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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Mrs. Peniston follows the old social precept that people of fashion return to New York in October. She opens the blinds of her windows promptly in that month. For two weeks she supervises the cleaning of her house. Lily Bart usually avoids this season of cleaning, but she is now at home since she didnít get the usual round of invitations this season. As Lily goes upstairs, she passes a char-woman (cleaning woman) who gawks at her. It is the same woman who was at the Benedict that day she left Lawrence Seldenís apartment. Mrs. Peniston usually likes Lily better than her other young protégé, Grace Stepney, who is more practical, but in the time of cleaning, Grace is the better helper. Lily thinks that some day if she doesnít get married, sheíll have to go from spending all her energy amusing friends like Judy Trenor to amusing people like Aunt Peniston.

Someone rings at the door and Lily is told a woman named Mrs. Haffen is there to see her. When she goes to the door, she finds the same char-woman who had so annoyed her before. She shows Mrs. Haffen into the drawing room and Mrs. Haffen goes into a long and roundabout discussion of her husbandís having just lost a job at the Benedict and their poor situation at present, close to being evicted from their home. She opens a packet of letters and shows them to Lily. She says the gentlemen who live at the Benedict usually burn their letters or tear them to shreds, but sometimes they become careless. Lawrence Selden had done so, and she had taken up the letters he had only torn in half once. They are letters from Mrs. Dorset and they are compromising. Lily realizes that Mrs. Haffen thinks she is the one who wrote the letters. After first thinking of throwing Mrs. Haffen out, she decides to buy them as a way to protect Lawrence Seldenís reputation.

Her aunt arrives home and begins o tell her all that she has heard of the wedding that Lily attended that afternoon. She had heard all the details from Molly Van Alstyne who said that Mrs. Dorset was the best dressed woman there. She moves on to tell about the new engagement between Percy and Miss Van Osburgh that Mrs. Dorset is said to have entirely arranged. Lily takes her leave of her aunt and goes upstairs. She thinks of burning the letters right away and then thinks of all the ridicule that is being heaped on her for losing the marriage with Percy. She decides to keep the letters. She seals the packet with a wax seal and puts them in a box in her wardrobe. She realizes that if it werenít for Gus Trenor, she would not have been able to buy them.


Lily is now suffering from the effects she had predicted earlier to Lawrence Selden of becoming old news to her friends. She is no longer invited to stay in country houses for the entire social season and so has to return to her auntís house, which she finds aesthetically stifling and morally cramped.

Edith Wharton draws a truly frightful portrait of the life of a woman like Mrs. Peniston, who follows the same pattern of house cleaning year after year as if religiously, who kept her cotillion favors for her entire married life until her husband died, after which she thought it unseemly to have anything colorful in the house, who refuses the expense of energy to go to a wedding, but who spends hours discussing the details with those interested enough to report them. The description of the interior decorating of Mrs. Penistonís house is something like a character portraiture as well the helmeted Minerva that sits atop the clock, the crayon portrait of her late husband, the one artistic excess being the painting of Niagara, and, best of all, the dying Gladiator that stands in the drawing room.

Perhaps in reaction to her straightened economic and social situation,

Lily Bart takes the meanness of those who make fun of her for losing out on marrying Percy Gryce more seriously than she usually would. It seems as if the packet of letters will be another way Lily Bart will get herself into trouble.



It is autumn and time is passing slowly. Lily has received notes from Judy Trenor asking her to come to stay but she has avoided going. She is getting tired of living alone with Mrs. Peniston. The only highlight of her existence is spending the money she has made on the stock market. She has always spent money as fast as she got it and has never thought much about saving. One day while she is shopping, she runs into Miss Farish, who is downcast over the low funds of a charity she volunteers for. It is for the young women who work in the offices down town, for when they are out of work. Lily feels so charitable in light of her unfamiliar surplus of money that she makes a contribution and then feels quite justified in all her recent purchases.

Lily gets an invitation to attend a camp hosted by a woman "of obscure origin" who has been helped into the New York social circle by Carry Fisher. In times past, Lily had avoided her, but now she is delighted to go and be admired for her poise and grace. When she returns to town, she feels especially healthy and pretty. She is upset by a visit one evening by Mr. Rosedale who invites her to attend the opera on the opening night. when she hesitates, he tells her Gus Trenor will be there and has asked especially about her. When she hesitates again, he brings up her stock market speculation. She tries to downplay it but feels irritated that Gus would tell Rosedale about this. She recovers and charms her way out of the uncomfortable moment.

For the days after the visit, she is hounded by the thoughts of Gus Trenorís importunate claims on her time and attention. When she goes to the opera, she finds Gus Trenor there. He leans too close to her and complains about not getting to be alone with her as he was on the day she came to pick him up from the station. She agrees to meet him the next day at a park. George Dorset comes into the opera box and he is happy to see Lily because she had been so nice to him at the Bellomont party that week. He complains about the new social season starting and about his wifeís new interest in cultivating friendships with intellectuals who spend too long over dinner and give him indigestion. He invites her to come to a dinner his wife is giving. Lily happily agrees. Since she has the letters of Mrs. Dorset, she doesnít feel so angry at her.


If Gus Trenor and George Dorset are representative, it seems, of most of the married men of Lily Bartís social circle boorish husbands looking for someone to talk to. These two men seem to be pushy, but not enormously dangerous to Lily. She thinks at least that she can manage them while getting what she wants out of them. Gusís pushiness seems to be nothing more than petulance. He would probably embarrass Lily, but not ruin her. Simon Rosedale, on the other hand, seems more dangerous. While Lily recognizes that being an outsider, he doesnít play by the same rules, she thinks she can use the same stratagems to keep in line that she does with other men. The narrator indicates otherwise, setting up an ominous sense of doom for Lilyís future.

Lilyís getting pulled into a game of revenge against Mrs. Dorset seems as dangerous as her foolish speculations with money and her equally foolish spending of all the money she wins. While Mrs. Dorset can play these mean-spirited games without much damage to herself, it is unlikely that Lily will be able to.

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