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The House of Mirth: Book Two – Chapter 3,4

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Summary – Chapters Three and Four

Chapter Three begins with Selden waiting for Dorset having received the telegram from Lily. He hopes to avert a scandal and is concerned to keep Lily out of it too. When Dorset arrives, he can only show him sympathy for now and lets him leave with the idea that he has to show ‘a strictly non-committal attitude’.


At dinner, which Dorset also attends, Lily tries to keep up the structure of ‘appearances’ while Bertha has an attitude of ‘isolated defiance’. The next day, Bertha keeps to her room and Dorset avoids Lily. This throws her on her own resources and she runs into Selden. He stretches the truth a little and tells her he is surer about Dorset now. Dorset’s outlook has changed that morning but Selden does not know why. Selden wonders why Lily looks so anxious and wonders if it is for herself or her friends. He also knows how reckless Bertha can be and thinks he will have to talk to Lily again to warn her of a possible ‘crash’.


Mrs Bry invites him to dinner and he manages to get Lily alone to ask her to leave the yacht. However, she insists that she cannot leave Bertha. When they dine, Selden watches Lily and thinks of her as ‘matchless’ and yet has little personal feeling for her as he is divided from her by the choice she has made.


The evening is a ‘success’ and as they leave Stepney offers to give the Dorsets and Lily a lift to the yacht. Lily turns to obey, but Bertha says distinctly that Miss Bart is not going back with them. Everyone looks startled and Dorset attempts to intercede, but Bertha insists. During this, Lily remains erect and pales a little, and then explains that she is joining the Duchess tomorrow and it is easier for her to stay on shore tonight. She quivers on the brink of failure, but turns to Selden and asks him to escort her to her cab. They leave and the fiction of the cab is abandoned and they sit in the gardens.


She neither explains nor defends herself and Selden feels his silence forfeits his chance of helping her. He then advises her, though, to go to the Stepneys and to do so quickly to not look suspicious. He helps her to organize this by talking to Stepney.


At Mrs Peniston’s in Chapter Four, her relatives are assembled and the blinds are drawn. Lily appears with Gerty and it is the first time she has faced her family since she returned from Europe two weeks ago. The shock of hearing of her aunt’s death is mitigated somewhat by the irrepressible thought that she might now be able to pay off her debt to Trenor. They are there to hear the reading of the will and Lily hears she has been left $10,000. The residue of the estate is left to Grace (and it is thought that Mrs Peniston was worth $400,000). Lily feels utterly alone and nobody looks at her. She tells Grace she is glad for her. She then goes back to Gerty’s home and considers it a humorous coincidence that the amount she has been left is almost the same as her debt to Trenor.


The will was made six weeks ago and Lily presumes her aunt heard of her break from the Dorsets. She knows Bertha has said that Lily was trying to marry Dorset and ostracized her to make him think she was jealous. Lily tells Gerty that she would not mind people cutting her if she had received more money, but Gerty says she must tell the truth and clear her name. Lily questions the possibility of this: ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe.’ She says that once a woman has been talked about she is ‘done for’ and the more she explains the worse it looks.


After breaking with the Dorsets, the Duchess offered her ‘protection’, but with the advice of Selden and Lord Hubert she returned to her aunt. When she reluctantly returned to the United States, she had not been on shore for 10 minutes before she realized she had delayed for too long. The Dorsets, Stepneys and Brys had preceded her with their version. Even if she thought her explanation would work, it is half pride and half humiliation that stops her too as she was with the Dorsets to distract the husband.


She now thinks she must set out to regain the position she has lost and has to first find out how many friends she can count on. She centers her hopes on Judy Trenor, but when she meets her accidentally at a restaurant, Judy omits to meet up with her another time. Rosedale is with her and is a little off hand with Lily and Trenor cuts his greeting short to talk to the head waiter. Lily knows that where Judy leads others will follow and remembers her complaints of Carry Fisher and how she borrows money from Trenor. She sees she is jealous of his pocket and explains the rebuff this way.


In her ignorance, Lily expects the legacy to be paid quickly, but is told by the lawyer that it might take a year. She cannot bear to owe the debt for this long and decides unwillingly to ask a favor of Grace. She returns to her former home and asks if she will advance the amount expected. When Grace says she also has to wait, Lily asks if she could borrow on it but Grace refuses and tells her it was her debt that brought on her aunt’s illness.


Analysis – Chapters Three and Four

In these chapters, Lily is ostracized from the elite world she craves to belong to and this comes about with Bertha’s direct involvement. Lily is used as a scapegoat by Bertha to save her own marriage and, as Lily learns, Bertha pretends to be jealous of a relationship between her and her husband and this is a smokescreen for her own infidelities. This has a damaging effect on her financially as well as socially as it is thought the news of the break with the Dorset had an influence on her aunt’s will.


The hypocritical treatment of Lily is noted by her and this is evident when she explains to Gerty that once a woman has been talked about she is ‘done for’. Just the hint of promiscuity and adultery (as in fact Lily is still a virgin) is enough of a reason for Lily to be ousted by her social group.


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