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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily is upstairs looking down at a bridge game that is still going on at Bellomont. The people below sparkle with jewels and costly clothing. Such a scene has often given Lily pleasure, but now she only feels upset by the contrast between her own poverty and the wealth of the others. She sees Mrs. Dorset pull Percy Gryce aside and feels annoyed. She has spent the day with Percy and has been terribly bored. She knows she needs to do the same tomorrow and feels angry that she is doing this so she can be bored by him for the rest of her life. She thinks of it as a hateful fate, but the alternative is Gerty Farishís cramped apartment with its poor furnishings. She knows she must always live in a wealthy setting.

Lately things have been harder. She feels she is actually having to pay her way into these social gatherings now. She used to refuse to play bridge because she was afraid she would become addicted to it. She has the example of Ned Silverton before her, a young man who always spent a great deal on gambling and made his sisters live in want to pay for it. Lately, Lily has been seeing herself slipping into the same habits. She has realized for the past few years that her hostesses have insisted on her playing bridge. She has been gambling for high stakes. Often she wins, but tonight she lost big--three hundred dollars. She resents the fact that the wealthy women at the table won a great deal of money.

When she gets to her room, she sits in front of the mirror and sees two lines around her mouth. She rushes to turn off the lights and light candles, but the lines remain. She feels like she has "landed" Percy Gryce and that she only needs a few more days to solidify her position with him. At the moment, she feels like a failure for such a success. She remembers her mother insisting over and over that she would win back the lost family fortune by virtue of her face. Thinking of her mother makes her think of her childhood home. They never ate at home, they were always out at one social function or another, and they always had a tray full of invitations which were hastily opened and a box full of bills which were put aside. The family lived through "gray interludes of economy and brilliant reactions of expense." Lily remembers her father as almost a non-person. He spent all his time at the office trying to make money. Her mother spent more money than he made and used guilt on him to make him let her keep it up. Mrs. Bart thought that if she didnít spend money as she did, they would be living like pigs. The examples of people who lived like pigs were their relatives. Since these were people who had money, but didnít know how to spend it, Lily always had the idea that "if people lived like pigs it was by choice and through the lack of any proper standard of conduct."

When Lily was nineteen, her father went bankrupt. One day she was sitting with her mother at the lunch table asking for fresh flowers when her father arrived home and began laughing hysterically. He said they were ruined. Mrs. Bart dropped him almost completely after this and he died shortly thereafter. Lily and her mother went from relative to relative and poor resort to poor resort until her mother finally died a couple of years later. Mrs. Bart had become obsessed with Lilyís prospects for winning a fortune by virtue of her looks.

Lily learned a good deal from her mother, but still thought of her own values as different. She liked to think that when she reached her goal of winning a fortune, she would make the world a better place by the "vague diffusion of refinement and good taste." She likes pictures and flowers and sentimental fiction. She thinks these values make her desire for money more noble. When her mother died, her relatives had a meeting and no one but her fatherís widowed sister, Mrs. Peniston would take her. Mrs. Peniston said she would try Lily for a year. Lily behaves very compliantly to keep herself in Mrs. Penistonís good graces. Mrs. Peniston leads a very staid life. She "belonged to the class of old New Yorkers who have always lived well and dressed expensively, and done little else." Mrs. Peniston doesnít give Lily a regular allowance, but does give her expensive dresses occasionally. She lets Lily do as she needs to do to keep herself in the social circles of New York society.

Lily is shocked that she has been at this for ten years and has gradually lowered her standards until Percy Gryce is a magnificent catch. She has begun to have "fits of angry rebellion against fate," but she knows she will never drop out of this game in favor of living a poor existence. She knows she will always strive over and over to claw her way to the top.


Here we are given a view of the context of Lilyís present situation in her early family life. In this family life, we see the gender roles of this class at this time in history. The womanís job was to entertain and to adorn. To do so, she needed a steady and large flow of money. The function of this job was the conspicuous display of wealth as a means to attract more wealth and maintain present wealth. The husbandís job was to make money, accumulate more money, or if he was especially lucky, merely manage money. In Lilyís parents, the sickness of this money-driven domestic economy is revealed. Mrs. Bart cared nothing for her husband beyond his ability to make money. Her only desire was to make a show of wealth even when it meant habitually living beyond her means. Not only did she have this value, but she denigrated people who lived less glamorously, calling them pigs. Mr. Bart effaced himself in his impossible task of making enough money for the family and died unloved for his efforts.

The reader is given a much deeper insight into Lilyís character by this family history. Her desperation for landing a good marriage as well as the contradictory desire to rebel against the falseness of such a position come out of this conflicted past. At present, Lily is nearing the desperate straits her mother was in. She reacts as her mother did. She alternates between worry over money and over-spending, always with the hope that a man will come along who will solve all her money problems. She finds Percy Gryce boring and beneath her in grace and charm, but she is forced by her values to pursue him as a potential marriage partner anyway.

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