The House of Mirth Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The House of Mirth: Book One – Chapter 3,4,5

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Summary – Chapter Three

At Bellomont, Lily plays bridge into the small hours in Chapter Three and when she goes up to her room she looks down at the opulent surroundings. She senses the contrast between this wealth and her own circumstances and notices Bertha flirting with Gryce. She is unconcerned about this, but is envious that this other woman can take up a man and toss him aside at will. Lily has been bored by him and despite this she knows she cannot ignore him tomorrow in the hope that he will ‘do her the honour of boring her for life’. She sees this as a hateful fate but cannot see how she is able to avoid it. Her choice, she believes, is to be herself or a Gerty Farish and she prefers the ‘atmosphere of luxury’ over poverty. The luxury of others had been sufficient a few years ago, but she is now beginning to chafe against the obligations that come with this and is conscious that she has to pay her way in one form or another.


For a long time, she had avoided playing bridge as she cannot afford it and has seen Ned Silverton succumb to gambling. In the past year, though, her hostesses have expected her to take a place at the card table as a form of tax that she has had to pay for their hospitality. Since she has been playing regularly, the passion for gambling has grown in her and tonight she has only $20 left and $300 has gone. This was needed to pay off bills for clothes and jewelry and many other costs.


She does not ring for the maid when undressing as she is considerate to others in her bondage. In her ‘bitter moods’, she sometimes thinks that she and the maid are in the same position except the maid receives regular wages. She then looks in the mirror and sees two lines near her mouth.


After they lost their money, her mother used to say how she (Lily) would get the money back with her face and this memory leads her to the time when her family had servants and took trips abroad.  She seldom saw her father as he was always downtown working and when she and her mother went to Europe he was barely mentioned. Her mother always wanted more money and her father always seemed to be blamed for this. Her mother’s friends used to speak of her as ‘a wonderful manager’ and Lily used to be proud of this (although it was not true). At 19, Lily came to see the world differently. She remembers pleading for fresh flowers for the table, as her mother had taught her to do, and told her father they only cost $12. Her father laughed at this and then told Lily and his wife that he is ruined. She watched his slow and difficult death like a spectator and every look and act of her mother seemed to say that although she is sorry for him now, she will feel differently when she sees what he has done to them. It was a relief when he died.


Lily and her mother were left with only a little money and her mother sank into ‘a kind of furious apathy’ as she saw being poor as a ‘confession of failure’. Her only consolation came in her contemplation of Lily’s beauty and saw this as the last asset in their fortune; she also swore against the idea of a marriage based on a love match. After two years of ‘hungry roaming’, her mother died of ‘a deep disgust’; she hated dinginess and her last aduration to Lily was to escape it.


As an orphan, Lily became the center of a family council and only her aunt (Mrs Peniston) agreed to take her in (for a year initially) as she finds it difficult to make public displays of selfishness. Lily knows she has to keep in her favor until she is independent of her. Her aunt gives her periodical gifts of money and presents, although Lily would prefer a fixed allowance, but her aunt is shrewd enough to know that this keeps her more dependent. She is still unmarried at 29 when other younger and plainer girls are married off by the dozens and is now beginning to rebel against her fate. She longs to drop out of ‘the race’ to make a life for herself, but has barely enough money to pay her dressmaker’s bills and gambling debts. She is also intelligent and honest as she knows she hates dinginess as much as her mother.


Analysis – Chapter Three

These references to Lily’s upbringing help to explain why she is intent on a marriage based on economics rather than love. She has absorbed her mother’s preferences for luxury over dinginess and has also taken her advice to avoid a love match. She does not want to have to think about money and this is only possible if she marries a wealthy man (such as Gryce).


The inclusion of these details give an insight into her character and also support the case that Lily’s childhood has trained her to be ornamental rather than useful. This concept runs throughout the novel as the readers are continuously reminded that the elite of society have no marketable skills; their value lies in the superficial aspect of appearances.


In this chapter, it is also revealed that she has developed a love of gambling and this is later addressed when she turns to the idea of winning on the stock market as a way to earn money. This desire to take risks also typifies her character because although she wants to be included in this set, she is also resistant to the conventions she knows she must adhere to in order to be seen to belong. It is both ironic and poignant that she ultimately fails to understand that this élite society does not condone those who stray from the rigid rules. 




Summary – Chapters Four and Five

The next morning at the Trenors’ in Chapter Four, Lily finds a note on her breakfast tray from Judy. It asks her to come down to help with ‘tiresome things’ and Lily knows this means she will be expected to take over from her absent secretary. Usually she does not mind fulfilling such obligations, but today it renews her sense of servitude.


As they work together, Judy talks about the other guest and says how Carry Fisher has been divorced twice and all the other husbands like her except her own. She also tells Lily that Bertha is angry with her (Judy) as she had been expecting Selden to come and wrongly blames Judy for his absence. Lily says that she thought it was over between them and Judy replies that it is on his part and when she invited him he said he could not make it. She says she will call him and tell him to come again and Lily blushes and says she does not have to do this on her account (that is, to keep Bertha away from Gryce).


Later on the terrace, Lily feels certain that she could marry Gryce when she chooses and this raises her spirits. As well as removing her immediate financial concerns, she also thinks that she will no longer have to flatter and be grateful but would be flattered and thanked instead. Later still she hears a tread behind her and presumes it is Gryce, but turns to find Selden. He tells her he came after all and before she has time to answer, Bertha Dorset steps between them ‘with a little gesture of appropriation’.


In Chapter Five, there is an explanation of how Sundays are chiefly marked at Bellomont with the arrival of an omnibus that takes the members of the household to the gates of the little church. Lily had earlier told Gryce that the Trenor daughters neglect to go and this is ‘repugnant to her early traditions’.  Therefore, when she is there she accompanies them. She also told him in confidence that she does not usually play bridge, but was dragged into it on the night she arrived. She claims she lost a large amount of money because of her ignorance of the game and the rules of betting. That Sunday, Gryce waits on the drive and hopes she will come with him to church.


The Trenor girls appear and say they are only going because Lily asked them to and cannot imagine what put the thought in her head. He finally leaves with them and a few others, but Lily does not appear.


Lily had intended to go to church and even rose early to do so, but her mood today draws her toward Selden. The evening before she could not help compare him with Gryce and this comparison was her undoing. She had known Selden for eight years and until now had regarded him as just a pleasant accessory of life. Now, his presence sheds a new light on her surroundings and sees he has not forgotten his way out of the ‘great gilt cage’ that she and the other captives are in. He has the effect of readjusting her vision and she sees ‘a long stretch of vacuity’ at the table: ‘Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.’


As she prepares to attend church, she feels a sense of resistance and thinks of how in the future she will have to accompany Gryce every Sunday. The religious obligations she imagines are nothing compared to the ‘great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path’ and is not disappointed when she hears the omnibus leave. She notices Gryce’s disappointed face and thinks this will whet his appetite for a walk with her later which she does not intend to miss.


She goes to the library and comes across Selden and Bertha. She leaves them alone and says she is going to walk to church (and is a little disappointed that Selden has come to see Bertha rather than her). She is not easily disconcerted, though, and walks out slowly and sits on a seat on a bend in the path. She sits alone for a half hour and when she gets up she encounters Selden. They then notice the party returning from church and when he sees Gryce he exclaims that he now understands why she had been ‘getting up’ on Americana.




Analysis – Chapters Four and Five

 Lily’s ploys continue as it is related how she told Gryce that she is a church goer and an innocent when it comes to bridge and gambling. It is of further interest that although she puts these plans to entice him in place, she does not follow them up. She is resistant to committing fully to this man and to a match based on economics and demonstrates that beneath the schemes and intentions she has a sense of integrity.


It is noted that her downfall comes when she compares Selden to Gryce (and the others at the table) as he has the effect of readjusting her vision and seeing the superficial world for what it is. Despite his presence, he manages to maintain a social detachment and as she perceives, he is not a captive in the ‘great gilt cage’.



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