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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Mrs. Peniston always watches the social season from the sidelines and pays attention to every detail. She always watches especially for the newcomers and predicts their downfall. This season the economy has hit the old families very hard and everyone has retreated to their country houses. Only Mr. Simon Rosedale and the Brys seem to have profited from the stock market this season. Rosedale is reputed to have doubled his fortune. He is moving very slowly and carefully to gain a footing in the social circle of the old New York families. He thinks of Carry Fisher as having helped him a great deal in that effort, but his knows that he would be in much better shape if he could get Lily Bart beside him.

Mrs. Peniston always notices what is going outside her home, but doesn’t notice much of anything that goes on with Lily. Grace Stepney, who has cultivated a strong dislike for Lily because of Lily’s indifference to her and because Lily kept her from one of Mrs. Peniston’s rare dinners, comes to Mrs. Peniston one evening with news about Lily. She tells Mrs. Peniston that people are talking about Lily spending so much time with Gus Trenor, that they were seen at a park one evening after the lights were lit, and that it is likely that Gus Trenor is paying Lily’s gambling debts. She also intimates that Lily is making herself familiar with George Dorset. She says the gambling debts are the reason Percy Gryce ran from Lily. Mrs. Peniston is horribly shocked. She has never imagined that any young woman would actually engage in immoral acts. She feels like someone in her house has a contagious illness and she will soon catch it.


This chapter shifts the focus from Lily to her aunt and Miss Grace Stepney as they discuss Lily’s increasingly poor reputation. Unwittingly, Lily has made an enemy out of Grace and she is being ruined for it. In Grace’s telling, the reader gets the results of Lily’s latest maneuverings with Gus Trenor and George Dorset. It is unclear what the reality of those relationships are, but the gossip about them provides enough reality to rock Lily’s already unstable world. The only place of security she has been able to rely on has been her aunt’s home. Now that has been threatened.



Lily Bart knows she has been making a series of mistakes. She feels like she only recognizes the wrong path after she has set herself on it. She is particularly disturbed by Gus Trenor, who has been especially pushy. Her walk with him in the park had been a horrible experience. She finds herself constantly returning to the notion that all her troubles are the fault of Bertha Dorset. Yet, she has been spending a good deal of time at the Dorsets. Bertha Dorset has become interested in Ned Silverton and she needs Lily to keep her husband’s attention away from her while she pursues him.

Lily has also felt some coldness in Mrs. Trenor’s responses to her. She visits the Trenors for a weekend party, but it turns out to be a total failure. The people there make snide remarks about Lily’s association with Simon Rosedale and the Welly Brys. Lily avoids Gus to keep from adding to her bad reputation. Last year she would have laughed off the remarks, but this year she feels especially sensitive to them. When she returns to town she becomes involved in a party the Welly Brys give as a way to make their show on the social scene in a big way. Carry Fisher has organized it as a tableaux vivants, a series of scenes from famous paintings featuring society women. Lily is especially happy in such a setting since she gets to exercise her eye for visual beauty.

Lawrence Selden comes to the party. He likes to watch the displays of the very rich even though he usually sticks to smaller gatherings. The ballroom is furnished to such great effect that it feels like a wonderland. Gerty Farish sits next to Selden and tells him Lily was responsible for getting her invited. She also tells him about Lily’s generosity to the Girls’ Club (the club for women who are out of work). Not only has Lily contributed three hundred dollars, but she has arranged for other much larger donations, including one from Simon Rosedale for one thousand dollars. The curtains part and the scenes begin. Lawrence Selden is totally pleased with each scene and feels as if he is transported into another world despite his cousin’s running commentary on the particular people who are playing the parts. Suddenly the curtain parts on Lily Bart. She has chosen a very simple costume with very simple background, a scene from a Reynolds’ painting, and the effect is to bring out her beauty even more than usual. Everyone in the audience gasps with admiration. One man leans forward and whispers to Selden a lecherous comment about Lily and he blushes with annoyance.

When the show is over, Selden feels like he has felt "the whole tragedy of her life." He wishes he could be with her alone again like he was at Bellomont. Gerty Farish squeezes his arm and exclaims over Lily’s beauty. She says the tableaux captured "the real Lily--the Lily I know." Lawrence adds, "The Lily we know." Lawrence Selden wants to find Lily right away after the performance, but she is nowhere to be found. She has decided to wait a while to let the effect of her performance sink in and to make a more grand appearance after a pause. When the guests begin to come into the dining room, she is standing there alone and is instantly surrounded by admirers. She is ecstatic to be the center of so much approbation. She turns a happy look on all her admirers alike. If Lawrence Selden had come in at that moment, he wouldn’t have felt so special. Instead, he came in just when the crowd had dispersed and Lily was standing alone again. It feels to him like she is waiting for him and smiling only for him. She gives him her arm and he leads her out of the room and into a garden.

The magic of the evening lingers there and it feels like they are still in another world. Lily sits on a bench and then asks Selden why he never speaks to her. He tells her, "I think of you at any rate, God knows!" She tells him he promised once that he would help her. He tells her the only way he can help her is by loving her. They kiss. Then she tells him before rushing out of the room to love her but not to tell her so. He stands there alone for a while and then goes out. At the door he runs into Ned Van Alstyne and Gus Trenor. Van Alstyne goes on and on about the beauty of the women, especially Lily, whom he didn’t know had such a good figure. Gus is complaining about the bad taste of it all. He says he will not smoke a cigar from the Welly Brys home because he doesn’t know who selects them. He says his wife is right to have stayed at home. She had said life is too short to break in new people.


Here, Wharton brings the reader back for a brief moment to the ill-fated but wished-for love affair between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden. It seems clear that they will never get together for any time longer than the afternoon they spent at Bellomont. In that case, it’s useful to examine why Wharton holds this impossible relationship out to us on occasion throughout the novel. Perhaps with Selden, Lily can be herself and express her desire for something other than a moneyed marriage. Perhaps in this relation, Wharton can show by contrast the near tragedy of the artificial social relations formed out of the need for money.

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