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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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The family has gathered in Mrs. Penistonís drawing room to hear the reading of her will. The Van Alstynes, the Stepneys, the Melsons, and Grace Stepney are all waiting. Lily comes in with Gerty Farish. The others only acknowledge her slightly. Since they are not sure of her economic status, they donít want to snub her outright. It is the first time she has seen them since she returned from Europe two weeks earlier. Everyone has always assumed that Mrs. Peniston would leave the bulk of her estate to Lily Bart. Lily herself is feeling assured of this eventuality.

However, when the will is read, Lily only receives ten thousand dollars and Grace Stepney receives the bulk of the estate. Everyone in the room goes to Grace and Lily is left alone. She congratulates Grace and then the others leave. She hears them talking to the lawyer who informs them that Mrs. Peniston had changed her will only recently.

Lily is now in Gerty Farishís sitting room. She is trying to figure out what she will do. Gerty thinks she should tell her side of the story of what happened in Europe, but Lily knows that it would just be a case of her word against Bertha Dorsetís. Since Bertha Dorset has so much money, people will certainly listen to her instead of Lily. Lily tells Gerty that if she had gotten the money, no one would have bothered about the scandal. Gerty insists that she tell her side of the story from the beginning. Lily responds, "Dear Gerty, how little imagination you good people have!" She tells her that the story begins as far back as her childhood in the fact that she had been raised to want things.

Lily has moved to a hotel. It is the end of June and all of her social acquaintances are out of town. She wants to find a way to make contact with them again and is trying to be seen in places where they might happen to come. Gerty is shocked that Lily is spending so much money on restaurants and cafes in this effort, but Lily knows she canít risk contacting her friends directly for fear that they might snub her outright. She hopes to run into Mrs. Trenor, who has had the habit of ignoring peopleís social problems if they are entertaining or useful enough to her. However, one day in a restaurant, a group of people headed by Mrs. Trenor and Carry Fisher comes in. They speak to Lily, but Mrs. Trenor is careful not to mention a future meeting or inquire about how Lily is. Lily knows that in the social codes of this group of people, this omission is tantamount to ostracism. She realizes that Mrs. Trenor probably knows about her huge debt to Gus Trenor and will not forgive her for that.

Lily decides that she must use the legacy she got from Mrs. Peniston to pay back Gus Trenor as soon as possible. That would leave her with only one thousand dollars, but she feels that she must do it. However, when she inquires at the lawyerís office, she finds out that she is not likely to get her inheritance for another year since there have been some questions about the interpretation of the will. Lily decides to go to Grace Stepney and ask her for an advance on her inheritance. Grace is living at Mrs. Penistonís house. She greets Lily cordially, but refuses to lend her money. She too has not received her legacy and she acts as if scandalized at Lilyís suggestion that she borrow money for her. She tells Lily that her money problems were the cause of her auntís illness. She concludes the interview by saying that she wants to make Lily understand the error of her ways and that this is the only way she can make up to Lily for her loss.


The fact that Lily Bart has been disinherited, accompanied by her ostracism from the social acquaintances who have served as a buffer between her and economic need, leaves her in a position worse than Gerty Farishís. She has less income than Gerty and she has none of the practical resources that Gerty has in dealing with poverty gracefully. In having her protagonist fall so far, Edith Wharton shows the untenable position of women in her society. They are provided for only when they can be decorative and convenient. Since Lily has done nothing but what was expected of her in her position, her exile from family and social friends is shown to be completely arbitrary. Lily has no control of her fate. As a woman without money and without reliable family, Lily is like many women of Whartonís day who had to make themselves useful or beautiful to be fed and clothed, but could at any time be dropped out of even that tenuous security.

Lily is a protagonist who can see clearly what her position is. She is fully aware that if she had gotten the inheritance from Aunt Julia, she would not be suffering for Bertha Dorsetís cruel snub. Since she has no money, she is not recognized as a social being. These people operate according to a money value system that determines all social ties, family and friendship. Lily has tried to play according to their rules, but in losing, she will enter a world she has never wondered much about.

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