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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily walks along the streets in the evening feeling exhausted and cold. She decides to sit on a park bench to rest before she tries to get home. As she sits there, she thinks about how hard it will be to go home to her lonely rooms. Suddenly someone comes up to her and asks if she is sick and then recognizes her as Miss Bart. It is one of the women from Gerty Farishís Womenís Club who Lily had personally helped by sending her to a sanitarium for a cure for a lung disease. Her name is Nettie Struther, but she has since been married and is now Nettie Crane. Lily thinks of the irony of the fact that it was Gus Trenorís money that she had given to Nettie that day. She has trouble speaking she is so exhausted. She finally manages to say that she has been unhappy and in great trouble. Nettie canít believe that Lily could be in trouble since she was so high up in society. After a while Lily makes an attempt to get up to go home, but Nettie convinces her to come to her apartment to rest and talk for a while first.

In Nettieís kitchen, Lily is warmed and comforted by the smells of cooking and the love Nettie showers on her new baby. Nettie tells her of how much she has talked to her husband George about Lily. She says she and her husband had followed her progress in the papers and had always liked to read the descriptions of Lilyís dresses. Then her name stopped appearing in the papers and she had become greatly worried, thinking Lily must have gotten sick. Nettie says that when Lily gave her that money she had been at the end of her resources. She had worked in an office where she had been seduced by a man whom she worked with. After being with him for six months, he left her. She had been so distressed that she became ill and assumed she would die when Lily showed up with the money to send her to the sanitarium. When she returned, her now-husband had come to her and asked her to marry him. He knew about her affair with the other man and it hadnít altered his love for her. They have since been very happy and have recently had a baby.

Lily holds her arms out for the child. "The childís confidence in its safety thrilled her with a sense of warmth and returning life." She feels after a while as if the weight of the child sinks into her and the child enters her and becomes part of herself. Nettie exclaims upon seeing her like this that she wishes her daughter could grow up to become like Lily. Lily says she must not ever do that and that she would be afraid to come to see her too often for fear of that eventuality. Finally, she gets up and leaves. When she reaches her own street she realizes she feels stronger and happier, but at her door, she feels the weight of loneliness return to her. She decides she must go down to dinner even though she finds it repugnant. She has been skipping dinner too often lately.

Back in her room, she suddenly feels the need to get her things in order. She goes through her drawers and her closet and pulls out all her dresses and examines them and puts them in order. Just as she finishes, the house maid brings her a letter. It is a check from the lawyers of Mrs. Penistonís estate for ten thousand dollars. She sits down and stares at it. She tries to figure out her finances. She feels great fear that she will succumb to the desire to use the money for herself instead of paying it back to Gus Trenor. She knows that she has never had any training in moral rectitude "There was no center of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others." She had gotten her first glimpse of a life of continuity and solidarity that evening with Nettie Struther. Nettie had found the strength to live when she had gotten a family. George had married her despite her past. Lily thinks of Selden. He had twice tried to give her his love and she had refused. Now that she had wanted him, he had not been able to accept her love.

As she had sat holding Nettieís baby, she had felt the urge to live return to her. She wanted to find happiness. She realizes sitting there now that "one by one she had detached herself from the baser possibilities, and she saw that nothing now remained to her but the emptiness of renunciation." It is now late and she feels horribly tired. She fears again for her inability to go through with giving all the money to Trenor. Suddenly she reaches for the check, puts it in an envelope addressed to her bank and then begins to write checks to all those she owes. When she is finished it is quite late. She feels that "she alone is left sentient in a lifeless universe." She goes to bed but despite her exhaustion cannot sleep. She has gotten no sleep for the past two days. She has worried about taking any more of the drug because of the chemistís warning, but lately it has not been working as well as it used to. She reaches for the vial and adds the extra drops, then blows out the candle and lies down.

She lies still waiting for the wonderful effect of the drug on her senses. The drug works more slowly than usual, but finally it begins to make her sleepy. As she lies there, she thinks about the next day, realizing that it wonít be so bad tomorrow after all. When she stirs, she suddenly feels as if Nettie Strutherís child is lying in her arms. She settles herself around the baby and holds her breath steady so she wonít disturb the baby. She realizes there is something she should tell Selden the next day, one word, but she canít think of what it is. The world finally fades slowly and just before sleep, she starts up thinking she has lost her hold on the child. She realizes she is wrong. The child is still with her, and she sinks down and sleeps.


Does Lily commit suicide? Aside from her conscious thoughts, all her actions indicate that she does. She says good-bye to Lawrence Selden, burns the papers that would hurt his reputation, arranges all her clothes, pays all her bills, and takes more drops than is safe even while remembering the chemistís warning that more drops will send one to sleep forever. Her conscious thoughts are much more confused than would allow anyone to say decidedly that she has committed suicide. Part of the confusion comes from having become addicted to the drug, part of it comes from having eaten so little and slept so little, and part of it comes from living outside the boundaries of any life she has been raised to know.

Wharton writes Lilyís death with complete pathos. The irony which so saturates the earlier descriptions of Lily and her world is completely absent. It is replaced with the language of sentimentality. That sentimentality rests in two elements of popular attachment to pathos the romanticism of star-crossed lovers and the ideology of motherhood. Lily encounters both discourses in the last chapter of her life. At Lawrence Seldenís apartment, she realizes that he has offered to love her twice and both times she has refused. Now that she realizes how much she loves him, he is unable to love her back in the same way. At Nettie Strutherís apartment, Lily sits in Nettieís kitchen as Nettie praises the life of motherhood and wifehood and she holds Nettieís baby. When she drifts off to sleep, she hallucinates that she has the baby back in her arms.

The critique of the novel has rested on a realistic portrayal of what a young woman has to go through to find economic security and how tenuous that security is if one has a streak of morality running through her. The novel closes in the language of sentimental fiction. The protagonist has turned from a rather deeply flawed but good-hearted person who makes a series of active decisions in an attempt to manage her life, to a figure of tragedy, beautiful and fragile, childlike and mother-like at the same time. The shift from realism to sentimentality in style also shifts the manner of the critique. The woman returns to her position in society as one in need of the protection of a good man.

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