers’ child in her arms. She thinks of starting over the next day as she goes to sleep.

In chapter fourteen, Lawrence Selden is hurrying to Lily Bart’s rooming house to ask her to marry him. When he gets there he finds Gerty Farish and realizes that Lily is dead. Upstairs in her room, he goes through her papers to set things in order before the coroner gets there to make sure there is nothing that would cause harm to her reputation. He finds the bills paid and realizes what her connection to Gus Trenor had been all along. He goes to her bedside and weeps for her, realizing as he does that they would never have been able to be together.


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