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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily Bart is being scolded for sewing the bangles on a hat in a crooked line. She is one of twenty workers in a millinery shop owned by Madame Regina. Gerty Farish and Carry Fisher got her the position in hopes that she would get some basic training in trimming hats which she could use to start a shop of her own when her legacy comes through from Mrs. Penistonís estate. Lily hasnít told either of them that she plans to use the money from the inheritance to repay Gus Trenor. Lily is doing very poorly in learning the art of sewing hats. She has been working at the shop for three months and is still unable to do the basic tasks. She is confused in her thinking and her hands are clumsy. Her co-workers regard her as a foreigner. They know of her past and look on her with amused disinterest. She hears them talking about making hats for her former friends the Trenors and Mrs. Dorset.

When work is over one of her co-workers tries to console her. She is happy to have someone be kind to her, but also only wants to get home to bed. As she walks home, she thinks ahead that she must find a way to avoid the chemistís shop across the street from her boarding house. When she gets there, though, she goes into the shop and orders another prescription of medicine. The chemist warns her that only a few more drops will kill her. She is so nervous since she is using a prescription of Mrs. Hatch, that she can scarcely answer.

When she gets outside she runs into Mr. Rosedale. He is shocked at her appearance and insists on taking her to a nearby restaurant for tea. She looks wasted and emaciated, but still dazzles him with her beauty. He is so kind to her that she feels the strong urge to confide in him. She tells him she plans to use her entire legacy to pay back Gus Trenor. He is shocked into admiration of her. She tells him she left Mrs. Hatchís because she worried that people would think she was involved in the scheme to get Freddy Van Osburgh to marry Mrs. Hatch, but now people think she was involved anyway. He offers to help her with backing if she needs any money. She declines his offer, but feels touched by his kindness. He walks her home and is shocked to see the boarding house where she lives. He asks if he can come and see her sometimes and she is touched again by the heroism she sees in this gesture.

When she gets to her room, she realizes she had confided so much in Simon Rosedale because she is so lonely. Carry Fisher had been a good friend to get her situated in the shop, but had backed off soon afterwards out of a sense of self-preservation. She had, after all, introduced Lily to Mrs. Hatch, and so her name was attached to the scandal. Lily dreads another night of insomnia. The worst of her nights are filled with images of Lawrence Selden coming to her in frank kindness. She has taken a good deal of Mrs. Hatchís prescription which sends her into a deep sleep free of dreams. She wakes every morning after such a dose feeling freed of her past. Her worst nightmares come from the fear that she will not be able to maintain her resolve to pay back Gus Trenor. She worries that when the legacy comes, she will buy the millinery establishment as Gerty Farish and Carry Fisher expect her to do and then eventually come to be able to live with the debt she owes to Gus Trenor.


As Wharton traces Lily Bartís fall from the heights of wealth to the depths of poverty, she moves from a style of realism to one of melodrama. By the end of chapter ten, Wharton has repeated several times the hopelessness of Lilyís situation. Lily is shown to be hounded by bad dreams of sweet communion with Lawrence Selden, horrid temptations to use the packet of letters against Bertha Dorset in collusion with Simon Rosedale, and the moral discomfort of realizing that she might not be able to bring herself to use the last of her money to pay Gus Trenor back for the money he gave her. By the end of the chapter, the melodramatic language is firmly in place "The only hope of renewal lay in the little bottle at her bed-side; and ho w much longer that hope would last she dared not conjecture."

Perhaps it was impossible for Wharton to go to the world of working class women with anything but melodrama. Perhaps she wants to elicit all of the readerís sympathy for a woman who has made a series of bad choices, but who has nevertheless not deserved such cruel treatment by her friends and family. Wharton has certainly set up the background of Lilyís despairing attitude carefully. Lily has been taught from childhood that poverty is a sign of being pig-like, that poor taste is a moral fault, and that grubbing after other peopleís money by putting herself on the marriage market is a solution both acceptable and right.

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