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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily is out on day in late April on Fifth Avenue. She catches glimpses every once in a while of her former friends as they ride past in their carriages. She has been dismissed from Madame Regina’s shop. She has been so often sick that she is surprised it took Madame Regina so long to fire her. As she approaches her boarding house, she is surprised to see Simon Rosedale waiting for her on the stoop. Inside the parlor, he looks around in disgust at the poor furnishings. He tells her she can’t go on living in such a place. She tells him that since she lost her job, she can only barely manage the bills. He offers to lend her the money to repay Trenor, but she refuses, saying that in accepting a loan from him she would be repeating her mistake with Trenor. Simon Rosedale hears all of Lily’s objections with the eye of a collector who recognizes the fineness of the merchandise not only in the look of it but in its attitude.

That night, Lily doesn’t take sleeping drops. She tries to look clearly at her situation knowing that if she only goes to Bertha Dorset, she would be able to marry Simon Rosedale. The next morning, she gets up late and goes out to a restaurant to have some tea. The room is filled with women and girls chatting animatedly and Lily feels especially lonely as she sits alone. When she finishes several cups of tea, she goes home and gets the packet of letters from her bureau and heads in the direction of Bertha Dorset’s house. On her way, she happens to pass by the same street that she walked on with Lawrence Selden so long ago. She comes to his building and stands on the street opposite it. She notices his light is on and imagines his library with its calm and quiet. She goes into his building.


Simon Rosedale’s shock at Lily’s state reveals the typical mindset of men of his time. In the patriarchal world of the time, men not only assumed, but often enforced women’s dependency on them. Women were blocked from most forms of employment which gave men their sense of independence. They were forced to rely on men for food, shelter, and even protection. For these basic securities, they were expected to serve with charm and patience. The patriarchal arrangement worked for many people. When it failed and a woman was left outside the net of security, she was a social anomaly. A woman like Lily Bart, raised as she was to be a charming dependent of a rich man, but cast outside that circle, would surely call into question the adequacy of the patriarchal system to meet the needs of all the members of the society. A man like Simon Rosedale is blind to the cruel irony of his statement that the "idea of your having to work--it’s preposterous."

In this brief chapter, Wharton paints with touching realism Lily’s sorry state. As she sits in a tea house, she feels a "sudden pang of profound loneliness. She had lost the sense of time, and it seemed to her as though she had not spoken to anyone for days." In Lily’s loneliness and her sense of dislocation, Wharton paints a desolate picture. Lily has never been comfortable being alone. She has no inner resources to find comfort in solitude. She has been trained to be attached to people and to value herself only in that attachment. She has also been raised on a routine round of social activities. Now that she is not only without work, but also without friends, she has lost a sense of time.

On the brink of complete destitution, Lily Bart faces the bare choices her life has been presenting her for the past year the life presented by Mr. Rosedale or that presented by Lawrence Selden. Just as she is on Mr. Rosedale’s errand to blackmail Bertha Dorset with her love letters, she chances to pass by Lawrence Selden’ rooms and changes her path.



Inside Lawrence Selden’s library Lily feels the same sense of ease she felt the first time she was there. She tells him she came to apologize for her gruff manner when he came to see her at Mrs. Hatch’s residence. He is unable to loosen the social manners of reserve, but Lily feels that she can think clearly and is able to be direct about her emotions. She realizes she loves him, but that she has killed his love for her. After a brief conversation in which Lily tells him she is planning to go somewhere and leave behind her old self that he had known, she changes her mind. She realizes she cannot go through with her plan. She asks him to build up the fire in his fire place and when he is not looking, she throws the packet of letters in it. Then she leaves.


Several changes come over Lily as she talks to Lawrence Selden in his rooms two years after the first time she spoke to him there. She begins with the idea of clearing the air between them as if she is about to renounce the self she had been with him. Then she realizes she can’t do that. The reader recognizes that Lily has thrown the letters into the fire before she left. Since blackmail with the letters was her only possible solution to her troubles, the reader must immediately think that the sleeping drops will be the next solution she will use to settle her problems forever. The poignancy of the scene reaches its height when Lawrence Selden notices that Lily is thin. Her poverty is showing in her face and body.

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