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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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STUDY NOTES: THE HOUSE OF MIRTH BY EDITH WHARTON

BOOK 1 - CHAPTER 15

Summary

Lily wakes up at Gertyís apartment feeling sick and tired. Gerty comes in and tells her she has already called Mrs. Peniston to tell her Lily is with her. When Lily gets home, she decides she must act despite her exhaustion and fear. She goes to her aunt for a serious talk. Mrs. Peniston behaves coldly toward her. Lily tries to give a soft version of her debts. She refers to her bill at the tailorís and Mrs. Peniston insists on seeing the bill. Then Lily mentions gambling debts. Mrs. Peniston flatly refuses to pay the bills. Lily needs eight thousand to pay Gus Trenor and she cannot tell Mrs. Peniston the source of her debt. She tells her aunt she will be disgraced and Mrs. Peniston tells her it is her own fault and the fault of her gambling friends.


Back in her room, she realizes Lawrence Selden is coming in only half an hour. She decides that his love her only refuge at this point. She goes down to the parlor to wait. Instead of Selden, the door opens to Mr. Rosedale at five oíclock. She is upset to think that Selden might come upon her with Mr. Rosedale, but imagines that she will be able to get rid of Rosedale easily. Rosedale tells her he has all the money he needs and now he wants a woman. He tells her he wants his "wife to make all the other women feel small." He will give her all the money she needs to do so. He says that when he saw her at the Brysí party, he knew she would make the perfect wife. He adds that he is aware that the kind of woman he wants costs a great deal, but that he is aware that she has been having trouble with money. He thinks the only sordid thing about money is thinking about it and that his wife would never have to demean herself by having to think about money. Then he sums up his plea "Iím confoundedly gone on you . . . and Iím just giving you a plain business statement of the consequences."

When Lily gives a measured response of negation, Mr. Rosedale insists that she be straight with him. He mentions the idea that when a girl gets older, she must begin to settle for what comes along. He drops the hint that he knows of her recent money troubles and promises to settle them for her. Lily turns white at this statement but talks herself into a measured response. She knows that Rosedale knows too much about her and that he will use it against her if she rejects him outright. Therefore, she tells him she does have money troubles, but that she must think of some other reason to marry him besides as a means to settle her bills. She holds her hand out to him as if in promise of some future satisfaction and he flushes with the unexpected sense of near victory. He leaves.

Lily realizes it is now two hours since Selden was supposed to come. She waits longer, but the last post does not bring a note from him. She tries to go to her room, but Lily has never been able to be alone with herself. She spends a terrible night and the next day her hope rises again. She thinks maybe Selden will call. Instead, she reads in the paper an announcement that he has departed on a cruise ship for Havana and the West Indies. Lily puts down the paper and goes to the mirror. She sees the lines on her face more than ever. She goes to the writing table and addresses a note to Rosedale, but she canít get past the first line of invitation. Suddenly, she hears the doorbell ring. The maid brings in a note from Bertha Dorset inviting her to join her on a cruise the next day to the Mediterranean.

Notes

Book 1 ends one a most despairing note. Lily has nowhere left to turn but a marriage that is clearly a polite form of prostitution. Wharton brings out this aspect of marriage incrementally. At first the allusions to Lily as being on a sort of job market, the marriage market, are sardonic and light. By the time Gus Trenor attempts to rape her in exchange for giving her so much money and Simon Rosedale baldly proposes to give her an unlimited budget in exchange for her hand in marriage, it is clear that marriage in the elite circles of New Yorkís wealthiest citizens is an economic arrangement. In this arrangement, women are items of exchange, like money. They improve a manís class position or solidify it. They are valued for their ability to display the manís wealth to its best advantage.

The one hope Wharton held out for Lily as an escape from this kind economic exchange is now gone. Lawrence Selden was able to smile at Lilyís stratagems to get a husband in Percy Gryce even when he knew the goal was economic security--or rather, luxury. Yet, when he thinks he sees her baldly exchanging sex for money from Gus Trenor, he flees.

Wharton keeps the suspense going, however, with the note from Mrs. Dorset inviting Lily on a cruise. Since nothing good has come from Lilyís association with these people, the reader probably imagines that Lilyís humiliation will only be increased as she takes another step in the wrong direction. The clear message that comes through here is that Lily has no other choice, given her upbringing and her lack of family support.


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