Study Guide

The House of Mirth

by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Lawrence Selden enjoys watching Lily Bart put a new plan into operation. She is a very beautiful and clever young lady, and no matter how impromptu any action of hers appears, Selden knows that she never makes an unplanned move. Lily has almost no money of her own; her beauty and her good family background are her only assets. Her father died soon after a reversal of his financial affairs, and her mother drilled into her the idea that a wealthy marriage is her only salvation. After her mother’s death, Lily is taken in by her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, who supplies her with a good home. However, Lily needs jewels, gowns, and cash to play bridge if she is to move in a social circle of wealthy and eligible men.

Simon Rosedale, a Jewish financier, would gladly have married Lily and provided her with a huge fortune, for he wants to be accepted into the society in which Lily moves. Lily, however, thinks that she still has better prospects, the most likely one being Percy Gryce, who lives with his watchful widowed mother.

Lily uses her knowledge of his quiet life to her advantage. Selden, Lily, and Gryce are all houseguests at the home of Gus and Judy Trenor, an ideal opportunity for Lily, who assumed the part of a shy, demure young girl. However, when Gryce is ready to propose, she lets the chance slip away, for Lily abhors the kind of scheming, manipulative person she has become. Even more important, perhaps, she is attracted to Selden, who truly understands her, even though he is poor and can offer her no escape from her own poverty.

Gus Trenor offers to invest some of Lily’s small income, and over a period of time, he gives her more than eight thousand dollars, which he assures her is profit on the transaction. With that amount, she is able to pay most of her creditors and reopen her charge accounts. Gus seems to think, however, that his wise investment on her account should make them better friends than Lily feels is desirable.

Lily unexpectedly comes into possession of letters that Bertha Dorset wrote to Selden, whom she once loved. She preferred to marry George Dorset’s fortune, but she continues to write to Selden after her marriage.

When Gus begins to get more insistent in his demands for Lily’s companionship, she becomes worried. She knows that people are talking about her and that her position in society is precarious. She turns to Selden for advice. He tells her that he loves her for what she can be, but that he can give her nothing now. He has no money, and he will not even offer her his love because he cannot love her as the scheming, ruthless fortune hunter she is.

One night, Lily receives a message that Judy Trenor wants her to call. When she arrives at the Trenor home, Lily finds Gus...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

The House of Mirth Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The House of Mirth, Wharton’s second full-length novel, not only guaranteed her literary reputation but also established the setting and themes she would explore throughout her career. Set in the early twentieth century New York society with which she was so intimately familiar, the novel offers an angrier and more bitter condemnation of this social milieu than Wharton’s later work, which mellowed with the passage of time. Both a meticulously thorough examination of a complex social structure and a brilliant character study, it offers a compelling exploration of the effects of social conformity upon the individual.

As the novel opens, its heroine, twenty-nine-year-old Lily Bart, has achieved the height of her powers: Beautiful, intelligent, charming, and sought after, she has nevertheless reached a turning point, knowing too well that society has no place for an unmarried woman past her prime. Her parents having left her no legacy but an appreciation for the finer things in life, Lily occupies a precarious social position under the protection of her dreary, socially prominent Aunt Peniston, and she must rely on the favors of the wealthy ladies and gentlemen who find her company amusing.

Lily’s craving for the secure foothold that only marriage can provide cannot entirely overcome her distaste for the hypocrisy and insensitivity of her class. Hardly lacking for opportunities to marry well, Lily nevertheless manages to sabotage her best chances, as she does in bungling her courtship with Percy Gryce, an eminently eligible but overwhelmingly boring pillar of the community.

Lily’s unique place in New York society—simultaneously insider and outsider—makes her one of Wharton’s most fascinating creations and offers the reader a privileged perspective on this world. A product of her society, “at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine . . . [who] must have cost a great deal to make,” Lily is also “so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

Lily’s need to be surrounded by the beautiful things that only immense sums of money can buy and her distaste for the common and ugly...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

The House of Mirth Summary

Lily in the United States
The House of Mirth opens in New York City as Lily Bart misses the train that was to take her to a...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

The House of Mirth Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

As The House of Mirth begins, Lawrence Selden notices Miss Lily Bart standing alone in New York’s Grand Central Station. She looks stunning, and as always, he finds himself fascinated by her. Lily is not simply beautiful; she is skilled at being beautiful. From early childhood, she has been trained to exhibit refinement and social grace, and she does both better than anyone else.

When Lily spots Selden, she greets him and explains that she has missed her train. Selden offers to entertain her while she waits for the next one. He takes her for a walk up Madison Avenue. When she gets tired and suggests sitting down on a bench, he offers her tea in his apartment, which is close by in a building called the...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

On her way to the train, Lily worries. Of all the people who could have seen her leaving a man’s apartment alone, Mr. Rosedale is the worst. He is a social climber who seems to think that he can impress society by knowing—and spreading—the secrets of prominent people. She berates herself for refusing to let him drive her to the station. He would have been glad for the chance to be seen with someone as fashionable as Lily, and he might have been silent as a result. Now it is hard to say what he will do.

In spite of her unhappy thoughts, Lily arranges herself prettily in her seat on the train. When she glances around at the other passengers, she notices a wealthy and unmarried young man named Mr. Percy Gryce. Like...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

That night at Bellomont, Lily loses badly at bridge and goes exhausted up to bed. As she undresses, she reflects that she spent the whole afternoon letting Mr. Gryce bore her—and that she will have to do the same thing tomorrow. At the moment, her greatest hope is that "he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life."

Lily has little choice but to think this way. She must either pursue a man like Mr. Gryce or live a dowdy existence like Gerty Farish’s. The latter option would not work for Lily. She craves beautiful, luxurious surroundings. For now she lives in such surroundings only because other people invite her to join them at their parties. She has no control over her own circumstances,...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

In the morning, Lily receives a note on her breakfast tray. Her hostess, Mrs. Trenor, needs help making dinner cards and sifting through mail. It is generally assumed that Lily, who is dependent on the charity of her hosts, will give such help whenever needed. The request reminds Lily of her precarious place in the world, but she pretends it does not bother her. She shows up, looking perfectly groomed, at ten o’clock in the morning—a time of day that is regarded as practically dawn in her social circle.

Mrs. Trenor is a tall woman of middling beauty whose whole goal in life is to give bigger parties than anyone else. She is friendly to anyone who is not capable of rivaling her in this regard. Her husband is an...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

On Sunday morning at Bellomant, Mr. Gryce stands waiting for Lily Bart. Last night, the two of them made plans to meet and go to church together; she had dropped a few comments which gave him the impression that she was a regular churchgoer. Mr. Gryce reflects that Miss Bart is an excellent person for being so good when she lives among such superficial and materialistic people. As he waits, a few other people show up—but Miss Bart does not appear.

Lily gets up in time to make it to church, but the day looks so bright and cheerful that she finds herself tempted to play hooky. She fully expects Mr. Gryce to propose to her this afternoon, and she plans to accept. Nevertheless, she is not eager to let him bore her all the...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Lily cancels her afternoon plans with Mr. Gryce and goes for a walk with Selden instead. This adjustment to her plans is carefully calculated: She claims that she missed church because she is ill and that she is still feeling too poorly to go anywhere right away. She thinks this is a way of slowing down, giving Mr. Gryce some time to wonder. She encourages him to spend an afternoon out with other people, and he accepts her suggestion. When he is gone, Lily and Selden go out.

Selden has no illusions about Lily’s plans; he finds it amusing to witness her machinations. He comments that she is a genius at them, and she protests that if she were a genius, she would be more successful. He asks her to define what it means to...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Mrs. Dorset sees through Lily's lies about her illness and guesses that her real plan is to spend the afternoon with Selden. This infuriates Mrs. Dorset, who wanted to spend the weekend with Selden herself. Seeking revenge, Mrs. Dorset spends all of Sunday afternoon telling Mr. Gryce scandalous stories about Lily’s gambling habits and failed love affairs.

Her revenge works out exactly as Mrs. Dorset plans. Early Monday morning, Mr. Gryce catches a train back home to his mother. Now he is afraid of Lily. There is little chance that he will ever speak to her again, let alone marry her. Those few hours of freedom with Selden have cost Lily a chance to marry a wealthy man.

Mrs. Trenor is annoyed at Lily for...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Mr. Trenor soon gives Lily a check for a thousand dollars, along with news that he has reinvested four thousand more. She promptly pays down some debts and, feeling financially secure, places orders for clothes and jewelry. The shopping provides a welcome distraction after her failure with Mr. Gryce.

A few weeks later, Lily attends the wedding of her cousin, Jack Stepney. When Lily arrives, she notices Mr. Gryce among the guests. She knows that she is looking beautiful today, and she resolves to make an attempt at regaining Mr. Gryce’s favor. Just after she makes this decision, she spots Lawrence Selden, as well.

Lily speaks with Gerty Farish, the girl who has chosen a drab life devoid of men and riches....

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Generally, fashionable people wait until late in the fall to move back to New York City, but this year Lily returns in October, just a couple of weeks after her boring aunt returns from her own vacation. Lily has not received as many invitations this year as she normally does—a sign that everyone is bored with her. She has an open invitation to visit the Trenors at Bellomont, but she avoids going there because she does not know what Mr. Trenor may demand in exchange for his investment help.

On her first day home, Lily receives a visit from Mrs. Haffen, the maid who saw her coming out of Selden's house several weeks earlier. Mrs. Haffen asks to speak to Lily in the drawing room. Sensing that something strange is going...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Lily stays in New York during most of the fall, spending the money she got from Mr. Trenor. She continues to receive few invitations from friends aside from the Trenors, whose invitations she continues to decline. At Thanksgiving, she is invited for a week’s vacation in the Adirondacks with Mr. and Mrs. Wellington Bry, a newly rich and not very fashionable couple whose attentions she has previously ignored. Lily decides to accept the offer, and she spends a happy week at the Brys’ party. Eager to gain acceptance among Lily’s friends, the Brys work hard to please her throughout the vacation.

After Thanksgiving, Lily returns to her aunt’s home, where she receives a visit from Mr. Rosedale. He asks her to sit in...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

The winter season of balls, plays, and dinners is in full swing. Mrs. Peniston, who always watches these goings-on avidly, notices that this year’s season is not as flashy as the one last year. Most of New York’s wealthy families have lost a great deal of money on the stock market recently, and now they all feel poor. They are spending less money on big parties.

This year, the only people who have done well financially are Mr. Rosedale and Mr. Bry, both of whom are still having trouble making inroads into society. The Brys in particular are fighting hard against their general unpopularity. Recently they have befriended the divorcee Mrs. Fisher, who is helping them to make social connections.

Mrs....

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Lily’s conscience is troubled by the idea that she owes Mr. Trenor for his favor to her; she constantly looks for ways to appease him without compromising her morals. Mrs. Trenor is still living at Bellomont, finding the country home more interesting than New York during a dull season. One weekend Lily goes there for a visit. Everyone welcomes her, but she finds little opportunity to speak to Mr. Trenor. She notices that people are generally annoyed at her for her recent kindness to the Brys and to Mr. Rosedale.

When Lily returns to town, she hears that the Brys are holding a huge party. This is a dangerous thing for a couple in their position to do:

To attack society collectively, when...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The next morning, Lily wakes up feeling happy after her wonderful evening. She finds two notes waiting for her. One is from Lawrence Selden. He is going to be out of town until dinnertime today, but he wants to see her tomorrow. Reading it, she feels a bit dismayed. She hopes he knows that last night’s kiss was nothing she meant to repeat. Her first impulse is to refuse to see him, but a feeling of happiness lingers from the evening. She offers to meet him at four o’clock the next day. As she writes the note, she tells herself that she can put him off later.

The other note is from Mrs. Trenor, asking Lily to meet for dinner tonight. Lily is pleased because Mrs. Trenor has recently been acting cold. It is unclear...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

The morning after the Brys’ party, Gerty Farish wakes up happy. She lives a humble little life that is normally far removed from any sort of glamour. Last night’s peek into the world of high society has left her reeling with amazement and pleasure. The evening was made perfect by the fact that she got to spend it with her cousin, Lawrence Selden, whom she secretly loves.

Gerty has noticed the attraction between Selden and Lily, and she is actually pleased by it. She lives with the assumption that she will always be a poor and independent old maid. An unselfish person by both nature and habit, Gerty feels happy just witnessing a romance between two people who are important to her.

Gerty’s feelings shift...

(The entire section is 758 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

When Lily awakes the next morning, she learns that Gerty has already called Mrs. Peniston to explain where Lily is. Thanking her friend, Lily returns home, pacifies her aunt with a story about having stayed at Gerty’s due to illness, and goes to her room. There she tallies up the money she received from Mr. Trenor and realizes that it amounts to nine thousand dollars. She understands now that this money was not in any way her own, and she knows that she has to pay it back. It occurs to her “that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage.”

After lunch, Lily goes to her aunt and admits that she is in debt. Her aunt scolds her for overspending and asks to see the dressmaker’s bill. Always eager...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Book Two of The House of Mirth begins three months later. Lawrence Selden is traveling alone in Monte Carlo (in Monaco) when he runs into the Brys, the Stepneys, and Mrs. Fisher. The group immediately sweeps Selden up in their superficial fun. Their conversation soon turns to Lily Bart and the Dorsets, who are just returning to Monte Carlo after a cruise to Sicily.

Mrs. Fisher comments that any girl with Lily’s grace and appearance should find it easy to attract a husband. She describes an episode from several years earlier, when Lily was on the point of marriage with an Italian prince and then threw away the opportunity at the last minute. According to Mrs. Fisher, the incident reflects Lily's character:...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

When Lily awakes the following morning on the Dorsets’ yacht, she learns that Mr. Dorset and Ned Silverton are both gone for the day. Mrs. Dorset is still sleeping, so Lily spends a lazy couple of hours enjoying the view. Around noon, she leaves to have breakfast with the Duchess, as they have planned. The meal is enjoyable, and afterward Lily goes to the Casino. Unable to play since she lacks the funds to gamble, Lily spends time watching other people, sometimes chatting with them.

Soon Lily sees Mrs. Fisher and Mrs. Bry entering the Casino. Stopping to speak with Lily, Mrs. Fisher says that someone saw Lily waiting for a train with Mr. Dorset last night. Lily explains that she and Mr. Dorset did not intend to be...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Mr. Dorset, in need of a lawyer, goes to Lawrence Selden. Selden listens to the jilted husband’s complaints and advises him to talk with his wife before making any decisions. Whether or not the matter ends in divorce, it must not end in scandal. Selden would try to keep any such situation quiet, but in this case, he tries harder than usual. His own history with Mrs. Dorset does not trouble him much, but he is eager to shelter Lily from any social consequences for her hosts’ mistakes.

For the next couple of days, Mrs. Dorset continues behaving as if she is the one who has been wronged. Mr. Dorset speaks privately with her, and then he suddenly begins acting distant, as well. Lily tells herself that it is natural for...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

Several weeks later, a crowd of Mrs. Peniston’s relatives gathers in her drawing room for the reading of her will. Grace Stepney, Mrs. Peniston’s "dear cousin and name-sake," shows real grief at the old lady’s death. Everyone else looks bored. Most assume that Miss Lily Bart will inherit the entire estate.

The door opens, and Lily appears with her friend Gerty Farish. Nobody snubs Lily outright, but her reception is cool. Lily chooses a seat apart from the others and reflects that life will be easier when she has Mrs. Peniston's money. Lily has not lived down the scandal caused by Mrs. Dorset's betrayal, but nobody shuns a rich woman.

A lawyer begins the reading of the will, which includes a long list...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

After leaving Grace Stepney, Lily goes outside with no idea what to do next. She runs into Mrs. Fisher, who apologizes for failing to be nicer previously. Mrs. Fisher suggests an outing with her friends the Gormers, a wealthy couple who live in luxury but do not aspire to reach the pinnacle of high society. In the past, Lily never would have deigned to accept an invitation from such people. Now she sees that an opportunity on the fringes of society is better than no opportunity at all. She agrees to go.

The Gormers live much like the Dorsets or the Trenors, in a world of beauty and plenty. Their party is fun because nobody there cares very much about what others think of them. However, Lily is constantly conscious of...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

Lily continues to spend a great deal of time with the Gormers, but she is not content. She constantly feels that she is “of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child.” During the fall, she often accompanies Mrs. Gormer to a country house she is having built on Long Island. On one of these occasions, Lily takes a walk alone and runs into Mr. Dorset on the road.

Mr. Dorset is obviously thrilled to see Lily. He apologizes for his role in her fall from society’s good graces. At first, she is unwilling to accept his apology, but ultimately she knows that he is as much a victim of Mrs. Dorset’s scheming as she is. He begs for help, hinting that he would immediately divorce his...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

Mr. Rosedale joins the party at Mrs. Fisher’s, and over the next few days, Lily spends a great deal of time with him. The two of them get along well; she can see that he is attracted to her. On a walk one day, she announces that she is willing to get married any time he wishes. To her surprise, he is not pleased; he is embarrassed. Although he enjoys her company, Mr. Rosedale says, he was not planning to renew the marriage proposal he made last year.

Hearing this, Lily starts to leave, but Mr. Rosedale stops her. He asks if they can be friends. She tells him frankly that she is not willing to waste time flirting if he does not plan to marry her. When she tries again to leave, he follows, breaking into a run to keep...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary

In the next few weeks, Mrs. Gormer’s friendship with Mrs. Dorset grows, while her friendship with Lily withers away. This leaves Lily with nowhere to go. As her situation worsens, she struggles to stand by her decision regarding Mr. Rosedale’s blackmail plan. If she changes her mind and does what he wants, then she will command a fortune so large it will be easy to beat Mrs. Dorset at her own game, but Lily cannot stomach the immorality of such a course. She is a bit bewildered when she realizes that her decision to make the moral choice has left her in such dire circumstances: "What she expected, and really felt herself entitled to, was a situation in which the noblest attitude should also be the easiest."

On her...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Chapter 24 Summary

Mrs. Hatch is just the sort of person who needs a social secretary: “rich, helpless, unplaced.” From new money in the West, she lives in a world of total luxury without any rules or traditions to constrain it. She wants desperately to learn the refined cultivation of high society; she spends a great deal of money on beauty consultants, bridge teachers, and other so-called experts. However, she has made little progress toward her goal.

Lily is astounded by Mrs. Hatch’s lifestyle. Mrs. Hatch lives totally according to her own pleasure, with no regard whatsoever for social rules Lily has always taken for granted. In her first days at her new job, Lily marvels to see a few men from her old circle in Mrs. Hatch’s...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapter 25 Summary

Lily soon realizes that Selden is right; her connection to Mrs. Hatch is disgraceful. Her conclusion is confirmed when she receives an offer of money if she helps achieve a marriage between Mrs. Hatch and Freddy Van Osburgh. Disgusted by the crassness of the offer, Lily flees—but not before society judges her harshly for attempting to ensnare the Van Osburgh heir in an unworthy match.

Lily goes first to Gerty Farish but does not want to stay very long. By now it is clear to Lily that she must earn a living somehow. Since she is skilled at trimming hats, Gerty gets her a job as an apprentice with a milliner. Lily would much rather have a cushy position tying little bows and working in the front of a shop, but she does...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Chapter 26 Summary

Lily soon gets fired from her apprenticeship. She tries not to feel bad about being dismissed. She is “ornamental” and thus cannot “serve any practical purpose.” Even knowing this, she finds it difficult to accept that she cannot take care of herself. After a week of leisure with no money or company to make it enjoyable, she is surprised to receive a visit from Mr. Rosedale.

When Lily ushers Mr. Rosedale into the parlor of her boarding house, he looks around at the kitschy décor with distaste. He tells her that she cannot stay where she is. She tells him that he is right; she may not be able to afford it. This is not at all what he meant, and he rails against the injustice of her situation. He tries to lend her...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Chapter 27 Summary

Selden is surprised to see Lily at his door, but he hides his feelings and invites her in. Lily looks around and finds the place just as she last saw it. The two of them stand in silence for some time. Eventually she finds her voice and apologizes for being rude to him when he tried to make her leave her employment with Mrs. Hatch. Lily explains that she eventually took his advice.

After accepting Lily’s apology, Selden invites her to sit by his fire and warm up. She refuses to sit, and she refuses tea. As she tries to explain herself to him, she starts to cry. Dimly, she sees that she is making him uncomfortable, and this makes her feel more lost and lonely than ever. Once he loved her; now he has mastered his...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Chapter 28 Summary

After seeing Selden, Lily makes her way weakly through the streets, ill from fatigue and spent emotions. She has destroyed Mrs. Dorset’s letters, and now she sees no way forward. The only prospect of relief is chloral, the drug that she has been taking to make herself sleep. She must still wait a while before she can go to bed, and she does not know how to spend the next few hours. Exhausted, she sits down to rest on a cold bench in a park.

A young woman, Nettie Struther, stops when she sees Lily on the bench. Nettie is one of the young women Lily helped during the brief time she was interested in Gerty Farish’s charities. When Lily first met Nettie, the girl was near death from illness after a failed love affair....

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Chapter 29 Summary

The next morning, Selden awakes feeling that his love for Lily has been renewed. He wants to see her right away, presumably to propose marriage. It is early—far too early to visit—but he cannot make himself wait until a more respectable time. Bounding up the steps to the boarding house, he is surprised to find Gerty Farish already there. His bright mood wavers when she asks him how he found out so soon. Gerty leads him upstairs and shows him Lily’s cramped room—with Lily’s dead body still in the bed.

Selden stares, unable to believe that Lily is gone. Gerty shows him the bottle of chloral and says that Lily must have taken an overdose by accident. She assures him that the doctor will agree, implying the doctor...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster