The House of Mirth Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The House of Mirth: Book Two – Chapter 1,2

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The first chapter of Book Two begins with Selden on the steps of the casino at Monte Carlo. He had come to Paris on business and slipped away to the south for a week and is now feeling a renewed ‘zest for spectatorship’. He comes across a group of chief performers, which includes Carry Fisher, the Stepneys and the Brys, and is welcomed by them.


At lunch, they discuss the return of the Dorsets from Sicily and how Lily and Dorset must have been bored. It is implied that Ned Silverton would have kept Bertha interested. Carry tells Selden that Lily has been a ‘tremendous success’ here and he feels a sharp shock of disillusionment in Lily. He also feels a ‘latent ache’ at the thought of her.


After they eat, Selden and Carry walk alone and she tells him the history of her recent experiences and how she came with the Brys to help them into London society. She then talks about Lily and how she does not reap the harvest after preparing the ground and sowing the seed. Carry thinks that this is flightiness sometimes and at other times thinks that at heart Lily ‘despises the things she’s trying for’. She tells him Lily is there to distract Dorset and to keep him ‘blind’ to his wife’s dalliances with Silverton. She says Lily is not clever in the right way and should be in Dorset’s line of vision when he finally sees what his wife is like. On hearing this, Selden exclaims it is time for his train. 10 minutes later he packs his clothes and catches the train to Nice.


He thinks he will be able to return to a reasonable view of Lily if he does not see her, but she gets in the same carriage and he has to confront the face he was fleeing. She sits opposite him and he remembers it is three months since they spoke together at the Brys’ party. She talks to him as if nothing has happened between them and this facility sickens him. He also thinks this will help him recover from her and ‘would eject the last drop of poison from his blood’. He sees she is ‘perfect’ to everyone in her party and does not neglect any opportunities. He then suddenly realizes that her situation must be desperate and she is poised on the brink of a chasm.


The chapter ends later with Lord Hubert talking to Selden and telling him that Lily is with the Duchess and she has had rather a liberal education. He then says how her aunt was great at ‘bridging chasms’ and it is a pity New York is such a long way off.


The next morning in Chapter Two Lily gets up and finds herself alone on the deck of the Dorset boat. Their invitation came as ‘an almost miraculous release’ for her: ‘Moral complications existed for her only in the environment that had produced them; she did not mean to slight or ignore them, but they lost their reality when they changed their background.’ She could not have stayed in New York without paying her debt to Trenor and might even have had to face marrying Rosedale. She is also grateful for once more being seen as ‘beautiful Miss Bart’ in the journal that records the least movements of her companions and is being welcomed in ‘high company’.


As usual, her funds are low and her hopes of a change in fortune sustain her. She is due to have breakfast with the Duchess of Beltshire and attempts to talk to Bertha before she goes. The maid tells her she is trying to sleep and Lily sees this as a rebuff as Bertha was left out of the invitation.


Later at the casino, Lily talks to Carry and Carry tells her that she thinks she has lost Mrs Bry. She is cutting her losses and going to Paris with the Sam Gormers who are still in the elementary stage. She tells Lily she is leaving her the Brys and also warns her that Dabham, the author of ‘Society Notes from the Riviera’, is letting everyone know that Lily and Dorset came back alone from Nice last night. Lily says this is true, but the others let them down and Bertha did not even turn up at the station. Carry says she hopes Lily does not have to pay for Bertha’s indiscretions.


When Lily is alone later she feels a sense of uneasiness about Selden’s appearance yesterday and this grows acute when Dorset comes over to her. He looks ‘bedraggled and ferocious’ and tells her that Bertha did not return until 7 am. He becomes frenzied and says he will telegraph his lawyer and send for Selden (who is also a lawyer). Lily protests but he asks why not. Once she accepts the ‘grotesqueness’ of the situation, she agrees as Selden will save Bertha and she sends a telegram to bring this about. She presumes Bertha will be feeling wretched, but when she returns to the boat Bertha is dispensing tea to the Duchess and looks at Lily blankly. When they leave, Lily expects the mask to drop, but Bertha turns the situation around and says she waited for her and Dorset at the station. She adds that she has packed him off to the doctor and refers to Lily and Dorset being alone together. Lily then understands that Bertha is ‘following a line she had marked out for herself’. A chill of fear passes over her as she remembers Bertha’s earlier treachery


Analysis – Chapters One and Two

Lily’s precarious position in the company of the Dorsets becomes clearer at the end of Chapter Two. She remembers Bertha’s earlier betrayal and recognizes at last that she will be sacrificed for Bertha’s own good name. The relative power of the married woman’s position becomes evident once more especially when compared to the weakness of Lily’s.


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