The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, Lily wakes up alone in Gerty’s bed and, as memory returns to her, feels a mix of horror and disgust, which she despondently realizes she will have to live with for the rest of her life. For the moment, however, she feels too tired to think of a solution to her troubles. When Gerty enters the room, Lily says that she must have had a nervous attack last night, and Gerty reassures her that she called Mrs. Peniston to tell her where Lily was.
Lily’s horror at what has happened to her will seemingly disappear during her trip to Europe, but will never actually disappear, as her later sleeping problems reveal. Gerty’s responsible behavior, though, proves that she is a devoted friend, willing to help Lily in any circumstance without demanding any explanation from her. 
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When Lily returns home, Mrs. Peniston tells her that she was extremely worried last night. Lily explains that she had felt faint but did not need a doctor, which reassures her aunt. In her room, Lily calculates the amount she owes Gus Trenor and realizes that regaining her dignity and moral worth will cost her even more money than dressing fashionably.
Mrs. Peniston’s worries about Lily are qualitatively different from Gerty’s, since Mrs. Peniston is less interested in Lily’s personal life and well-being than in her mere physical health and reputation. The ironic conclusion that protecting one’s dignity is more expensive than being socially accepted reveals how separate morality is from high-society values.
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After lunch, Lily asks to speak to her aunt. Lily begins to discuss her problems, but when she mentions her debts, she is surprised to see that her aunt is not astonished. Instead, Mrs. Peniston reprimands Lily for putting herself in such a situation, noting that she has always given her enough money to buy clothes, and Lily is finally forced to admit that she does not only owe money only for clothes, but also for bridge. Instead of offering to help her, Mrs. Peniston scolds her for such inacceptable behavior and concludes that she does not care if Lily is disgraced, considering that Lily has already disgraced herself through her own behavior.
Lily’s willingness to admit her mistakes to her aunt reveals her moral uprightness. By telling the truth about her gambling to her aunt, Lily is ready to sacrifice her dignity and social propriety in order to live up to more elevated ideals. Mrs. Peniston’s behavior shows moral rigidity as well as lack of compassion, but also highlights the ways in which Lily has mishandled her money, wasting it on risky activities such as bridge.
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Shaking with fear and rage, Lily returns to her room. However, after walking around angrily, she realizes that it is almost four—the time at which Selden is supposed to come. Feeling that his love is her only hope, and that he might be able to save her, she resolves to confide in him, which makes her feel scared but also hopeful. However, an entire hour soon goes by, and Selden does not come.
Lily’s anger highlights Mrs. Peniston’s lack of family loyalty, but also Lily’s complete isolation and loneliness, as she does not know who might be able and willing to help her. The reader knows before Lily does that Selden, who is angry at seeing Lily with Gus Trenor, is unlikely to come.
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Wondering if Selden might have mistaken their appointment for five o’clock, Lily is relieved to hear the bell ring at five. However, instead of Selden, Rosedale walks in, which irritates Lily. After discussing Wellington and Louisa Bry’s entertainment, Rosedale suddenly says that he has all the money he needs in life, but that he doesn’t yet have the right woman.
Although Lily feels frustrated by Rosedale’s presence, he proposes to Lily at the moment she needs it most, since marriage would put an end to the rumors about her liaisons and bring her the financial stability she needs. Although Lily does not yet realize it, this represents one of her last moments to choose between financial ruin and success.
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Lily remains silent as she listens to Rosedale promise to give her all the money she might ever want. When Lily is forced to give him an answer about marrying him, she begins to refuse, but Rosedale, who did not expect her to be in love with him, emphasizes that, while he is in love with her, he knows she mostly cares about luxury and fashion and that he would be able to give all of that to her.
Rosedale’s pragmatism is admirable, since he does not expect love from Lily but, rather, a business-like partnership. This is exactly what Lily has always wanted—and also, everything that she has always felt ambivalent about. Her unwillingness to seize this opportunity reveals her doubts about whether she truly wants only money in life.
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Speaking very straightforwardly, Rosedale adds that he could put all her troubles in the past, and the allusion to Lily’s problems makes her blush. Lily tells him that she needs time to think about his offer, and Rosedale seems to consider this a fair answer, although his patient reaction scares Lily, as she realizes that he might prove a tireless suitor.
Rosedale hints at the rumors about Lily to argue that money could solve all her problems—from repaying Gus Trenor to safeguarding her reputation. The (probably correct) idea that money could protect Lily from anything reveals the cynical, debased norms that high society follows.
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After Rosedale leaves, Lily is convinced that Selden will write to her to explain his absence, but she feels disappointed and scared when he does not. The next day, after an agonizingly lonely night, Lily begins to write a message to Selden but suddenly sees a note in the evening paper revealing that Selden has left the country for the Caribbean. She then understands that Selden will never come to visit her, and she feels helpless and old.
Lily’s failure to interrogate Selden’s mysterious departure might indicate utter confusion, resignation to her fate or, perhaps, the intuition that her social environment has made him flee. Either way, Selden’s failure to at least inform Lily of his departure is particularly disheartening, given that Lily has done nothing to offend him personally and would have desperately needed his support in this moment.
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Noticing the pen with which she was going to write to Selden, Lily begins to write a message to Rosedale but finds herself unable to form words. Then, at ten o’clock, when the doorbell rings and Lily receives a note, she thinks Selden might have written to her after all, or might perhaps not have left the country at all, but she opens the letter to see an invitation from Bertha Dorset to join her group on a cruise to the Mediterranean.
Bertha’s invitation to go on a cruise is just as sudden as Selden’s departure, and suggests that Lily is now bound to spend her time with untrustworthy people such as Bertha, instead of people like Selden whom she thought were reliable. The apparent generosity of Bertha’s gesture only suggests that it must conceal ulterior motives, since Bertha never does anything out of kindness alone.
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