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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily wakes to a note from her hostess, Mrs. Trenor asking her to come to her room to help her with her social correspondence since her secretary is absent. Lily resents the tone of the summons. It feels like she is in service to her hostess.. When she gets to Mrs. Trenor’s room, she finds Mrs. Trenor at her desk with a pile of correspondence and a head full of worries about her place at the top of the heap of brilliant hostesses. She s upset that she has invited Lady Cressida Raith for the party. She had thought Lady Raith would be interesting, but she turned out to be a minister’s wife who often tries to convert people. Her other worry is that she made the mistake of inviting Carry Fisher, a twice-divorced woman, and Mrs. Wetherall, who keeps snubbing Carry Fisher for her supposed immorality. She is also worried that Bertha Dorset keeps pulling Percy Gryce away from Lily, who she knows is trying to work him into a marriage proposal. She says Bertha came because she thought Lawrence Selden would be there. Apparently, they had had some sort of an affair recently. Since Lawrence would not come, Bertha has taken up Percy Gryce. Lily insists that Mrs. Trenor not call Selden, saying she feels confident that she has already won Mr. Gryce.

In the next three days, Lily manages to become socially intimate with Percy Gryce. On this day, she is standing outside alone while the others are chatting. She is feeling quite secure in her conquest of Mr. Gryce and is thinking of her future as his wife. She will replace his Americana as his one possession on which he likes to spend money. She will be able to repay all her social obligations and she has even stopped worrying about her debts. As she looks at everyone, she thinks of how much more she likes them than she did a few days ago when she felt so much an outsider. She turns, thinking Percy has come to join her, and is surprised into a blush when it is instead Lawrence Selden.


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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