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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lawrence Selden is standing on the steps of the Casino in Monte Carlo. He has been here for three months, since he left New York upon seeing Lily with Gus Trenor. It is mid-April and he is alone until he hears Carrie Fisher call out to him. She is with Mr. and Mrs. Wellington Bry and Jack and Mrs. Stepney. Lord Hubert Dacey is leading them around. He functions as a sort of liaison between the new rich and the old rich. As the group of them stand around, Stepney exclaims upon seeing the Dorsetsí yacht. This initiates a discussion of Lily Bart, who has been taken up by the Duchess and other notable figures.

Selden doesnít say anything when he hears about Lily. He has heard that she is cruising the Mediterranean, but has been assuming that it would be unlikely that he would run into her. Upon hearing that she is arriving in Monte Carlo, he feels a sharp pang. He has been so busy running from her that he hadnít realized how wounded he felt by the loss of her. He takes a walk with Carrie Fisher and she tells him of all her troubles in getting the Brys into society since Mrs. Bry is constantly trying to be "queenly" instead of being flatly herself. Mrs. Fisher gets onto the subject of Lily Bart when she says Mrs. Bry is actually beginning to think if only she had Lily with her that she would be making more social successes. She tells about ten years earlier when Lily was in Aix. She had been courted seriously by an Italian Prince and had gotten to the critical stage of the marriage arrangements when his stepson came to visit. Lily had let him flirt with her and his father, her suitor, had dropped her. She says that at that point Mrs. Peniston packed herself and Lily up and headed back for New York. Carrie sums up that it is Lilyís habit to get this close to success and then blow her chances by doing something foolish.

Carrie Fisher returns to a narration of the present time. Lily is being used by Mrs. Dorset to keep Mr. Dorset busy while she pursues Ned Silverton. Now that she is close to having Ned Silverton as a lover, she is desperate for Lilyís services. Mrs. Fisher says that if Lily were smart, she would find the strategic moment to let Mr. Dorset know about Mrs. Dorsetís infidelity and get him to marry her, but that she knows Lily will never do this. In the midst of her story, Selden suddenly tells her he must leave. He rushes to his hotel and packs his bag quickly. He wants to get out of town so as to avoid seeing Lily. He feels foolish for running, but wonít stop himself. At the train station, he is reassuring himself that he is doing the right thing in leaving to avoid her when he runs into her. She is with the group of whom Mrs. Fisher had just been telling him. She is glowing in her beauty and handles the encounter with a smoothness that makes him feel sick.

Selden watches Lily as she maneuvers her way among all the members of her party, making herself attractive and easy for them. He thinks she has finally conquered her habit of sabotaging social-economic successes. That night he goes to a club and runs into Lord Hubert who joins him for a cigarette. Lord Hubert tells him Lily has gotten involved with the Duchess who is a dangerous influence. He wonders if Lily has any family who can be relied upon to help her. He remembers Mrs. Peniston as a woman who could manage to "bridge over chasms she didnít see."


Book Two opens with Lawrence Seldenís point of view. It is three months later and from his point of view, Lily has hardened into the role, which in the past, she played only half-heartedly. However, by the end of the chapter, this view of Lily Bart is reversed. Instead of leaving her the hardened manipulator of foolish and self-indulgent rich people, Lily is shown as an innocent among frighteningly depraved people. Lawrence Selden, who had intended to run from her, is called on at the end of the chapter to save her. Whether this man who has defined himself as nothing more than a spectator will be able to act in a decisive way is the question on which Wharton hinges the suspense of the first part of Book Two.



Lily Bart gets up early the next morning to go have lunch with the Duchess. The Duchess has refused to have Bertha Dorset to lunch, telling Lily that she finds all of her friends boring except Mr. Bry, whom she finds funny. Lily has been living with the Dorsets for three months as they have cruised the Mediterranean. She has conveniently laid the problems of New York behind her. It is in Lilyís character to forget moral dilemmas that are not present. If she had had to stay in New York, she would have done anything, even married Simon Rosedale, to pay the debt to Gus Trenor. As it is, she is having a wonderful time forgetting about it and having such a wonderful social success that she is gaining her confidence back about her ability to find some place for herself. She has been low on funds and the Dorsets have not helped her, but she has managed to maintain her living.

When she gets to the restaurant, she runs into Carrie Fisher. Carrie says everything has gone badly with the Brys and that she is leaving to take up another newly rich couple who have yet to break in upon any social scene. She says she is leaving the Brys to Lily. Lily is ready to decline the offer, when Carrie Fisher gives her a clear warning about her situation with the Dorsets. She says the society columnist has been spreading the rumor that the previous night Lily Bart was seen alone with Mr. Dorset after midnight. Lily explains that Mrs. Dorset and Ned Silverton never arrived at the appointed meeting place and she had no choice but go back to the yacht with Mr. Dorset. Carrie Fisher tells her that nevertheless she is in trouble and should escape it by taking up the Brys.

When Lily leaves the Casino she runs into Mr. Dorset. He is in terrible shape and she takes a walk with him in the garden to discuss his problem with him. He tells her his wife didnít get back till seven in the morning. Lily tries to make excuses for Bertha, but he is clearly in sight of the fact that his wife has been unfaithful to him. He tells her he is looking for a lawyer and thinks of Lawrence Selden who has not yet sailed. At first Lily tells him he mustnít go to a lawyer, but then she realizes that Lawrence Selden would be a big help in the situation and so advises him after all to go see Selden.

When she gets back to the yacht, she finds Mrs. Dorset entertaining the Duchess and Lord Hubert. She is surprised at Mrs. Dorsetís mildness in light of what is happening in her marriage. When the Duchess and Lord Hubert leave, she sits with Mrs. Dorset. She decides she must be straight with her and they should talk and plan what steps would best be taken. To her shock, Mrs. Dorset intimates that she is upset that Lily was alone with her husband on the previous night, and that she expected them to wait for her at the train station. Lily realizes that Mrs. Dorset is betraying her again. She sits quietly and lets the betrayal sink in.


What was alluded to in chapter one, the danger Lily is in, is borne out in chapter two. Lily has been playing a false role, keeping Mr. Dorset busy and flattered while Mrs. Dorset pursued a relationship with Ned Silverton. When Mrs. Dorset slips up and makes her affair obvious, she turns the tables on Lily and accuses Lily of manipulating Mr. Dorset into an affair. The mixed nature of Lilyís character comes out in this scene. Lily is able to exist in the false position. She plays her part well and gets what she needs out of it. Yet, she also has a sort of a moral sense and does not go further than she must to attain security. Therefore, instead of playing on George Dorsetís sense of tragedy so she could win some advantage to herself, she sends him to Lawrence Selden whom she knows will convince Mr. Dorset to stay in the marriage. Instead of recognizing the Bertha Dorset is nothing of an ally and should not be treated as one, Lily naively assumes that she would be called upon to commiserate with Bertha. Instead, she is betrayed.

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