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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily wakes up the next morning after the Brys’ party to find two notes. One is from Mrs. Trenor asking her to meet her for dinner that evening. The other is from Lawrence Selden saying he is leaving town and asking to see her before he goes. She is surprised at Lawrence’s gesture. She wonders if he intends to ask her to marry him. After she told him it was impossible on one of their first meetings, he had made no more advances. She plans to write him a note evading the meeting, but when she sits down to write, she can’t do it. She writes that she will meet him at four the next day.

She is happy to have been called by Judy Trenor in light of her friend’s recent coldness. She assumes that Mrs. Trenor wants to hear all about the party. She is having dinner with Carry Fisher that evening, though, so she sends a note to Mrs. Trenor saying she will come by for a chat after the dinner at ten o’clock. Accordingly, after the dinner, she leaves the Fisher party and goes to the Trenors’ townhouse. She is greeted at the door by Gus Trenor who rushes her into the den. He avoids her questions about Judy until he gets her into the den and then he tells her Judy is ill and asked him to explain. When Lily tries to leave, he gets between her and the door. Finally, she understands that Judy isn’t even in the town house and that Gus has trapped her there. He raves about how she has been kind to other men and that she owes him, but has not given him any of her attention. He says that if he paid for her, she owes him her attention. He reveals that he has heard that she went to Lawrence Selden’s apartment one day and he assumes that she borrowed money from him and was paying him back with sexual favors.

Lily tries to coax him to let her go and then she tries to be haughty, but nothing works on him. She is terrified of him. He accuses her of having borrowed money from Selden and Rosedale. Finally, she raises her head and asks him what else he has to say to her. At these words, he deflates and seems to recognize what he has been attempting to do. He lets her go. She makes him show her out and call a cab so as to keep up appearances with the staff at the house. On her way into the cab, she thinks she sees a man who looks familiar. Inside the cab, she gives way to her terror at what might have happened to her. She can’t think of going home to Mrs. Peniston or her bedroom at Mrs. Peniston’s house so she decides to go see Gerty Farish.


The true nature of the exchange Lily has set up between herself and Gus Trenor is shown in this chapter. Gus has wanted sex for the money he has helped Lily make by giving her stock tips. He has sought to buy her sexual favors and when she didn’t pay up, he set up a trap for her and planned to rape her. Lily has been willfully ignorant of her part in this transaction until now. Now that she knows, she goes to the one person who is not playing the game at all--Gerty Farish.



Gerty Farish wakes up the morning after the party at the Wellington Brys with vivid dreams of her new life. She has the strong feeling that Lawrence Selden has fallen in love with her. Last night he was very alert and attentive to her. She is delighted that their new understanding was reached by their mutual interest in Lily Bart. Lily had become more and more involved in the work at the Girls’ Club. She had followed up on her initial enjoyment of the feeling of giving by visiting the club. It was one thing to think of poverty in the abstract, but quite another to meet the people themselves. When she met them, she felt a shock that threw her attention off herself for a moment. Her work with the Club is not all charitable. Part of it comes from the self-satisfaction of being so admired.

For his own part, Lawrence Selden spends the morning in high excitement over his resolve to ask Lily to marry him. He had always kept himself free from permanent ties to women, but now he is choosing a different path. His mother had been a charming woman and his father had been a devoted husband to her. They had always spent a bit above their means but had always bought good things and enjoyed good food. His mother was the woman who had given him his sense of values. He got his detachment from her but also his Epicurean pleasure in material things. He had always avoided serious attachments to women because he didn’t want to settle for something less that a true love. Now he feels sure of Lily.

He sends word to Gerty Farish asking her to let him dine with her that evening. He wants to be around someone who feels about Lily as he does. He also sends word to Lily, but when he gets to his club he only finds a note from Gerty. He runs into Gus Trenor on his way out. Gus has been drinking heavily and wants him to stay and have dinner with him. When Selden refuses politely, Gus pushes him to stay. He says he is lonely because Judy is still in the country. Lawrence is repulsed by Gus’s pink fat and is horrified to think that Lily’s name has been connected to Gus’s in gossip lately.

When he gets home, he finds Lily’s note and feels excited about the meeting the next day. The seal of her note has the word "Beyond!" written on it and he feels sure that he will take Lily beyond all the ugliness of her present life. When he gets to Gerty’s room, he finds her excited to see him. He praises her for her small household economies and they have a pleasant conversation. After dinner he finds a way to bring the conversation around to Lily. At first Gerty gushes on about Lily’s good qualities, but soon she realizes what is happening and feels suddenly deflated. She realizes that Lawrence loves Lily, not her. Selden doesn’t notice Gerty’s change of mood at all. Before he leaves he tells Gerty that Lily is herself with only a few people and that "she has it in her to become whatever she is believed to be." He asks Gerty to help her by believing in the best of her. Gerty tells him Lily was dining at the Fishers that evening and he remembers that he had received a card of invitation to that party, so he decides to go there and try to see Lily.

When he gets to Mrs. Fisher’s he finds that Lily has already left. The people at the party begin to talk about her in unflattering ways. Jack Stepney finds it shocking that Lily was in the tableaux looking so attractive and thinks he should speak to Mrs. Peniston about her. Mr. Ned Van Alstyne says when a woman is as attractive as Lily, she should marry right away so no one asks questions. Mrs. Fisher hints that Lily is planning to marry Mr. Rosedale and then says that Rosedale himself has been scared by all the talk about Lily lately and might not even want her. They ask where she went and someone says he put her into a cab headed for the Trenors’. When the others say they have heard that Judy Trenor is out of town, everyone starts to smile at the implication. Selden leaves immediately, feeling repulsed by all the nasty talk. He feels like Perseus who had to save Andromeda. Since Andromeda’s limbs were still numb with the bondage, he had to help her rise up. Selden decides he has strength enough for both himself and Lily.

He decides to walk home to get some fresh air. He runs into Ned Van Alstyne who walks with him. They walk along and Ned begins to make a running commentary on all the architecture of the houses of the street, the new rich having used so much flair that there is no room left for simplicity and elegance. When they get to the Trenors’ house, they pause while Ned tells of Judy Trenor’s plans to build a ballroom. As they are standing there, the door opens and there is Lily Bart emerging and getting into a cab and Mr. Trenor standing in the doorway seeing her off. Ned Van Alstyne whistles in surprise and then asks Lawrence to keep it quiet so his cousin Lily won’t be further compromised by gossip. Lawrence turns away and walks off.

When Gerty is left alone after Lawrence’s departure, she feels like she is drowning in her sorrow. She starts to think of Lily and realizes that she is horribly jealous of her. She stays for a long time in her sitting room staring at Lily’s photograph and realizes she hates Lily. Finally, she remembers an appointment in the morning, so she goes to get ready for bed. When she is already in bed, she hears the doorbell and rushes to see who it is. It is Lily and she seems hysterical. Gerty has been so well trained in charity work that she doesn’t think to deny Lily comfort. She gets Lily inside and tries to get her to talk. Lily will only speak in general terms. She says she is a bad girl and that all her thoughts are bad. She wonders if bad girls can ever turn things around or if they always go to the worse. When Gerty mentions that Lawrence Selden went to the Farish party to find her, Lily becomes excited. She asks Gerty if she thinks Lawrence would take her in if she admitted that she had sunk so low. She says she has sunk lower than the low because she has "taken what they take, and not paid as they pay." Gerty pauses for a moment before answering and then says that she is sure Lawrence would accept her no matter what.

Lily spends the night with Gerty. Gerty lies on the bed stiffly, not wanting to touch Lily. At some point Lily calls out for Gerty to hold her. Gerty slips her arm under Lily’s head and holds her until Lily falls asleep.


Chapter fourteen constitutes the first stage of the denouement after the climax of the action in the previous chapter. It doesn’t bode well for Lily. The one friend she thought she could rely on has begun to hate her in jealousy and frustration. Gerty Farish has had hopes of her own and when she sees Lily as the cause of her disappointment, all her suppressed feelings of jealousy at the privileges of Lily’s beauty emerge. Lily’s other chance at escaping the life of money grubbing among the rich who scorn money grubbing is also closed off in this chapter. Lawrence Selden sees her come out of Gus Trenor’s house when he has already heard from Gus himself that Judy Trenor is not in town and when he has just come from a party where an illicit relation between Lily and Gus was hinted at. Without these two people as supports to cushion Lily’s fall, the reader wonders what will happen to her.

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