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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily wakes after her first night at the Emporium Hotel with a strong sense of the privilege of her position. Despite the crudeness of the interior design, Lily feels happy to be out of her cramped hotel room constantly facing economic privation. She has soon found that Mrs. Hatch is the foremost member of her social set, somewhere in the periphery of the Gormers’ social set. She has been aided by Mr. Melville Stancy in getting as far as she has socially, and now she wants Lily to help her take the next steps.

Lily has been disconcerted by the disorder of Mrs. Hatch’s life. She follows no social routine, mixes dinner and drinks, allows usual class boundaries to dissolve so that Lily has trouble distinguishing who is servant and who is friend. "Mrs. Hatch swam in a haze of indeterminate enthusiasms, of aspirations culled from the stage, the newspapers, the fashion-journals, and a gaudy world of sport still more completely beyond [Lily’s] ken." It is Lily’s job to get Mrs. Hatch out of these interests and into a more sedate lifestyle. Lily has been especially troubled to find that some members of her old set are among Mrs. Hatch’s guests. Among them Ned Silverton is in close connection with Mr. Stancy and the two of them seem to be working hard to influence the young Freddy Van Osburgh in favor of Mrs. Hatch. Lily feels as if she is participating in this seduction just by her proximity to the group.

One day she is surprised by a visit by Lawrence Selden. She has suffered a great deal in the knowledge that he has avoided her since his return from Europe. She therefore greets him with cold formality. He is also reserved and has trouble stating his reason for coming. After a while, he finally tells her she must let him take her away from her present position. He says he will at first set her up with Gerty Farish until she can find a way to make her own living. She tells him after some prompting that she doesn’t have merely to wait for her legacy from her aunt to come through, since she owes all of it and more. He is astonished by this news. He continues however to insist that she join Gerty and try to set up a life there with her. He tells her that Mrs. Hatch’s wish to be inside the social circles of Lily’s old friends puts Lily in a false position. Because he has avoided her for so long and has now come to her with these authoritative demands, Lily responds with pure formality and tells him she is doing just as she has been taught to do, she is making a way for herself.


The description of Mrs. Hatch’s world indicates Edith Wharton’s sense of values on the idea of civilization she finds in the manners of the old rich. Edith Wharton clearly finds plenty to criticize about the lack of human values in people of the Trenor’s set, but she does so from the point of view of an insider. The people who represent the new rich, the Brys, the Gormers, and finally, Mrs. Norma Hatch, are represented with increasingly sharp irony. The aesthetic repugnance with which Wharton describes the ostentatious decorations of the Emporium hotel amounts almost to a moral tone. The contrast is stark between Mrs. Hatch’s disordered existence, in which class boundaries collapse and beauty doctors are invited to sit in one’s opera box, and the kind of upbringing which structures the conversation between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden.

Lily’s interview with Selden is frustrating for any reader wishing to see her take the first chance to get out of her uncomfortable position with Mrs. Hatch. However, it seems that Selden is himself in a false position. He has left Lily alone, not visiting her, and therefore effectively joining the others who have ostracized her since her return from Europe. Now he comes to her and attempts to order to into the uncomfortable alternative of making herself Gerty Farish’s roommate. The interview takes on a tragic note in the reader’s sense that if a few things could be changed, Lily and Lawrence could be happy together.

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