The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At Bellomont, after playing bridge until early morning, Lily walks up to her room but takes a moment to look around her, because she does not yet want to face the solitude of her room. On the stairwell, she finds delight in admiring the beauty of the Trenors’ house (instead of a sense of inequality, which she sometimes experiences). She then sees Bertha Dorset talking intimately with Percy Gryce. Although Lily knows that Mr. Gryce, whose boring stories she has had to hear all afternoon, is taken with Lily, she feels jealous of Mrs. Dorset’s married status, which allows her to amuse herself with men without actually needing them in the way Lily does.
Lily’s attitude toward money is defined by a sense of want (since she has not achieved financial stability yet) but also an aesthetic appreciation for the luxury it brings, highlighting the sincere pleasure she takes in this upper-class life. Meanwhile, Bertha’s attitude toward Gryce serves as an early indication of her intention to keep Lily from trying to marry Gryce, since it is highly improbable that Bertha actually takes pleasure in spending time with this man, who is universally acknowledged to be boring.
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Lily realizes that she will not be able to escape her fate of marrying a rich, probably boring husband. While Lily could live independently like Gerty Farish, she feels too much pleasure at living in luxury to conceive of a lower life. At the same time, Lily knows that her gambling habits are bad for her, and she regrets deciding to play once again. She recalls the example of Ned Silverton, an innocent, beautiful boy who fell in love with divorcée Carry Fisher and with bridge, which made him become addicted to gambling. Over time, Lily’s hostesses have expected her to play bridge with them as an implicit exchange for the clothes and accessories they sometimes buy for her, and Lily has discovered some of the same traces of addiction in her own life.
Lily’s attitude toward money is paradoxical. She often complains about what she is forced to do, such as marry a rich man, to have enough money. However, as her gambling habits demonstrate, she also seems incapable of adopting a rational attitude toward money and working hard on her own to save the little money she has. At the same time, Lily feels that even gambling is a mandatory activity, since it allows her to receive the accessories she needs to take part in upper-class activities. These constraints seem to doom Lily to a life of eternal spending, with few opportunities to actually protect her resources.
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When Lily returns to her room, she realizes that she has lost three hundred dollars at bridge, whereas women who do not need it, such as Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor, left the bridge table with hundreds of dollars. Lily finds this situation unfair and compares her life to the maid’s, arguing that she, too, is “in bondage,” but that the maid at least gets paid regularly. Lily looks in the mirror and notices lines by her mouth. She concludes that her frequent worrying is making her look old—which in turn causes her to worry more, since beauty is so important to her social advancement.
Lily’s self-comparison to the maid expresses her personal feeling of being prisoner to upper-class life, but is also highly disingenuous, since Lily has chosen a mode of life in which she is not expected to work and can spend her money on frivolous items such as dresses and jewelry. Although Lily sees social events as a form of obligation that involve skill and work, she does enjoy them greatly and cannot imagine living without them.
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Lily then reflects on Percy Gryce and concludes that he is clearly interested in marrying her. Imagining being married to Mr. Gryce, Lily remembers her mother’s vengeful tone when she foreshadowed Lily getting all their money back thanks to the young girl’s beauty. Lily recalls her family life, in which she and her mother would spend extravagant sums of money and live lavish lives, while being in constant need of more money.
Lily’s memories of her family life serve as an explanation for her own, current situation. Throughout Lily’s upbringing, it was acceptable to spend more money than one received, and this attitude has defined the young woman’s own values. Her mother’s aggressive attitude shows that money, for Mrs. Bart, was a matter of moral dignity as much as survival.
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When Lily and her mother lacked money to sustain their expensive lifestyle, Lily’s father, whom she almost never saw and whom she barely knew, was always blamed. Mrs. Bart became famous for creating elegance out of moderate means. She considered her life heroic, since it involved such a mix of nobility and risk. Lily agrees with her mother in this regard and feels disdain for people who “live like pigs”—that is, who do not respect conventions of manner and elegance.
Mrs. Bart and Lily’s purely instrumental relationship with Lily’s father serves as a dark, foreboding signal of the kind of life that Lily herself could lead one day, in which one accepts that marriage and family life can be loveless, unaccompanied by any deeper attachment than an exchange of money. Lily’s disdain for people who “live like pigs” relates not only to wealth, but also to decorum, which she takes very seriously.
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At the age of nineteen, Lily’s life changed dramatically when her father announced that he was bankrupt. This confession led to his slow death and, while Lily felt sorry for him, Mrs. Bart was angry at her husband’s failure. The two women were forced to live in a state of poverty. They carefully avoided their previous acquaintances, considering their situation a disgrace.
Mrs. Bart and Lily’s avoidance of past acquaintances reveals that their relationships with people in upper-class circles was exclusively based on a single common attribute: money. Lily’s upbringing thus taught her to accept that friendship does not necessarily involve loyalty or affection.
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Despite their dire situation, Mrs. Bart trusted in Lily’s beauty and the consequent ease with which she would one day find a husband. She expressed these ideas so forcefully that Lily began to feel entitled to a world of elegance and luxury. Early on, Lily realized that she would have to use her beauty in strategic ways to become part of the upper-class society that so fascinated her. At the same time, though, Lily does not share all of her mother’s beliefs, as she feels repulsed by the idea of marrying a man for the sake of money alone. Secretly, Lily dreams of noble princes and romantic adventures.
Although Lily accepts to live in a world in which her appearance, more than her mind or character, will determine her future and her happiness, she also proves more romantically inclined than her mother, as she ideally seeks to combine luxury and romance. Part of Lily is thus attracted to a world of social calculation, but part of her also longs for a more spontaneous, fantastical world, in which she might experience life outside of the narrow codes of high society.
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Reflecting on these earlier dreams of adventure, Lily concludes that they were childish. Two years after Lily’s father’s death, her mother died, telling her daughter that she must escape the “dinginess” they lived in, otherwise she would never find a husband. After Mrs. Bart’s death, Lily’s relatives, who probably knew what Mrs. Bart thought of their lives spent “living like pigs,” are uninterested in taking care of Lily. Only one of Lily’s aunts, Mrs. Peniston, accepts to take her in, feeling pride in this act of public self-sacrifice.
In the same way that Lily’s relationship with her parents was defined less by love than a common embrace of upper-class attitudes, her relationship to the rest of her family lacks affection and care. Even Mrs. Peniston’s decision to take Lily in derives less from compassion than from the knowledge of doing a publicly admirable act. Lily’s cynicism about romance likely derives from this generally affectionless environment.
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Despite being part of New York’s upper class, Mrs. Peniston has always lived at the margins of high-society activity, and she takes pleasure in the material aspects of upper-class life more than the social circle itself. Therefore, Lily was forced to adapt to her aunt’s unexciting, secluded habits, but also benefited from Mrs. Peniston’s belief that young people should wear elegant clothes. Instead of giving Lily a regular allowance, though, Mrs. Peniston buys her presents, which keeps the young woman in a state of dependence.
Lily’s disregard for Mrs. Peniston’s highly comfortable, yet isolated life reveals that Lily is not necessarily interested in wealth or financial stability, but in the public display of wealth and power, and in the socially exciting world of upper-class life. It remains ambiguous whether Mrs. Peniston actually means to make Lily feel dependent, but it is possible that she does not trust Lily enough to give her financial freedom.
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Apart from this, Mrs. Peniston has failed to intervene in Lily’s life, and Lily feels frustrated that she is still unmarried at the age of twenty-nine. At the same time, Lily longs for independence, but soon realizes that her desire for luxury is too strong and would keep her from straying away from her quest for money, power, and success.
Lily’s belief that at least part of the reason she is not yet married is Mrs. Peniston’s fault seems like an unfair accusation, since Lily herself admits that she does not want to marry for money alone. This accusation can be interpreted as Lily’s effort to project onto others a blame that she knows is largely her own.
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