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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily sits and listens to Mrs. Trenor tell her of the terrible mess she made of her pursuit of Percy Gryce. The previous day while she had been with Lawrence Selden, Mrs. Dorset had retaliated by telling Percy all kinds of terrible things about her. She said Lily gambled, borrowed money from older men, and had had long flirtations with several men. The person from whom she had borrowed money was none other than her uncle, but Mrs. Dorset made it seem as though it were a vaguely illicit transaction. Percy left on the first train back to New York.

Lily listens to Mrs. Trenor’s scolding with equanimity because she feels as angry with herself for having acted so foolishly. That day at lunch Mrs. Dorset and Mrs. Fisher had taunted Lily at the dinner table about what had happened to Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Trenor asks her to go to the station to pick up her husband, Gus Trenor, because she doesn’t want Carry Fisher to do it. Carry Fisher has a habit of borrowing large sums of money from Gus.

Lily picks up Mr. Trenor and is slightly repulsed by his red-faced fat. Still, she behaves in a flattering way, offering to listen to him tell of the difficulties of keeping up the kind of household his wife runs. He says it takes "a devilish lot of hard work to keep the machinery running." As he is talking about his business, Lily gets the idea of asking him for investment advice. He is asking her to talk his wife into being kinder to Mr. Rosedale, who has a great deal of money and is willing to part with a great deal of it to get into their social circle. Lily makes it seem as if she were suffering a terrible fate to be fobbed off on Percy Gryce and that she is willing to live more frugally if he can give her advice on investing her money. He does so and then lays his hand on her hand. She finds repugnant the assumption this gesture makes, but ignores it in favor of thinking that her troubles might be solved after all.


Lily finds herself in worse circumstances here. The cruel trick Mrs. Dorset plays of telling Percy Gryce all of Lily’s bad habits and thus ruining her chances to marry him initiates the beginning of the end of Lily’s chances for entering the life of wealthy ease. It is clear that Lily’s choice to turn to Gus Trenor for help in investing her small income will end in failure as well.



Lily receives a thousand dollar check from Gus Trenor, a return on her investment. She is never quite clear of the workings of investments, but does not make much of an effort to find out. She pays some of her debts, but also makes more purchases. She is spending more and more time with Gus Trenor and ignores the sense that this is payment for his business advice by thinking she is helping her friend Judy Trenor to entertain her boring husband. Judy complains to her that Carry Fisher is always getting Gus to invest money for her and never paying when she loses.

Her cousin Jack Stepney gets married to Gwen Van Osburgh. They ask Lily to be a bridesmaid, but she refuses, not being willing to be seen once again as a bridesmaid. She goes to the wedding and sees Percy Gryce there. She determines to try him once again. She also sees Lawrence Selden and feels a jolt of excitement. Still, she withdraws from him since he always makes her feel cheap in her life pursuits. She finds Gertrude Farish gushing over the wedding and the gifts. Lily thinks Gerty is pitiful in her poor choice of color for her dress and in her lack of shining beauty of feature. She realizes she has gotten this judgment from her mother, the idea that "acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity." As they look at the wedding gifts, Gerty tells Lily that Lawrence Selden usually visits her once a week, but lately has been away. He has seemed "nervous and unsettled." Gerty thinks he should get married, but he tells her he doesn’t like the good girls and that the other kind don’t care for him.

As they look at the gifts of jewelry, they see a huge piece given by Mr. Rosedale and then they see a more tasteful piece given by Percy Gryce. Gerty tells Lily that she has heard that Percy and Evie Van Osburgh are soon to be engaged. Lily is crestfallen about the news, thinking it is a shame that a girl like Evie should marry Percy when she doesn’t need his money or know what to do with it. Lily feels like she is a failure.

Gus Trenor comes up and touches her on the arm. She feels the possessiveness of his gesture as she turns toward him. He tells her he has another check for her and this news makes her happier. He pushes her to come visit him at Bellomont, but Lily puts him off. She asks him to come to her aunt’s house to see her, but he is not satisfied. He suggests that she should at least do him the favor of making a show of being cordial to Mr. Rosedale and she is relieved at such an easy way of paying her debt to him. As she waits for them, she runs into Lawrence Selden. Lawrence treats her in the old way as if they had never had the serious conversation they did on that afternoon at Bellomont. She "longed to be something more than a piece of sentient prettiness" to him, but he maintains his aloof poise. Just as they are talking, Gus brings Mr. Rosedale to meet her.

She is so put off by Selden’s witnessing her being nice to a man she finds repugnant that she pauses a long time before being nice to Mr. Rosedale. Mr. Rosedale colors and then makes a remark about her tailor who lives at the Benedict, reminding her of his knowledge of her lie. She smiles and recovers her poise. She asks him to take her to get something to drink. He is delighted now that she is being seen with him in front of everyone. As they walk away, she feels awful that Selden is witnessing her action, but she decides to look for Percy Gryce as a way out of her present sordid position. When she and Mr. Rosedale reach the solarium, she doesn’t find Percy Gryce, but she is approached by Mrs. Van Osburgh who tells her Percy and her daughter Evie are engaged and wanted to tell her first.


At the wedding of her cousin Jack Stepney, who was in a like position to Lily’s at the week-long country house party of the Trenors--poor but in pursuit of a wealthy marriage--Lily’s own failure with Percy Gryce stands out in starker contrast. Another element to bring out Lily’s situation is the comparison between her and Gerty Farish, a woman who has resigned herself to living alone and somewhat poor. Lily’s annoyance at Miss Farish is clearly as reaction to the parallel between her life and Gerty’s. Next, Lily’s continuation of her mother’s poor handling of money and her further indebtedness to Gus Trenor show her situation to be almost desperate. Her only hope is to correct her mistake with Percy Gryce and, at the end of the chapter, on Mr. Rosedale’s arm, Lily hears that Percy is engaged.

Here, Wharton uses Lawrence Selden again as a sort of moral gauge of Lily’s life. Lily senses the falseness of her position more severely when Lawrence Selden is nearby. He represents an alternative to her life that she cannot afford as a woman and is not willing to settle for as a pretty woman.

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