The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, Lily receives a note from Judy Trenor asking to dine together, as well as a note from Selden asking if they could meet the next day. Lily wonders if Selden is going to ask her to marry him and fears allowing their dream-like encounter the previous night to turn into more substantial reality, but also revels in the power she has over him. She quickly asks him to meet the next day at four. Lily feels glad about Mrs. Trenor’s invitation and replies that she will have to meet her after dinner, because she is dining with Carry Fisher.
Lily’s attitude toward Selden consists of a mix of fear and desire. Although she wishes she could live with him in their dream-like world, she knows that she would not be capable of leaving her social world (and her desire for power) for him. The unpredictability of Lily’s behavior, though, gives their meeting an aura of infinite possibility, as it is impossible to know in advance what Lily will decide.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
After dinner, Lily goes to Judy Trenor’s house, where Gus, not Judy, opens the door. Lily is surprised to note that Judy is nowhere to be seen, and she grows increasingly alarmed when she notices that Gus is excitable and gives vague explanations about Judy being sick. When Lily tries to leave, Gus places himself between her and the door and angrily complains about her not paying enough attention to him. Lily keeps trying to leave and says she will go search for Judy upstairs, but Gus laughs and reveals that Judy is not in the house. He explains that Judy had asked him to tell Lily that she had decided to stay at Bellomont, but that Gus did not communicate the message.
From the beginning, Lily realizes that she should not be at Gus’s house if Judy is not there, because being seen alone with a man (especially at night) would be a serious threat to her reputation, since people might think she is having an affair. Gus’s attitude adds another layer of danger to this scene: the possibility of violence and sexual aggression. Gus’s refusal to let Lily leaves shows that he has already decided not to follow ordinary social codes—which means that Lily’s usually skillful defense might not work this time.
Themes
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Gender, Class, and Freedom Theme Icon
Lily, who feels deeply confused and increasingly anxious, angrily tries to convince Gus to call a cab for her, saying he has tricked her. Gus admits that he has tricked Lily but continues expressing his resentment at being made to look like “an ass” and a fool. Lily insists that she cannot be seen alone in a man’s house at night, but Gus retaliates by saying that she is seen in men’s houses even during the day. This comment makes Lily feel dizzy, as though Gus had attacked her physically, as she realizes that men talk about her in this way.
Gus’s self-pitying attitude is worrisome because it is seemingly unfounded, since Lily has never meant to humiliate him in any way. Gus’s comment about Lily’s relationship with other men strays so far from ordinary civility that Lily is forced to realize that beneath people’s respectful attitudes lie wells of hostility, and that the social conventions of high society can be nothing but a veil for potentially violent intentions.
Themes
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Gender, Class, and Freedom Theme Icon
As Gus becomes more and more aggressive, Lily becomes increasingly vigilant. Gus then mentions that she owes him for making him feel insignificant and for treating him like a fool. At the mention of owing him, Lily pursues the subject and discovers that not only has Gus been giving Lily money when she thought his checks were the result of her original investment, but also that he now expects “payment in kind” from her. Lily feels a deep sense of humiliation and physical danger, but, as soon as Gus touches her, she regains energy and tells him she will give him his money back.
Lily’s realization that what she thought was a fair business agreement was, in Gus’s mind, nothing but a promise of sexual favors reveals how unpredictable and treacherous high-society relationships can be. Everyone expects to profit from those around them, without necessarily making their intentions clear. Lily’s capacity to defend herself, both physically and verbally, reveals her strength against adversity, and her capacity to stick to her moral principles even in the most difficult moments.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
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Moving from an effort at seduction and pity to pure aggression, Gus then implies that Lily must have already borrowed and “settled [her] scores” with Selden and Rosedale. This vicious outburst leaves both of them silent, frozen in place. Gus then realizes that he has gone too far and, suddenly feeling ashamed of his own behavior, sends Lily away. Behaving automatically, without being able to think calmly, Lily finds the strength to make Gus call a cab for her. Finally, she walks out of the house and into the cab, after having the impression that she noticed a familiar figure at the corner of the street.
While it remains ambiguous whether Gus’s conclusion that he has gone too far derives from his belief that the rumors about Lily are false, or simply that he should not have voiced them, both characters understand that accusing Lily of using sex for financial purposes is the worst insult Gus could have possibly used. The figure Lily notices when she steps out of the house is Selden, who will quickly jump to conclusions about what he has seen.
Themes
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Gender, Class, and Freedom Theme Icon
In the cab, Lily feels completely dejected, helpless, and unable to think. The idea of going home to an empty, lonely room terrifies her. Although she feels that she has no one to rely on, since her aunt would offer no comfort or understanding, she then realizes that she could go to Gerty’s, hoping that she will get there before she begins crying uncontrollably.
Lily realizes that, when she most needs it, her high-society friends are of no help, since they are not actual friends, but acquaintances connected through socio-economic ties. Living apart from this sphere, Gerty is the only non-judgmental, reliable friend Lily has—which only highlights how superficial high-society relationships are.
Themes
Love and Friendship Theme Icon