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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Selden is in Central Station when he sees Lily Bart. She is looking as if she is not in a hurry and he is curious about what is keeping her in the busy train station. He always likes to speculate about what Lily Bart is up to. He decides to walk past her to see if she stops him. She does and says she needs him to rescue her. She gives him a long story about having been on her way out to the Gus Trenors’ at Bellomont when a series of accidents made her miss her train and now she is waiting for two hours for the next one.

Selden finds Lily Bart amusing. He is out of her league as a suitor so he doesn’t mind spending time with her. She asks him to take her somewhere for tea. As he walks beside her, he notices how well she maintains her looks and compares her favorably with other women they pass. He thinks of her as "highly specialized." He thinks of her as if she were some kind of product that had cost a lot to make, "that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her." He wonders for a moment if her beauty isn’t like some kind of fine glaze covering a vulgar clay, but then decides that a course texture won’t take a high finish.

As they walk down the street, he suggests a cafe, but she rejects it as having too many boring people in it. They come upon a building, The Benedict, which he says is his own apartment building. He invites her up. She blushes, but then says she would like to. Selden thinks her blush is artfulness, not innocent or spontaneous. The apartment is empty. They have tea together and discuss several things. Lily says it is terrible to be a woman--a marriageable one--because she does not have the freedom to have an apartment of her own. Only governesses or widows can have that kind of independence. Selden thinks of Gerty Farish, his cousin, who has an apartment of her own, but Lily dismisses Gerty as unmarriageable. Lily realizes Gerty is his cousin and apologizes. She says Gerty likes to be good and she, Lily, likes to be happy.

Next Lily asks Selden why he never comes to call at her house. She says that even if they could not make a marriage match, he could come as a friend. Selden is wondering all the while why Lily is being so flirtatious with him. He wonders if she can be anything but flirtatious. Lily tells him she wants a friend with whom she can get real honest opinions. She hopes he can be that kind of friend. She tells him she is under a lot of pressure to marry. He asks why she doesn’t just do it to get it over with since it is her vocation (her job or calling). She tells him she has the disadvantages of being very poor and very expensive at the same time. Selden remembers a suitor named Dillworth. Lily says Dillworth’s mother didn’t approve of her and sent Dillworth to India.

They smoke cigarettes and Lily looks over his books asking him questions about the price of books and the price of Americana. He wonders about the topic, but doesn’t think too much of it. Selden is a lawyer. He says he doesn’t mind his work and he would never marry to get out of it. Lily thinks of the difference between men and women. A man can be unfashionable and still be invited to the social events of the New York elite, but a woman must maintain a high level of fashion or she will be dropped immediately.

Lily realizes it is late and takes her leave. She insists on going by herself. On the way out a woman janitor gawks at her and she feels upset. She wonders if the woman was astonished by her beauty or was comparing her to other women who had visited Selden’s apartment before. When she gets downstairs and out the door she runs into Mr. Rosedale, a man she finds annoying. He clearly intimates that she has been inside the apartment house--one which houses only bachelors. She slides out from under his questions and jumps into a cab.


Wharton accomplishes a great deal in the first chapter in setting up the context of the story to unfold. Lily Bart is described as a commodity who is uncomfortable in that position. As a young woman of the upper class who nevertheless has no fortune, it is Lily’s life goal to get a husband. Her life is made up of a round of social events set up for that purpose. She is now twenty-nine years old and clearly on the verge of desperation in a search for a suitable husband. She wants independence, but is not willing to sacrifice her social place for the life of an independent woman. The only example of an independent woman she can think of, Gerty Farish, is shabby and socially isolated. Instead of choosing Gerty’s way toward independence, Lily seems to have set her sights on the power play of gender relations to get what independence women are allowed at the turn of the century.

Selden is a man who seems to exist on the edge of the social circles in which Lily travels. This makes a similarity between him and Lily. Yet he is in a more comfortable position, because, as a man, he has his independence already, he has a profession--the law--and he needn’t marry any time soon. His marginal position by virtue of his low income enables him to look with some irony at the social maneuverings of the center, and he looks at Lily from the comfortable position of a spectator.

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