Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1132 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 922 words.)
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 house party hosted by her friends Judy and Gus Trenor. She runs into longtime acquaintance Laurence Selden and, despite the impropriety of such actions at the time, accompanies him back to his apartment for a cup of tea. When she finally gets on the train, Lily sees Percy Gryce, who is an imminently marriageable, but dull, man. She pays him a great deal of attention both on the train and at the Trenors. However, just as Percy is on the verge of proposing marriage to her, Lily neglects to keep an engagement with him. Instead, she chooses to take a walk with Selden, who has come down to Bellomont specifically to see her. Selden and Lily are attracted to one another, and Selden makes her feel that her intentions to marry Gryce—indeed, her intentions to marry wealthy—are “hateful.” Lily returns to New York after asking Gus Trenor to help her invest her small income.
Trenor’s financial help pays off immediately for Lily. She earns $10,000 in a short period of time. However, along with Trenor’s financial help come his unwanted attentions, and after he lures Lily back to his house under the pretense of seeing Judy, Lily unhappily discovers that he has been giving her his own money with the expectation that she will have an affair with him. Lily vows to return Trenor’s money, though she does not know where she...
(The entire section is 1040 words.)
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 Benedick.
Lily blushes at this suggestion because it is not proper for an unmarried girl to spend time alone in a man's apartment. However, she accepts the invitation anyway because she enjoys his company and because they both know where they stand with each other. They are only friends, and their relationship can never become anything more. Lily needs a man with money, and Selden does not have any.
Lily follows Selden to his apartment, where she comments that she wishes it were acceptable for a marriageable girl to live alone. Selden’s cousin Gerty Farish, a friend of Lily's, lives by herself—but only because she has resigned herself to life as a poor old maid. Gerty lives in a tiny, ugly little apartment with practically no servants. Lily says emphatically that she would never be content with such a life.
Selden feels sorry for Lily because she has been trained to value wealth and society above all else. As a woman, she has no access to either one except through marriage. In Selden’s mind, this makes Lily a sort of slave:
She was 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 looks over Selden's books and asks several questions about Americana, historical texts on the history of the United States. Selden does not own any such books, but he knows something about them. He explains that most people who collect Americana enjoy owning rarities but do not actually read the history contained within the covers. Lily seems fascinated by everything Selden says on this issue, and this strikes him as odd. Normally she has no patience...
(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 her, he is traveling to a party at Bellomont, the country estate of Lily’s friends, Mr. and Mrs. Trenor.
Lily is thrilled that Mr. Gryce is on her train. She makes him sit by her, and then she orders tea from the porter. Mr. Gryce watches in obvious fascination at the grace of her movements as she fixes the tea in the rocking train. A timid man, he would normally be too shy to order something that might spill. Watching Mr. Gryce from the corner of her eye, Lily comprehends more or less what is going on in his mind. She molds herself into a sweet and domestic persona, hoping to make him see “the advantage of always having a companion to make one’s tea in the train.”
The trip is long, and Mr. Gryce is a total bore. Lily tries hard to make conversation, but they find little in common. However, she knows that he recently inherited an impressive collection of Americana, so she feigns interest in that. Using information she gleaned this afternoon from Selden, she actually asks some intelligent questions.
Most men would see through such an obvious attempt to pander to their interests, but Mr. Gryce is not terribly discerning. Furthermore, he is quite vain, although he acts timid around others. Listening to him drone on happily about himself and his collection, Lily reflects that self-deprecating people are often the most self-absorbed.
When the train stops to take on more passengers, Lily is dismayed to see another prominent woman from the fashionable set, Mrs. Dorset. After demanding a spot near Lily and Mr. Gryce, Mrs. Dorset sits down and takes over the conversation. In about thirty seconds, she figures out that Lily plans to marry Mr. Gryce.
(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, and she finds it increasingly difficult to meet her hosts’ obligations.
When she was younger, Lily accepted gifts as gifts. Now, she has begun to realize that her hosts expect her to play bridge in the evenings. By betting money—and losing it—Lily makes a contribution to the parties she attends. She enjoys the game, but the financial burden is difficult for a girl in her circumstances. Tonight she has lost three hundred dollars, money which she owes twice over to dressmakers and jewelers. Meanwhile, two of her wealthy friends left the table with stacks of money they did not even need. To Lily, this seems totally unjust.
As Lily brushes her hair, she looks in the mirror and notices two lines on her face. At twenty-nine, she is getting wrinkles from her worries. She reflects that her worries are destroying her beauty. This is ironic because she needs her beauty to banish her worries.
Lily reflects that when she was a child, her parents lived in the glamour of high society. Her mother always looked young and happy, but her father looked overworked and old. In the winters, he was hardly ever home during daylight hours, so Lily barely saw him. During summers, she and her mother went to the shore or to Europe and did not see him at all. Lily’s mother was famous for being an excellent manager of money, but she never felt that there was enough of it. Lily recalls that “in some vague way her father always seemed to blame” for the fact that his wife and daughter had to make do with anything less than everything they wanted.
When Lily was nineteen, her father went bankrupt. The shock and disappointment of this failure made him ill, and the illness killed him—not that his...
(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 uncommonly wealthy man, so she generally likes everyone—including Lily, of course.
As Lily sifts through the paperwork involved in Mrs. Trenor’s current week-long house party, Mrs. Trenor complains about how difficult it is to host such an event. This week’s party is turning into a disaster. Already she has heard complaints because a two-time divorcee, Mrs. Carry Fisher, is on the guest list. Mrs. Dorset, meanwhile, is angry because Lawrence Selden did not come. Although Mrs. Dorset is married, she is always involved in a fling with some young man.
For the next three days, Lily pursues Mr. Gryce as delicately as she can. She has long since learned the risks of trying too hard, so she does not appear to try at all. She merely flits in and out of his awareness, always taking care to appear to him in a good light. It soon becomes evident that he is falling for her.
One afternoon, Lily sits down on the Trenors’ front steps and allows herself to feel relieved. Soon she will marry Mr. Gryce, and then she will achieve the lifestyle and the relative self-sufficiency she has long desired. No longer will she be forced to spend her life thanking people for their little gifts and opportunities; instead, she will be in control.
To be sure, Lily knows that Mr. Gryce is a careful man who does not spend money frivolously. However, she is sure that she can convince him to spend money when she is his wife. She can tell how vain he is beneath his timidity, and she plans to make that vanity center on her:
She intended to be to him what his Americana had hitherto been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it....
(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 way to church and back. Wearily, she imagines attending church with him Sunday after boring Sunday for the rest of her life.
Since Selden’s appearance yesterday, Lily has stopped feeling happy about the idea of marrying Mr. Gryce. Selden is from an old, respectable family, but he works for a living and thus knows how to exist “outside the great gilt cage” in which Lily lives. To be sure, Lily has spent her whole life trying to earn a permanent place in this cage, but suddenly its inhabitants seem duller than they used to. Compared to Selden, everyone else seems dim-witted and frivolous.
With these thoughts in mind, Lily lets Mr. Gryce leave without her. She tells herself vaguely that she will meet him after church and walk him home. In the meantime, she puts on an outdoorsy dress and checks the library to see if Selden happens to be there reading a book. He is—but Mrs. Dorset is with him. This makes Lily jealous. She has assumed that Selden has come to Bellomont just to see her. Now it occurs to her that he may have come to see Mrs. Dorset instead. After all, everyone knows that he and Mrs. Dorset once had a short romantic fling. Lily has heard this relationship was over, but perhaps it is in the process of rekindling.
Lily goes outside alone and walks slowly toward the church. She sits down on a bench, waiting to see if Selden will come out and speak with her. Just when she is about to give up, he appears. Lily banters and flirts with him, enjoying the conversation far more than she has enjoyed any talk with Mr. Gryce.
(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 succeed. After some hesitation, she says, “Why, to get as much out of life as one can, I suppose.” Selden counters that to succeed is to be free. He adds that it is extremely difficult for a rich person to achieve freedom and that Lily may not enjoy being rich if she achieves her goal.
To Selden’s surprise, Lily admits that he is right. She grows angry at him for pointing it out, but her obvious sincerity makes him look at her in a new way. He has always known that she was on the hunt for a rich husband and that she was thus unavailable to him. Because of this, he normally looks at her as an audience would view an excellent show. Now he is startled to find himself falling for her.
Selden tells Lily that he would gladly give her anything he could. This gentle proclamation of love makes her cry. Watching her, Selden reflects admiringly that she remains beautiful even in her unhappiness. He tells her that she wants the wrong thing and that he would gladly marry her if she could accept a man who has to work for a living.
For a moment, Lily seems to consider choosing a life with Selden over the life of luxury she has always pursued. She says that she will look terrible in the clothes he buys her, but she can help by trimming her own hats. The two of them stand in silence, grinning “like adventurous children” at the sudden idea they could have a future neither dreamed possible until now.
Then a car passes beneath the hill, startling Lily out of the moment. She exclaims that she has to get back to the house. After all, she told everyone she was too sick to go outside. Despite everything she just said, she is not willing to let Mr. Gryce find out that she has lied. She...
(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 spoiling the chance with Mr. Gryce. Until yesterday, everyone at the party was doing their utmost to portray Lily in a good light for Mr. Gryce's benefit. Mrs. Trenor says, "We could none of us imagine you putting up with him for a moment unless you meant to marry him."
As Mrs. Trenor scolds her, Lily thinks about what she has given up. Her debts really frighten her; as Mrs. Gryce, she could have paid them off in a second. There is no escape from this painful knowledge, especially not in the presence of Mrs. Dorset, who takes every opportunity to remind Lily of the lost opportunity.
In the afternoon, Mrs. Trenor asks Lily to drive to the train station to pick up Mr. Trenor. Mrs. Fisher, the divorcee, volunteers to go instead, but Mrs. Trenor does not find her offer acceptable. She tells Lily privately that her husband has a bad habit of lending money to Mrs. Fisher. Lily goes to the station, reflecting that her present predicament would not be quite so terrible if she could borrow some money. However, doing so would be unthinkable for an unmarried girl like her. What she really needs is to make her own money stretch further.
At the station, Mr. Trenor is clearly charmed to see Lily, who rarely pays attention to married men. On the way home, Lily carefully steers the conversation to money. She explains that her income, tiny monthly dividends from her parents’ meager estate, cannot support her lifestyle. Mr. Trenor eagerly tells her that he can invest her money better, thus gaining her a greater income without any risk. Lily has no understanding of how investments work; she assumes that what Mr. Trenor has said is true. As she and Mr. Trenor return to Bellomont, he places his hand...
(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. Gerty is a kind but dowdy girl to whom Lily cannot help but feel superior. From childhood, Lily has been taught to see ugliness as a kind of stupidity, and she tends to think that girls like Gerty could be beautiful if only they chose to be.
Mr. Trenor, who is also among the wedding guests, takes Lily aside to say that he has brought another check for her. He complains that she is not spending enough time at Bellomont and hints that she needs to do him a favor to repay him for the financial efforts he is making on her behalf. This idea bothers her, and she tries to brush it off.
Mr. Trenor mentions that none of the women at the wedding are willing to speak to Mr. Rosedale, the distasteful man who saw Lily emerging from Selden’s apartment several weeks earlier. Mr. Rosedale is a successful businessman, but he lacks social grace; he is also stigmatized in this society because he is Jewish. Lily dislikes Mr. Rosedale as much as anyone, but she agrees to be seen chatting with him because she knows that this will constitute a success for him. His success, in turn, will help Mr. Trenor, who is currently profiting from business relations with Mr. Rosedale.
While Mr. Trenor goes to find Mr. Rosedale, Lily bumps into Selden. He greets her breezily, and she does not know whether to feel relieved or hurt by his attitude. They attempt to chat politely, but Mr. Trenor soon interrupts to present Mr. Rosedale. Now that Selden is present, Lily finds herself reluctant to do Mr. Rosedale the favor of speaking to him. She steers him away, ignoring the obvious surprise of the other guests when they see her walking with the least popular person in the crowd.
Lily looks for Mr. Gryce, but she...
(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 on, Lily ushers the woman in. Mrs. Haffen produces a stack of love letters from Selden’s garbage can and offers to sell them to Lily. It is clear that Mrs. Haffen believes Lily to be the writer of the letters, but one glance at the writing proves that they were written by Mrs. Dorset. Lily’s first reaction is disgust; never before has she been approached with such a horrible offer. She almost sends Mrs. Haffen away, but then she realizes that it will hurt Selden if the letters become public. They are clearly unsafe in Mrs. Haffen’s hands; Lily buys them and resolves to destroy them.
Soon after Lily finishes this unsettling conversation, Mrs. Peniston comes home and asks to hear about Jack Stepney’s wedding. Lily does not remember the fussy details of décor that her aunt wants to know, so the conversation soon turns elsewhere. To Lily’s dismay, Mrs. Peniston brings up Mr. Gryce. Although Mrs. Peniston rarely spends any time with fashionable people, she is wealthy and connected to the flow of gossip about Lily’s social circle. Thus she has heard that Mr. Gryce is marrying Miss Van Osburgh and that many people previously thought he would marry Lily instead.
Upset by this allusion to her recent failure, Lily excuses herself for bed. She goes to her room and reflects on its dingy appearance. If she had married Mr. Gryce, she would have had a chance to get out of this life in which nothing belongs to her and nothing is under her control. As it is, the chance is lost. Lily glosses over the memory of her own mistakes. Instead she focuses on Mrs. Dorset’s role in frightening Mr. Gryce away. With this in mind, Lily refrains from burning the scandalous letters. Instead she packs them away to...
(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 his box at the opera on opening night. He mentions that Mr. Trenor will be there and hints at knowledge of the financial transactions between Mr. Trenor and Lily. Lily answers breezily, but inwardly she is terrified that Mr. Rosedale will let his knowledge slip out to the general public. She accepts his invitation, hoping that he will be discrete if she is kind enough to show her face with him on such an important occasion. Mr. Rosedale goes away happy. He is aware that she is trying to manipulate him, but he does not mind doing her a small favor as long as he gets what he wants.
At the opera, Mr. Trenor insists on talking privately with Lily. He accuses her of avoiding him and demands to know why she will not show him some attention in exchange for the large favor he did for her. He begs to spend time alone with her, and she tries to evade his suggestions. At first she tries to pacify him with a charming smile and a bit of flirtatious banter, but this approach does not work. Eventually she offers to go out with him on a private walk in the park.
Just then, Mr. Dorset comes to the box to speak to Lily. He is a self-absorbed bore, but she finds him a relief after her stressful conversation with Mr. Trenor. Mr. Dorset voices a string of complaints about his wife’s artistic and social engagements always causing her to rush meals. In the midst of his speech, he mentions that Mrs. Dorset wants Lily to come to their house on Sunday. Lily, whose anger at Mrs. Dorset is diminished because of the secret power of possessing those illicit love letters, accepts the invitation.
(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. Peniston normally prefers not to take part in the social fray, but she feels obligated to hold a fancy dinner when her nephew, Jack Stepney, and his new wife return from their honeymoon. Lily helps with the dinner arrangements; arguing that the young couple would enjoy the company of exciting people, she casually omits Grace Stepney, another cousin, from the guest list. Lily does not give the matter a second thought, but being excluded infuriates Grace, an old maid who rarely gets invited to participate in social events.
In spite of her distance from the social scene, Grace Stepney always pays careful attention to gossip. To get revenge for being slighted by Lily, Grace tells Mrs. Peniston that people are talking about Lily and Mr. Trenor. Grace explains that the two have been seen walking and boating together in public and that it is widely speculated that Lily receives “material advantages” in exchange for her attentions.
Mrs. Peniston is a conservative lady who finds it shocking that Lily has been interacting, even in innocent ways, with a married man. However, Mrs. Peniston’s regard for her fashionable niece outweighs her shock. She orders Grace not to make such vague accusations. As Grace stammers in her own self-defense, she accidentally reveals that Lily also plays bridge for money.
The idea of a young woman gambling is totally foreign—and horrifying—to Mrs. Peniston. However, she decides against talking to Lily about it. The old woman abhors confrontation and avoids it at all costs. She reflects with resentment that girls should not become involved in scandals, even if they are only rumors. She is such a conservative and naïve old lady that she cannot believe any girls or...
(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 one’s means of approach are limited to but a few acquaintances, is like advancing into a strange country with an insufficient number of scouts.
Nevertheless, the Brys decide to take the risk, hoping that the party will seal their role as major players in fashionable circles. Mrs. Fisher helps Mrs. Bry with the planning. The two of them spend a great deal of time and money orchestrating an event that will be too interesting for anyone to ignore.
To attract a crowd, Mrs. Bry and Mrs. Fisher decide to create a series of tableaux vivants, “living pictures.” They convince the most fashionable young ladies in New York to pose in spectacular costumes, as if they were the characters in old photographs. Naturally, Lily Bart takes part in the event. She loves showing off her beauty and being the center of attention, and this is a fine opportunity to do both.
Some of New York’s fashionable people shun the Brys’ party, but many are drawn by the spectacle. Lawrence Selden attends with his cousin, Gerty Farish. Gerty, who was only invited because Lily put in a good word for her, tells Selden confidentially that Lily is not as superficial as she seems. Recently Lily has donated a bit of money to a charitable cause Gerty supports, a boarding house for poor working girls. On two occasions, Lily has even gone with Gerty to visit with these women.
When the performance begins, Gerty prattles on about how lovely it is. Lawrence, next to her, sinks into silent awe. Although he has taught himself to be worldly, he is a naturally poetic young man who soon finds himself overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery before him. When Lily is unveiled, he gasps along with the...
(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 whether her aloofness has been because of Lily personally or the new developments in society generally, but the invitation is welcome either way. Lily already has dinner plans, so she sends a quick reply promising to stop by the Trenors’ house in the late evening.
That night, Lily knocks on the Trenors’ door; she is greeted by Mr. Trenor, who says that his wife has suddenly grown ill and cannot see anyone. It would not be right for Lily to visit with a man alone at night, so she tries to leave. He insists that she stay and even places himself in the doorway to prevent her from fleeing. She steps back, frightened, as he shouts at her for avoiding him. He insinuates that she probably thinks it is acceptable to borrow money from men and then drop them as if they do not matter.
Lily is horrified by Mr. Trenor’s words. All this time, she has assumed that he gave her stock market winnings earned with her own money. Now she understands that he simply gave her money of his own. She has been behaving stupidly, and now she does not have the moral high ground she thought was hers.
As Lily absorbs this new information, Mr. Trenor reveals unintentionally that Mrs. Trenor is still at Bellomont. She sent Lily a message to this effect, but Mr. Trenor intercepted it. Now Lily realizes that the two of them are alone, except for a few servants, and she is truly terrified of what he might do. Thinking that Mr. Trenor may attack her physically, she considers crying out for help. However, she restrains herself, knowing that any scandal at this point would paint her in a bad light.
Eventually Mr. Trenor comprehends Lily’s fear and realizes that he is being cruel. He apologizes and ushers...
(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 slightly when, to her surprise and pleasure, she receives a note from Selden asking if he can come over for dinner. She begins feeling a tiny whisper of hope that she, and not Lily, may experience a romance with him. With this in mind, Gerty spends all day preparing for Selden’s visit.
For his part, Selden is full of sincere love for Lily Bart. The spectacle of Lily at the Brys’ party has effectively broken through his usual attitude of cynicism and emotional self-protection. He gives himself up to being in love, and he resolves to act on his feelings. He knows that he cannot see Lily before tomorrow at the earliest, so he makes a dinner engagement with Gerty, the only other person who knows that Lily is a wonderful human being.
That evening, Gerty and Selden’s dinner starts out perfectly. Selden asks all about Gerty, and she tells him happily about her recent accomplishments. He compliments the meal, and when he learns that she made the desserts herself, he comments that some man should snap her up and marry her immediately. Gerty’s hopes soar.
However, after dinner Selden steers the conversation to Lily. At first, Gerty is thrilled as always to talk about her friend. She gushes that Lily is better than the narrow-minded, superficial world she lives in: "The fact that her life had never satisfied her proved that she was made for better things." Gerty soon sees Selden sinking into the attitude of a musing lover. Suddenly she realizes why he is here. He did not want to see Gerty; he just wanted to talk about Lily.
Unaware of Gerty’s feelings, Selden leaves. He stops at a dinner party where he has heard Lily will be. She has already gone, and her friends theorize...
(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 to remove herself from an emotional situation, Mrs. Peniston announces that she will pay up to the absurd amount of a thousand dollars. This does not help Lily at all since the money will go straight to the dressmaker and not to Mr. Trenor. Hesitantly, she says that she owes “a great deal more.” This shocks and angers her aunt, who declares that Lily will have to stay home for a few months and save her own money to pay any additional debts.
Lily’s income is not nearly great enough to cover the nine thousand dollars she owes to Mr. Trenor. She really needs her aunt to give her money directly. Stammering somewhat, she admits that she has debts from gambling at bridge. In Mrs. Peniston’s mind, this is utterly unacceptable behavior for a young woman. She adamantly refuses to pay any debts Lily has accrued from gambling.
Defeated, Lily returns to her room. She never considered that her aunt would fail to rescue her; now her only recourse is Lawrence Selden. She is sure that he will advise her, maybe even help her himself somehow. Eagerly she awaits his visit at four o’clock. When he does not come, she tells herself that her handwriting is bad and that he will come at five.
At five, Mr. Rosedale shows up at the door. He makes small talk with Lily about the Brys' party the other night and compliments her part of the performance. Then he confesses that his social ambitions are different from those of the Brys: "I’d want something that would look more easy and natural, more as if I took it in my stride. And it takes just two things to do that, Miss Bart: money, and the right woman." With that, Lily finds herself in the midst of a marriage proposal.
There is no talk of...
(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:
That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off to a picnic . . . I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Fisher believes that Lily has been quite successful in the past few months. She has grown more beautiful than ever, and she also has befriended the Duchess of Beltshire, an important personage on the Riviera.
Listening to Mrs. Fisher makes Selden feel uneasy. He has spent months recovering from his love for Lily, and he was not expecting to plunge so suddenly back into her world and its values. In order to avoid meeting her, he decides to leave town and head to Nice to spend the rest of his vacation. Part of him feels cowardly for running away; he berates himself as he boards the train.
To Selden’s surprise, Lily herself soon appears on the train with the Dorsets and a small entourage. Selden watches admiringly as Lily charms Mr. Dorset and jokes with both Mrs. Dorset and a young poet, Ned Silverton. Lily seems to be trying especially hard to keep her three friends happy. Watching her, Selden guesses that strong tensions are afoot.
Upon arrival in Nice, Selden attempts to detach himself from Lily and her friends. During the evening, he catches a glimpse of Mrs. Dorset and Ned Silverton going off alone in the moonlight. Later he bumps into a friend of the Dorsets, Lord Hubert, who comments that he wishes Lily had not befriended the Duchess of Beltshire, whose behavior is not befitting of a proper young lady. Somewhat hopefully, Lord Hubert...
(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 seen alone together, but that Mrs. Dorset and Ned Silverton never arrived to meet them. Mrs. Fisher warns that Lily's reputation stands to suffer from such an incident.
Mrs. Fisher is still helping the Brys make friends with important members of society, but she confides that they are getting annoyed at her. She urges Lily to travel with the Brys instead, but Lily refuses. After all, she already has a group of traveling companions.
Later in the day, Lily meets Mr. Dorset in the street and notices that he looks exhausted. He tells her that Mrs. Dorset and Ned Silverton failed to return to the yacht last night. They finally arrived at seven o’clock this morning. They gave Mr. Dorset a flimsy story involving missed trains and lame horses, but he thinks it is a lie. When Lily tries to console him, he breaks down in tears and says that he is going to hire a lawyer.
Lily urges Mr. Dorset to come back to the yacht and patch things up with his wife, but he refuses. She returns to the yacht alone where she is surprised to find Mrs. Dorset cheerfully serving tea to the Duchess and Lord Hubert. Lily chats amicably with the group, helping to make dinner plans and secretly marveling at Mrs. Dorset’s ability to hold herself together during a time of such extreme stress.
When the visitors leave, Lily expects Mrs. Dorset to confide what has happened with her husband. Instead, Mrs. Dorset treats Lily in a cold and angry manner, as if she has been offended. She makes a series of veiled accusations about Lily’s relationship with Mr. Dorset. Lily listens in surprise and confusion, unable to comprehend why her friend would make claims that they both know to be untrue.
(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 Mr. Dorset, who is socially awkward in general, to behave awkwardly during a crisis. Nevertheless, she has an unsettling sense that she is missing something.
Selden receives an invitation to a dinner with the Duchess, the Dorsets, the Brys, the Stepneys, and various other important people. He attends, not only because the invitation is an honor in itself but also because he plans to take Lily aside and urge her to leave the Dorsets’ company. Lily laughs off his worries and assures him that the Dorsets’ relationship is on the mend.
During the dinner, Selden falls into his usual habit of watching Lily, marveling at her grace and beauty. He reflects that “the one word for her” is “matchless.” At the same time, he reflects disparagingly that high society is “a world where conspicuousness passed for distinction.” He is particularly disapproving of a little man named Dabham, who writes a newspaper column about society on the Riviera. People like Dabham because he brings attention to them, but he also has great power to harm them if he spreads stories about their problems.
When the meal is over and the guests get up to leave, Mrs. Dorset loudly announces that Lily is no longer welcome on her yacht. Everyone freezes, shocked. Mrs. Dorset's public rejection obviously implies that Lily and Mr. Dorset are having an affair. In one stroke, it destroys Lily’s reputation. It also puts Mr. Dorset on the defense, making it more difficult for him to claim that his wife has done something wrong.
As everyone at the party draws away from Lily, she takes her leave with characteristic poise. Selden follows her, but he cannot find anything to say. He has seen enough to know that...
(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 of people to receive small bequests of money. As their names are read, Lily is surprised to hear her own: Mrs. Peniston has bequeathed her only ten thousand dollars. Moments later, everyone learns that the bulk of the estate will go to Miss Grace Stepney.
As soon as the will has been read, everyone rushes to Grace to congratulate her. Lily watches the crowd for a while and congratulates Grace herself. As she does so, people stare at Lily with open disgust. Now that they know she will remain poor, they are not afraid to be cruel.
Later, Gerty Farish begs Lily to explain what happened with the Dorsets in Europe. Lily refuses to tell the story; a girl, she says, just looks guiltier if she tries to explain away her role in a scandal. She says that people will believe what they want to believe:
In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.
Soon after this conversation, Lily has a chance encounter with a group of women she has always considered friends. All of them, including Mrs. Trenor and Mrs. Fisher, act cold and unwelcoming. They do not give Lily an opportunity to explain herself, and they do not invite her to visit them. As Lily predicted, they are siding with Mrs. Dorset's money, leaving Lily on her own.
Lily knows it is going to be difficult for her to survive from now on. Back in New York, she feels a renewed need to repay her debt to Mr. Trenor; she finds it a "humorous coincidence" that she received from her aunt almost the exact amount she owes him. She is eager to pay him and put the...
(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 minor deficiencies in taste and refinement. It bothers her that her current position is only second best.
Gerty Farish feels that Lily should accept her fate as an outcast and embrace a different kind of life, one with more morality and less materialism. Lily considers the advice only briefly. The party with the Gormers convinces her that she loves luxury too much to give it up. She begins working tirelessly to regain her former place in society. On Mrs. Fisher’s suggestion, Lily accepts an invitation to spend the summer with the Gormers in Alaska. She works for them as a sort of social secretary in exchange for her inclusion on the trip.
The Alaska trip goes well, and afterward Lily seeks Mrs. Fisher’s advice again. Mrs. Fisher suggests that she marry as soon as possible; Lily's options are Mr. Dorset, who is again on the brink of divorce, and Mr. Rosedale, who clearly likes Lily. Lily flatly refuses to consider marrying Dorset, but she is noncommittal on the subject of Rosedale.
Privately, Lily is no longer sure that Mr. Rosedale is interested in her. He is better accepted now than he was a year ago, mainly because he has made smart choices. This makes Lily like him more because she is naturally impressed by success. She knows that Mr. Rosedale’s money could solve her social problems easily. After all, she knows how to use money to gain respect and make people pay attention to her. However, she also knows that she no longer can offer a desirable social standing to Mr. Rosedale. There is little chance that he will marry her unless he falls in love.
(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 wife and marry Lily if he could. He is simply too weak to take a stand against his wife on his own. He needs someone else to provide evidence that Mrs. Dorset had an affair. Lily refuses to act as a witness for him. To her, the idea of publicly revealing Mrs. Dorset's secrets is simply too offensive to consider, especially for a reward such as marriage with Mr. Dorset. As she takes her leave, she tells him firmly that the two of them cannot be friends anymore.
When Lily returns to the Gormers’ country house, she sees Mrs. Dorset driving away. Mrs. Gormer, who normally pretends a lack of interest in high society, cannot disguise the fact that she is thrilled to have received a visit from a woman who features so strongly in the society column of the newspaper. Lily knows that Mrs. Dorset would never visit a person like Mrs. Gormer, who lacks both refinement and pedigree, without an ulterior motive. Uneasily, Lily wonders if the motive has anything to do with herself. If it does, and if Lily gets evicted from even the fringe circle where she has gained a foothold, there will be nowhere else for her to go. She begins to think that marriage to Mr. Rosedale is “the only honorable solution.” Such a marriage will place her in a position of power and make it easy to regain some of her old friendships.
In the following weeks, Lily makes a visit to Mrs. Fisher’s country home. Mrs. Fisher reinforces Lily’s instincts regarding her problems:
I believe you can marry Mr. Dorset tomorrow; but if you don’t care for that particular form of retaliation, the only thing to save you from Bertha [Dorset] is to marry somebody else.
(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 up.
Rosedale says that he is unwilling to marry a woman who has been involved in a scandal, and Lily counters that she is innocent of any wrongdoing. When she asks if that changes matters, he replies, “I believe it does in novels, but I’m certain it don’t [sic] in real life.” He explains that he cares about society’s opinion of him and that he is not willing to ruin his standing by marrying a woman whom everyone hates.
At this point, Mr. Rosedale asks why Lily does not use the letters she bought from Lawrence Selden’s maid last year. Lily stops cold, shocked that Mr. Rosedale knows about the letters. He refuses to explain how he knows, but now that he has her attention, he lays out a plan.
Mr. Rosedale wants Lily to use the scandalous letters to blackmail Mrs. Dorset. In exchange for Lily’s silence regarding the affair with Selden, Mrs. Dorset must pretend to rekindle a friendship with Lily. Lily will then easily regain everyone else’s friendship, and Mr. Rosedale will be happy to marry her. To Lily, this is a tempting idea. Blackmailing Mrs. Dorset is less repellent to her than revealing the letters publicly would be.
Mr. Rosedale urges Lily to keep in mind that any victory she achieves with the letters will be temporary. If she is not wealthy enough to inspire people’s respect and fear, she will soon fall victim to Mrs. Dorset’s treachery once again. He says emphatically that she needs his money and asks her to promise that she will not fail to marry him when the blackmail is complete. Lily finds his asking for her promise to be deeply offensive:
[She was] disgusted . . . that her would-be accomplice assumed, as a matter of...
(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 next visit to Gerty Farish, Lily complains that she is now desperately low on money. She spends so much time worrying that she finds it impossible to sleep at night. For the first time, Lily is entertaining the idea of working for a living. She comes up with a plan to get herself hired as “a kind of social secretary” for some rich woman who is willing to pay a friend to write letters and make up lists of party guests.
After this visit, Gerty worries a great deal. When she next sees Selden, she confesses to him that Lily may need help. By now, Selden has lost faith in his own ability to help Lily. In the past, he had no way to help her except to love her, and that did not work out. Now he has tried so hard to stop loving her that he feels it would risk his happiness to see her again. Gerty urges him to visit Lily, if only to listen to her problems. When Selden hears the way Gerty talks about him, he suddenly gets a glimpse of the truth: Gerty loves him, and she is willing to put her love aside for her friend’s benefit. Inspired by this show of selflessness, he promises to do as she asks.
Immediately after this conversation, Selden sets out to find Lily. At her hotel, he learns that she has checked out. When he asks for a forwarding address, he receives a slip of paper which says Lily has gone to work for a wealthy divorcée with a terrible reputation, Mrs. Norma Hatch. Disgusted, Selden tears up the paper and stalks away.
(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 acquaintance. Ned Silverton, the former paramour of Mrs. Dorset, often visits with his friend Freddy Van Osburgh, the only male heir to an enormous old fortune. At first, Lily feels pleased to have figured out where young men go when they mysteriously disappear from the stuffier obligations of high society, but for the most part, she is annoyed by her new realm. As petty as her old world was, it at least had an order of its own to hold it together. Mrs. Hatch’s world is chaotic. She does not do anything precisely wrong, but she constantly makes choices that demonstrate poor taste—and Lily does not know how to correct her lack of refinement.
As time passes, Lily watches, perplexed, as a group of men pushes Freddy Van Osburgh into greater intimacy with Mrs. Hatch. Lily gets the impression that a matchmaking plan is afoot. In some ways, this pleases her. She derives “ironic amusement” from the idea of “launching such a missile as Mrs. Hatch at the perfidious bosom of society.” However, Lily does not like the fact that she may be helping to make this happen.
One day, Selden appears at Lily’s new home and announces that he has come to talk. Embarrassed to be seen in such reduced circumstances, Lily becomes stiff and rude. She says that there is nothing to talk about and that she is earning a living. He tells her that she should leave Mrs. Hatch. His comments confirm Lily’s suspicions that Mrs. Hatch is trying to marry Freddy Van Osburgh, but they do not stop Lily from being annoyed at Selden. She insists there is nothing wrong with her current position; it is at least better than living like Gerty Farish.
(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 not have anyone to back her financially in such an endeavor. As it is, the milliner only gives Lily the job because Gerty and Mrs. Fisher work so hard to make it happen. Within three months, Lily discovers that her lower-class co-workers are far better at sewing hat linings and spangles than she is. She is certainly different from the lower classes—but not superior, as she always thought.
After one particularly hard day at work, Lily stops by a pharmacy with a prescription for chloral, a powerful drug that helps her sleep. She waits anxiously, hoping the pharmacist will give her what she wants. The prescription is not her own; it is a copy of Mrs. Hatch’s, but Lily has begun to depend on the drug. The pharmacist sells her the medication, adding a warning not to increase the dose beyond the recommended amount.
Returning to the street, Lily bumps into Mr. Rosedale. He sees how dizzy and upset she looks and takes her into a tea house. When he hears that she has gone to work, he is dismayed. He tells her that if she needs money, she should borrow against the money she will receive from her aunt's estate. Lily confesses that she owes the amount of the legacy to Mr. Trenor. Eager to tell someone what happened, she explains that Mr. Trenor gave her a great deal of money she believed to be interest on her own investments. When she figured out that he was really giving her his own money—and wanted in return favors she could not give—she decided that she had to pay him back. Mr. Rosedale is appalled that she would ruin herself financially for pride’s sake, but she refuses to consider any other option.
After this conversation, Mr. Rosedale walks Lily home to the boarding house where she...
(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 money she owes to Mr. Trenor, but she refuses. She has no collateral to guarantee a loan and no way to make repayments. Moreover, as an untutored woman, she is unable to understand the fine points of business arrangements with men. Mr. Rosedale accepts her decision, but before he leaves, he repeats his offer to rescue her from her poor circumstances if she would complete the blackmail plan against Mrs. Dorset.
By now, Lily’s resolve is almost completely worn down. She forgoes her usual dose of chloral and spends a sleepless night attempting to convince herself that blackmail is a victimless crime. In the morning, she stays in bed and skips breakfast. Eventually she gets up, dresses, and sets out, walking through the city. By the middle of the morning, she is so dizzy and tired that she has to sit down in a tea house to eat and drink something hot. By the end of the meal, she has made her decision to go through with Mr. Rosedale’s plan.
Lily goes home and fetches Mrs. Dorset’s letters. As she takes them out, she feels relatively good. She tells herself that doing the immoral deed will be far easier than she thought. On her way to the Dorsets’ home, she comes to the tree-lined street where Selden lives.
Lily stops walking and stands in the street, looking up at Selden’s windows. Privately, she forgives him for his role in their argument about Mrs. Hatch. She remembers that he tried, twice, to use his love to break through her resolve to marry for money. She knows she has lost her chance now. Nevertheless, she hopes he can help her in some other way. With her mind in disarray, Lily crosses the street and makes her way to Selden’s apartment.
(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 feelings and cut himself off from her.
Lily tells Selden that she needs to leave, but before departing she says that her memories of her few tender moments with him have often helped her make the right decisions in her life. Often she has been on the point of doing the wrong thing, but she stopped herself because of him. She apologizes for failing to act on his love, saying that she was afraid: "Once—twice—you offered me the chance to escape from my life, and I refused it because I was a coward."
Lily begs Selden to let her leave a part of herself with him while she goes on to do what must be done. He begs her to explain, but she refuses. She hints cryptically that she is facing a major decision, and she says that she may not see him for a long time. Her vague statements seem to suggest an end to her life, or at least to her friendship with Selden.
As he listens to Lily, Selden grows very alarmed. When she falls silent, he begs her to let him help her. Lily explains that he did help her by loving her but that she knows she has already killed that love by failing to act on it in time. As she speaks, Lily admits to herself that she loves Selden and there is nothing she can do about it anymore. She asks permission to warm herself at his fire and kneels before it. He watches wonderingly as she drops something into the flames. Afterward, she stands up, kisses him on the forehead, and leaves.
(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. Lily and Gerty sent the girl to a sanatorium to get well. Nettie takes Lily to her home to warm up, and Lily realizes that the young woman now leads an impoverished but happy life with a husband and a baby.
After this encounter, Lily feels somewhat better. She goes home and eats, resolving not to skip meals anymore just because she feels unhappy. After supper, she cleans up her room. She is just finishing when the boarding house maid delivers a letter. Opening it up, Lily sees a check for the ten thousand dollars left to her in Mrs. Peniston's will. Lily stares at the check, thinking how quickly time has changed her perspective. Less than a year ago, she felt poor at receiving so little. Now it represents an amount so large she has trouble comprehending it. She is briefly tempted to use it to set herself up in business instead of paying it over to Mr. Trenor, but she knows she could not live with that decision.
Lily balances her checkbook and writes out checks for the money she owes to Mr. Trenor and to various dressmakers and jewelers around the city. When she is finished settling her debts, she figures out how much money she has left; she realizes her funds most likely will not support her, even in her current diminished lifestyle.
When her accounts are in order, Lily gets into bed. She knows that she will never be able to sleep without chloral and that she will not be able to make it through tomorrow without sleep. She has been taking the full dose for far too long, and its effects have worn off. Without really thinking through the risks, Lily adds an extra couple of drops to her glass and drinks them down. The drug slowly takes effect, and she sinks into an exhausted sleep....
(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 will refrain from publicly raising the question that Lily may have committed suicide. Gerty leaves Selden to go through Lily’s things before anyone else returns to the room. Her intentions are not directly stated, but Gerty implies that Selden should remove any evidence of suicide if he finds it.
Alone, Selden puts his cheek against Lily’s and thinks about what he has lost. He gets up and looks through the room, grieving as he sees Lily’s pretty pins and decorations. When he opens her desk, he is appalled to find a letter addressed to Mr. Trenor. Selden finds it difficult to believe that she wrote to Trenor immediately after declaring her love the previous evening. Fighting off jealousy, he puts the letter aside and goes through the rest of her possessions.
When Selden glances inside Lily’s checkbook, he sees to his surprise that it is balanced. Looking more closely, he notices the enormous sum of the check made out to Mr. Trenor. This discovery at first sends Selden into new waves of jealousy; he remembers rumors about Lily's borrowing money from Trenor. Thinking it over, Selden guesses that the rumors were true but that she could not live with the debt. He wishes he knew more about the matter, but Lily is no longer able to explain.
In his final moments alone in Lily’s room, Selden's despair is assuaged as he thinks of his and Lily's relationship. They never married, but they did love each other, and their love made them both better people. As The House of Mirth ends, Selden kneels by Lily’s body and declares his love to her a final time.
(The entire section is 413 words.)