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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily Bart is out at the site of the Gormersí new country house with Mrs. Gormer. She is taking a stroll during a break in her day when she runs across George Dorset. He seems desperate to talk to her. He apologizes for participating in the snub in Europe and tells her he has wanted to speak to her for weeks. Lily tells him she cannot speak to him since the scandal has put them together and she tries to put off his advances towards her. He tells her that just one word from her would free him from his miserable situation. Lily tells him she knows nothing against Mrs. Dorset and will say nothing. Despite his repeated entreaties, she says good-bye and leaves him.

When she gets back to Mrs. Gormer, she finds that Mrs. Dorset has just visited. Lily knows that Mrs. Dorset doesnít make neighborly calls and that she never deigns to recognizes social inferiors like the Gormers, so she suspects the Mrs. Dorset is trying to hurt her once again. Lily returns to New York and sets up in a small hotel she has found with the help of Gerty Farish. She canít actually afford the hotel, but she cannot imagine going any lower in the level of her accommodations. She is very close to being completely without money. One day she gets home to find George Dorset waiting in her sitting room. It is clear that for a moment, he recognizes her poverty and feels concerned for her, but it is also clear that in the next moment, he thinks of how he can benefit from it. He wants her to tell him something definite about his wifeís sexual infidelities. Lily refuses to do so, saying over and over that she knows nothing. She makes him leave and tells him she cannot see him again.

She has not seen much of Rosedale, but has continued to think of the possibility of marrying him. She has been invited to spend the night with Carrie Fisher, who is enjoying momentary prosperity since her success with the Brys. She gets to Mrs. Fisherís house and finds Simon Rosedale in the parlor talking to Carry Fisherís young daughter. It is clear that he isnít doing this for advantage, but that he is sincerely kind to her. Lily thinks he is "kind in his gross, unscrupulous, rapacious way, the way of the predatory creature with his mate." That night in her room, she and Carrie Fisher talk. She sees that Carrie Fisher loves to have the chance to enjoy spending time with her daughter and wonders what if she would spend all her time with her daughter given the economic stability. Carrie tells Lily of Bertha Dorsetís recent machinations with Mrs. Gormer and warns her that her only chance to escape from Bertha Dorsetís cruelty is to marry.


Chapter six finds Lily back in danger at the hands of Bertha Dorset, who suspects her husbandís admiration for Lily and her own danger of losing him to her. The reader must remember that Lily has in her possession the love letters that Bertha Dorset wrote to Lawrence Selden. These letters, though, are not mentioned in the narration of Lilyís private thoughts. On the surface of the story, the only method of revenge Lily is shown to have against Bertha Dorset is in her ability to marry Berthaís husband.

The alternative between George Dorset and Simon Rosedale is a pretty sad one. Lily thinks about marrying Simon Rosedale but carefully avoids thinking about what marriage to him would mean for her. In highlighting this avoidance, Wharton makes the reader think about it. During the time the novel was written, few writers were willing to address the reality of sexuality, but they had many ways of hinting about it by glaring silences like this one. It is clear that Lily is on the verge of a kind of prostitution. She not only doesnít like Simon Rosedale, she finds him repulsive. Yet she still considers marrying him. Whatís more, she is almost forced to it by her social predicament as an unmarried young woman who has been used as a pawn in a nasty power play between another husband and wife.



Lily appreciates having gotten the blunt news from Carry Fisher that her only hope is to marry and marry soon. She takes a walk with Simon Rosedale one afternoon and inwardly marvels at the ironic parallels this walk has to the walk she took last year with Lawrence Selden at Bellomont. She tells Rosedale that she is now willing to marry him. He colors and tells her he no longer wants to marry her. She is surprised, but maintains her composure. He is so taken with her composure that he presses her to let him explain himself. He says he is even more in love with her this year than he was last year, but now things have changed since she has lost her good standing in society. He has worked too long to risk losing his new position on the verge of entering this society. He says "A man ainít ashamed to say he wants to own a racing stable or a picture gallery. Well, a taste for societyís just another kind of hobby." It is a hobby he has begun to succeed in and associating with the wrong people is the surest way to lose his place in it.

When Lily withdraws again and tells him he must stop coming to see her if this is the case with him, he pushes back again. He tells her she should get even with Bertha Dorset and if she did that, he would marry her. She is intrigued by what he is proposing and remains to hear him out. He wants to know why she doesnít use the letters to blackmail Bertha Dorset into bringing her back into society. Then she could marry him and he could provide her with the material means to make Bertha Dorset powerless to hurt her any further. Lily listens to the whole story and at points begins to be seduced by the idea of solving all her problems. At the end, however, she knows she will never do it. She tells him she will not do it and he responds angrily with the conjecture that she is refusing to do it because the letters are addressed to Lawrence Selden.


Almost at the end of the novel, Wharton finally draws out the card she showed early on--the letters from Bertha Dorset to Lawrence Selden. They present Lily with an escape from her present social predicament and a chance to get even with Bertha Dorset. Wharton is careful in her characterization of her protagonist. Lily might be a person who schemes to flatter rich men into marrying her, but she is not the kind of person who thinks to use black mail. That has to come from the bad guy in the novel, Simon Rosedale. Here, Whartonís anti-Semitism surfaces again. Not only is he new rich and very successful at manipulating his way into the inner sanctum of the social circle of the old rich, but he has bad grammar, and, on top of all of that, heís a Jew. Since it is he who brings up the idea of using the letters to blackmail Bertha Dorset into returning Lily to her good reputation, it is clear that Lily will not take this path to social respectability. It is therefore a tantalizing hope of escape that will never be used. It serves as a means of showing the protagonistís essentially moral nature.

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