Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton|
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FREE STUDY GUIDE: THE HOUSE OF MIRTH BY EDITH WHARTON
Here we see Lily going from the position of outsider resentful the privileges
of the inside to insider ready to accept all that she had previously thought
was petty and mean. She does so when she moves from the tacit servant
of her host, who calls on her to act as secretary in her own secretary’s
absence, to soon-to-be betrothed of the very wealthy Percy Gryce. The
two day period of time between the first of the chapter and the last of
it give the background for this contrast. The reader has witnessed the
extent of her tenuous financial and social existence, so when Lily feels
so self-assured at the end of the chapter, planning already for how she
will manipulate her husband into spending a great deal of money on her,
the reader might feel a bit skeptical. When Lawrence Selden joins her
instead of Percy, the reader might sense a foreshadowing. With Selden,
Lily has been herself. When he joins her, he literally steps between her
and Percy. Perhaps he will also do so figuratively.
Every Sunday at Bellomont, the omnibus pulls up to the front of the house to pick up people who want to go to church. Usually, it pulls away empty. Mrs. Trenor hears it and usually feels somehow virtuous for the thought. Lily had used this as another way to get into Mr. Gryce’s good graces. She had promised to go to church with him and he is waiting outside by the bus for her. Instead of her, the Wetheralls come out. They always go to church. "They belonged to the vast group of human automata who go through life without neglecting to perform a single one of the gestures executed by the surrounding puppets." Lady Cressida Raith and the Trenor daughters also come out, but Lily never comes.
Upstairs in her room, Lily hears the bus driving away. She had intended to go to church. She had borrowed a prayer book and had laid out a gray dress to wear, but somehow her mood wouldn’t let her go to church. She knows that the cause is Selden’s sudden appearance. She has heard from Mrs. Trenor that he came on his own volition, not having been summoned, and she wonders if he came for her or for Mrs. Dorset. At dinner the previous evening, she had been in a position to compare him and Mr. Gryce and she had found him much more attractive. He had always liked him and found him more interesting than other men, but she had just ignored him because he wasn’t marriageable by her standards. He always seemed to have the "happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at." As she sat at dinner, she thought of how vacuous all the other guests were.
At some point in the dinner, though, someone had mentioned the name of Simon Rosedale, and she had been reminded of her problems. When she returned to her room, she found a packet of bills sent by her aunt. So she had determined to go to church with Mr. Gryce. She had gotten up the next morning with all intentions of going, but when she saw the gray dress, she couldn’t put it on. She thought of how she would have to go to church every Sunday for the rest of her life and that she would be subjected to her husband’s and the minister’s ostracism of divorced people on her guest lists. When she heard the bus leaving, she thought she could still take advantage by playing on Mr. Gryce’s disappointment in her absence.
She gets dressed in something more rustic and goes downstairs. She goes
to the library where she thinks Lawrence Selden might be and is unhappily
surprised to find him sitting there with Mrs. Dorset. She tells them she
is going for a walk to the church and leaves. When she gets outside she
walks slowly, wondering about Lawrence Selden, and then sits down to think.
She is not happy alone and so gets up after a while. When she begins to
walk again, she hears Selden approaching. They joke flirtatiously and
she tells him she is on her way to meet someone at the church. When he
sees the party who went to church walking toward him, he says he realizes
now why she was so interested in Americana. He is surprised to see her
blush at this and becomes intrigued. He invites her for an afternoon walk,
saying he will be leaving the next morning.
Chapter five bears out the foreshadow of chapter four that Lily will not follow through on her success with Mr. Gryce after all and that Lawrence Selden will have something to do with it. In this, Wharton builds on the double character she has given Lily. Lily is both calculating and romantic. She wants to be inside the social circle, but she also enjoys the freedom of the outside. Her ambivalence seems to be part of the cause of her problem in finding a husband in the last ten years. Now she has noticed Lawrence Selden and finds herself attracted to him. Since the reader has already been prepared in advance not to hope for a match between the two of them, it seems that the only function of this flirtation between them will be to delay Lily’s marriage plans until it is too late. Her accounts and her age together mean that Lily cannot afford to play at a flirtation.
It seems that it is not only Lily who is ambivalent about the social life
of the old rich in New York. Her ambivalence seems to reflect the author’s.
While Wharton gives a very practical view of the economic position of
women of this class, the necessity of their maneuverings to marry rich,
and the impossibility of their doing much of anything else to support
themselves, she also seems to find the people who have secure positions
in the class quite boorish. The Wetheralls are a perfect example. The
narrator comments that they always go to church. "They belonged to
the vast group of human automata who go through life without neglecting
to perform a single one of the gestures executed by the surrounding puppets."
Such a stinging irony reveals a heavy critique of the deadening existence
of upper class life.
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