The House of Mirth: Book One – Chapter 14,15

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Summary – Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen

Chapter Fourteen describes how happy Gerty is from the previous evening and this is to do with Selden’s growing kindness towards her. She is also pleased that he has extended his liking for Lily. Now that Gerty is enjoying her own ‘private feast’ of Selden’s appreciation for her, it seems selfish not to be pleased that Lily is included in his admiration.


Selden has telegrammed Gerty to ask her to dine with him that evening and his past is revealed a little at this point. There had been a germ of truth in his declaration to Gerty once that he had never wanted to marry a ‘nice’ girl. From his mother, he learned to detach himself from luxury as the family was not rich, but he also learned to take an ‘Epicurean’ pleasure in material things. When he returns to town that evening, he goes to his club and finds he has one reply from Gerty but nothing from Lily. Trenor calls him over and asks him to dine with him; Selden says he cannot and is sickened when he thinks that Lily’s name has been coupled with his. In his rooms, he finds Lily’s note, which bears the seal ‘Beyond’ and he thinks of how he will take her beyond ugliness, pettiness, attrition and corrosion of the soul.


He dines at Gerty’s and after their meal he returns again and again to the subject of Lily and Gerty pours out her tender views of her. She realizes gradually that he has only come to talk about Lily and thinks the third person at the feast (Lily) has taken her place. When he leaves at 10.15 pm, he checks with Gerty that Lily is dining at Carry Fisher’s and says he might look in. At Carry’s, he is told that Lily has just left and Carry claims Lily is going to Rosedale. One of the party says they heard her ask the cab driver to take her to the Trenor home and Jack Stepney says their house is closed as Judy telephoned him from Bellomont earlier.


Selden feels stifled and leaves. He still thinks of rescuing Lily and thinks of her seal as a cry for rescue. He then feels swayed by social judgements and wonders how he can lift her free. Van Alstyne walks with him and they stop near the Trenor house and see Lily leave.


The narrative shifts to Gerty and how she feels pushed out by Lily. She experiences a sudden jealousy and when she looks at a photograph of her she begins to see that she has ‘dressed her idol with attributes of her own making’. She cries after looking in the mirror and tries to fall asleep, but lies face to face with the fact that she hates Lily. She wants happiness as Lily does, but does not have her power to obtain it. The doorbell is then rung and she unlocks the door to find Lily. She is at first feels revulsed, but through habit she shows Lily her compassion.


Lily calls herself a ‘bad girl’ and asks Gerty if the bad girls she knows in the slums ever pick themselves up or do they go from bad to worse. Lily moves from anguish to open misery when Gerty tells her Selden went to Carry Fisher’s to find her. She asks Gerty if Selden would understand if she told him that she has sunk lower than the lowest and Gerty at first stands cold and passive. She cannot put Selden before herself, though, and tells Lily he will help her. They sleep in the same bed and Gerty shrinks away from her (which is how Lily is with her usually). However, she holds Lily when she asks her to.


Lily returns home the next day in Chapter Fifteen and forces herself to work out how much she owes Trenor. It comes to $9,000 and the winged Furies of the night before are now prowling gossips. She knows she has to re-pay this money to restore her self-respect and understands for the first time how expensive a woman’s dignity can be.


When alone with her aunt, she tells her she owes money and is surprised that her aunt does not express astonishment. Her aunt asks for the bill for her clothes, but this is only a fraction of the amount she owes. Lily explains she owes a lot more than $1,000 and does not just owe it to the dressmaker. Her aunt tells her she will have to suffer the consequences of running into debt and put aside her income until the bills are paid. Lily admits to playing bridge for money and tells her she has been unlucky and her aunt refuses to pay for this. Lily goes to her room and hears the rush of the Furies’ wings in her ears.


She sees the time (3.30 pm) and remembers Selden is to visit. She had intended to put him off, but now her heart leaps at the thought of seeing him. His love is her only hope as she had expected her aunt to help her. She waits in the drawing room for an hour, but when a visitor comes at 5 pm she is disappointed to learn it is Rosedale. They talk about the Welly Brys’ entertainment and he says he would have had something more easy and natural. He tells her that this takes money and the right woman to spend it.


She is silent and smiles a little and thinks Selden must surely appear before the declaration is made. However, he takes this as a subtle encouragement and says he is offering her a chance to turn her back on the ‘bother’ she has had. She flushes with indignation, but feels she has to be careful how she answers and says she needs time.


They part amicably and Selden still does not appear. When she has heard nothing from him the next day, she is about to send a message when she spots the evening paper. She sees the report of Selden being a passenger sailing this afternoon for Havana and understands that he is never coming to her. She looks in the mirror and the lines in her face make her look old. She then sits to write a note to Rosedale to tell him to come to her, but her inspiration flags. This chapter and Book One end when, at around 10 pm, a note is delivered and she tears it open in the hope it is from Selden. It is from Bertha and it says how she is sailing tomorrow unexpectedly and is inviting Lily to join them on a cruise of the Mediterranean.


Analysis – Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen

This book ends with Selden leaving for Cuba in an apparent bid to separate himself from Lily. She had hoped initially to defer his meeting with her, but after her bruising encounter with Trenor and the recognition that her aunt refuses to help pay her debts, she realizes too late that she needs to see Selden.


Selden’s departure comes after glimpsing her leave the Trenor home and he assumes the worst of her in terms of morality and social judgements. This decision to judge Lily without finding out what has happened demonstrates that despite Selden’s air of aloofness, he is also caught up in the hypocrisy with regard female sexuality. As the readers are aware, he has had a relationship with Bertha (who is married) but this is inconsequential because as a single man he does not have to live by the same rules as a single woman.


When Lily looks in the mirror, she notices her only asset (according to her mother) is diminishing and appears to think that it is becoming less possible to live off her looks. This initially inspires her to write a note to Rosedale, as she might have to settle for him, but she cannot bring herself to do this. Again, it is possible to see that she is drawn between the pragmatism of an economic match, and a love match which her mother warned her against. Lily’s reluctance to marry may also be interpreted as a desire for independence, but this is an impossibility given her inability to earn a living.


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