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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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THE HOUSE OF MIRTH: PLOT SUMMARY / LITERARY ANALYSIS

CHAPTER SUMMARIES / PLOT NOTES

BOOK 1 - CHAPTER 2

Summary

When she gets into the hansom cab, Lily goes over the flaws in her encounter with Mr. Rosedale. If only she had told him the truth, she would not be in trouble. Telling him she had been visiting her tailor at an apartment house for bachelors makes her seem guilty. On top of that mistake, she had snubbed him when he had asked her to let him drive her to the station. She had snubbed him before. He was trying to find his way into the elite social circles of the old rich in New York and was having a great deal of difficulty doing so. Lilyís cousin, Jack Stepney, had tried to pay a debt to Mr. Rosedale by inviting him to social functions. Lily usually acted very kindly to strangers at these functions, but had been unable to do so with Mr. Rosedale and her snub had been recognized by all the people at the party. Soon Mr. Rosedale was regarded with contempt by all the major hostesses.


On the train, Lily sets herself up in her seat in a charming way hoping to find some young man to exercise her charms on. She sees Mr. Percy Gryce, a wealthy young man who is also invited to the country party, and who is very shy. She contrives to get him to sit with her and when the conversation begins to get boring, she brings up the topic of Americana. Percy Gryce loves Americana, but no one is interested in talking to him about it. Lily has just gotten some facts about it out of Selden so is able to impress Percy Gryce with a sense of her real interest in the subject. His late uncle left him a huge collection of Americana and the Gryce collection is often mentioned in catalogues of Americana. Lily calculates every action in her dealings with Percy Gryce. She has heard his mother talk when she has visited Lilyís aunt, Mrs. Peniston and so she knows what kind of people the Gryces are. She tries to be somewhat domestic and to listen to him submissively.

Lily is annoyed to be interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. George Dorset, a woman who makes a big fuss when she gets onto the train of sitting with Lily and Percy. When Mrs. Dorset asks Lily for a cigarette, Lily sees that Percy is shocked, so she acts as if she has never smoked and that the question is ludicrous.

Notes

Chapter two switches to Lily Bartís consciousness. She seems always to be calculating the effects of her actions on her future prospects. It is clear that Lily Bart is in a very tenuous social position as an unmarried woman of no fortune who is twenty-nine years old. Her encounter with Mr. Rosedale bothers her a great deal since she has been caught in a lie which she neednít have told and since she couldnít bring herself to flatter him by letting him take her to the railway station. In this encounter we learn a great deal about Lily. She is calculating in her dealings with all people, always looking for a way to get her advantage, but she is also hindered in these calculations by a sort of moral reticence to subject herself to too much indignity. It seems that if she is essentially to sell herself in marriage to anyone who is rich enough and has the right social credentials, she would have to give up her high standards. Yet, she doesnít seem to be able to. She is not only calculating, then, but also intelligent and perceptive, more so than most of the people of her social circle.

The contrast between Lily and Percy Gryce shows up the contradiction between her financial prospects and her moral or intellectual nature. Percy is the perfect match in all the usual ways--money and social credentials--but he is a bore. Lily knows this and attempts to catch him anyway, but the reader assumes that something will happen to prevent Lily from giving her life over to the boredom and provinciality of the Gryces.

In the portrait of Mr. Simon Rosedale, Edith Wharton indulges in the anti-Semitism common to her contemporaries. He is referred to at several points as a Jew and his character traits are attributed to "his race." These traits are all stereotypical. He is out for money and social advantage and he is ruthless in his pursuit of both.


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