The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The day after Wellington and Louisa Bry’s party, Gerty Farish feels happy to have taken part in such elegant entertainment and to know that Selden and Lily appreciate each other. Gerty also admires Lily’s philanthropy, although she does not realize that Lily’s motives are not as elevated and selfless as her own. When Selden asks to have dinner with her that evening, Gerty feels that she shares a special bond with him.
Gerty’s generous interpretation of people’s behavior as selfless allows her to take pleasure in many of her relationships, but is also responsible for later disappointments, such as what she will feel in Selden and Lily’s regard when she realizes that they are more interested in each other than in Gerty herself.
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In the meantime, Selden reflects on his own upbringing. Despite growing up in a lower-income environment, his mother made their life pleasant and elegant, and he inherited from her a lack of interest in material things, although he does appreciate objects for their artistic qualities. Although he used to think he was less interested in sentimental than intellectual adventures, he is now overwhelmed by the thought of Lily Bart, whose real personality he feels he can separate from her vulgar environment.
Although Selden loves Lily, part of his love hinges on the possibility for Lily to reject her social environment, whose values he disagrees with. This means that the obstacles separating Lily and Selden are financial (since Lily wants to marry a rich man) and social, since the only way they could be together would involve Lily abandoning her social sphere.
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On his way to dinner at Gerty’s, Selden runs into Gus Trenor, who tries to convince Selden to dine with him, complaining that Judy has not come to town and that he does not want to dine alone. However, Selden tells him he has another engagement. When he sees Gus’s irritated reaction, he cannot believe that rumors have associated Gus with Lily romantically—an idea that makes Selden feel disgusted. He then discovers a note from Lily asking to meet him the next day and feels overcome with joy.
This episode highlights the importance of coincidences in the novel. Had Selden accepted Gus’s proposition, he might have been at the Trenors’ house when Lily arrived, and kept her from experiencing a brutal confrontation with Gus. His inability (and lack of desire) to accept the invitation thus conveys the impression that Lily is doomed to her fate—specifically, to suffer Gus’s ire, which marks the beginning of her downfall.
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In Gerty’s sparse apartment, Selden compliments the young girl on her various qualities, which makes Gerty feel flushed. After dinner, the two of them then talk about Lily, sharing their impressions of her and their mutual excitement over Lily’s true nature, but over the course of the conversation Gerty realizes that Selden probably only came to dinner in order to talk about Lily. This causes Gerty to feel a vivid sense of pain and, when Selden stands up to go to Mrs. Fisher’s, where Gerty told him Lily was, Selden leaves Gerty without noticing the disappointment he has inflicted on his cousin.
For the first time in the novel, Gerty expresses negative feelings: pain and jealousy. This reveals that, despite her disinterest in social intrigue, she too has ambitions of her own: to be loved and admired for her own sake, just like any other member of society. Although Gerty’s jealousy toward Lily recalls Grace Stepney’s feelings of exclusion, Gerty soon proves capable of overcoming her self-centered emotions when she sees Lily in a desperate situation.
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At Carry Fisher’s, Selden hears that Lily has already left, and he listens to people gossip about her. When someone mentions that Lily has gone to Mrs. Trenor’s, Mrs. Stepney notes that Judy is still in Bellomont, which causes everyone to wonder silently, with amused smiles, if Lily has gone to meet Gus alone. Feeling oppressed by this atmosphere, Selden, who feels increasingly resolved to get Lily out of this toxic social environment, decides to leave.
The pleasure that people take in gossiping and in the idea that Lily might be having an affair with Gus reveals the malicious (or at least non-sympathetic) intent of many members of the upper crust, who derive pleasure from witnessing other people’s missteps and public embarrassment. The impossibility for people to live private lives without enduring public scrutiny restricts their freedom without bringing greater morality.
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Van Alstyne accompanies Selden on a walk, and the two of them discuss Wellington and Louisa Bry’s efforts at social climbing. However, when they approach Gus and Judy Trenor’s house, the two of them see a dark figure hurrying to a cab, while a bulkier one remains in the house. Worried about the conclusions that Selden might draw from this incident, Van Alstyne, who belongs to Lily’s family, asks him to keep quiet about what they have seen, but Selden abruptly says goodnight and leaves.
Van Alstyne’s effort to protect Lily shows a concern for the young woman, instead of a desire to mock her—an unusual occurrence in this social world, even if, in this case, it is based on the self-interested effort to protect the family’s reputation. Meanwhile, Selden’s anger at Lily seems unfair. Instead of allowing Lily to explain herself, he derives conclusions from mere appearances, which are themselves informed by the rumors he has heard.
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Meanwhile, alone in her apartment, Gerty feels mounting jealousy toward Lily, whom she feels must know about Gerty’s feelings for Selden but not care. She concludes that Lily is callous, but also reproaches herself for daring to dream of a more elegant life, beyond her looks and her means.
Gerty’s surprising reversal from admiring Lily’s generosity to accusing her of callousness reveals the extent of her pain, but also highlights the difficulty of understanding the character of a person like Lily, whose attitude often varies according to context.
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Related Quotes
As Gerty is getting ready for bed, someone suddenly rings the doorbell. Gerty hastily opens the door and is angry to see Lily, although Lily’s desperate embrace awakens Gerty’s compassion, as Gerty can tell that Lily needs help. Gerty makes tea, and Lily explains that she simply could not bear to be alone. Gerty, who is worried that something terrible has happened, tries to make Lily tell her what is wrong, but Lily speaks in vague allusions, concluding that her entire life has been destroyed, and that she is never going to be able to sleep again.
Gerty’s ability to promptly put aside her own grievances and focus on Lily’s unhappiness reveals her moral virtue. Her willingness to let compassion triumph over jealousy highlights the emphasis she places on collective life and relationships, more than on the cultivation of one’s ego or self-interests (the values that determine upper-class social life). Lily’s hunch that this episode marks a turning point in her life will later prove correct, as neither her finances nor her ability to sleep will ever recover from this event.
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Lily then begins to cry, and Gerty tries to convince her to actually tell her what has happened, adding that Selden went to Carry Fisher’s to look for her—a comment that only makes Lily feel more fragile and horrified, as she realizes that Selden was right in warning her that she would one day hate the society she belongs to. Desperate, Lily asks Gerty if she thinks Selden would help her even if Lily told him the truth: that she cannot help but want money and material things in her life, and that she has now fallen very low. Gerty, who decides to sacrifice her own love for Selden in order to tell the truth, reassures Lily that Selden is a good man and would help her at all times. The two girls then go lie down, and Lily, still in shock, asks Gerty to hold her before she can fall asleep.
Lily’s inability to tell Gerty about what has happened might be the result of shock and shame, how unused Lily is to sharing her intimate experiences with anyone, or her belief that Gerty might be too horrified by her story. Either way, although Gerty could choose to depict a negative picture of Selden so that Lily would lose interest in him (and that Gerty could have him for herself), she makes the moral decision to tell the truth. Ironically, though, on this particular occasion, Selden’s behavior proves disappointing, since he does not actually make himself available to help Lily, overwhelmed as he is by his own misguided feelings of hurt.
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