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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily has been thinking that she is cut off forever from her old life, but one day she runs into Carrie Fisher who apologizes for participating in the group snub of her in the restaurant. Mrs. Fisher tells her she has been working with a new family of new rich, the Gormers, who have started a new thing among the new rich. Instead of trying to get the old rich to let them in, they have decided to make their own social world and have fun within its confines. They invite anyone who is amusing to their social events and Mrs. Fisher indicates that even Lily would find hospitality there. Lily decides to join Mrs. Fisher at the Gormersí for a weekend party.

She finds the luxury of her new surroundings very comforting after having lived in such need for the last few weeks. She has always avoided the social group represented by the Gormers. Now she realizes she fits in best here since she has been outcast by her own social circle. The differences between the way the Gormers entertain and the way the older families do are very apparent to Lily. They are more familiar with new people, they are more prodigal in spending and they are more feverish in playing. Lily realizes at the start that she cannot afford to be aloof from them. They all accept her openly despite the fact that everyone has heard about the scandal in which she was involved with the Dorsets.

She feels as if "a hard glaze of indifference was fast forming over her delicacies and susceptibilities, and each concession to expediency hardened the surface a little more." When the party is over, Carry Fisher takes her back to her own house in town. She suggests that Lily take over with the Gormers while she rejoins the Brys. She says there is more profit for her in her work with the Brys since they might soon make it inside the inner social circle. She is to take them to Newport to try to get them into society there and she suggests that Lily take the Gormers to Alaska where they have planned a trip.

Lily takes the Gormers to Alaska. She wants to get away from her friends in town to let them have time to forget about the scandal. Gerty Farish opposes the trip very strongly. She thinks Lily is cheapening herself by making social contacts with people she would never be with in her earlier life and that she is losing the last chance she has of escaping from that kind of life altogether. Nevertheless, Lily goes and she realizes at some point on the trip that she does not fit in at all well with these people. The more she finds about them that she doesnít like, the less she can justify continuing to be with them. She is buffered somewhat in her association with them by a small group of people from her old set, including Paul Morpheth, the portrait painter with whom Lily had worked in the Brysí tableaux.

One day when she returns, Carrie Fisher comes over and talks to her of her plans for the future. She suggests that Lily marry one of two men, George Dorset, who is continuing to have trouble with Berthaís infidelities, or Simon Rosedale, who has been more and more successful in gaining entry into the inner social circle of the old families. Mr. Rosedale continues to come see Lily on occasional Sundays. He likes to indicate to others that he has known Lily for a long time. This gives him a chance to show some history with the old rich. Lily is insulted by his presumptions, but she cannot afford to snub him. She has heard of his gradual rise to social prominence and respectability. Now that she has lost her ability to help him enter the social circles of his choice, he still wants her. She wonders if she should marry him after all.


The end is postponed for Lily when she is taken up by Carrie Fisher, a woman in a like position to Lilyís except that she is more skillful at manipulating social contacts to meet her needs. In the distinctions between the new rich and the old rich lies much of the novelís force. It is often unclear where Wharton stands in her sympathies. She clearly condemns the heartlessness of people like the Trenors and the Penistons. She shows their social commitments to be based on shallow values and broken easily and ruthlessly.

However, when compared to the new rich, they donít seem to be quite as distasteful. While social climbers like the Brys are seem foolish in their attempts to enter the social circles of the longer established families, people like the Gormers give Wharton an opportunity to present a different perspective on the new rich. Unlike the Brys, the Gormers become bored with the slow process of gaining the good graces of the inner circle, what Lily calls "Paradise." In this case, Wharton has a chance to show the new rich in their own right, without the unattractiveness of being outsiders scratching at the door of long-lived wealth and privilege. While she seems to have some admiration for people who make their own way, having their own fun and surrounding themselves with people who will be friendly for the sake of friendliness, not for the sake of social aspirations, she also clearly doesnít find them the best place to land her protagonist.

From Lilyís point of view, she is cheapening herself to continue to make use of the Gormersí hospitality while she is finding them so distasteful. She seems to miss the same fine distinctions and coded social interactions that she has recently been victimized by. The reader might remember Lilyís bemusement with the Trenors and their like when she spent time in their country estate, but Lily doesnít seem to. What was once boring, chatter and empty human connections has now become paradise.

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