The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning at Bellomont, the hostess, Judy Trenor, sends Lily a message asking her if she can come down by ten to help with administrative tasks. Lily complains about having to be down at an hour that, at Bellomont, is considered extremely early, but knows that she is implicitly expected to perform such duties in exchange for being invited to Bellomont. However, in light of Lily’s wasteful previous night, this message only emphasizes her lack of liberty.
Although members of the upper class value Lily’s presence and Lily is regarded as an important member of high society, her unmarried status also places her in a precarious social position, as there are hidden conditions (such as Lily’s help with Judy’s administrative duties) tied to her participation in social events.
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When Judy Trenor sees Lily, she shows no visible sign of recognition of Lily’s services, which irritates the young girl. However, Lily, who tends to think of her friends in a calculating, self-interested way, considers Mrs. Trenor a reliable friend, unlike many other people she knows.
Lily’s belief that Judy is a loyal friend will later prove mistaken, when Judy distances herself from the young woman after learning about Lily’s financial arrangements with Gus Trenor. Mrs. Trenor’s expectation that Lily will help her with administrative duties already signals that their friendship is tied to underlying, self-interested exchanges.
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Mrs. Trenor, who deeply enjoys her function as hostess and takes this role seriously, is agitated because she fears that her party will turn into a disaster. Feeling that she is competing against other women such as Mrs. Van Osburgh, Mrs. Trenor is afraid that people might be bored. She also notes that people disapprove of her inviting Carry Fisher, a woman who has been divorced twice, and she complains about Mrs. Fisher borrowing money from her husband Gus Trenor, although she is grateful for the way in which Mrs. Fisher keeps her husband in a good mood.
Mrs. Trenor’s concerns, as well as her discussion of other people’s personalities and motives, reveals that social events of this kind are a fragile enterprise, moved not by a common desire for people to enjoy themselves but, rather, by relationships of power and competition, hidden by outward civility. Semblances of morality (such as people’s condemnation of Carry’s divorces) ultimately matter less than social prestige and utility.
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As Lily tries to help Judy Trenor with her massive correspondence, Mrs. Trenor complains about Lady Cressida Raith, who is religiously conservative and will make the party boring. Mrs. Trenor discusses the various possible attitudes of the people at the party but Lily tries to reassure her by telling her that the Bellomont parties are always entertaining. However, Mrs. Trenor remains gloomy, explaining that Bertha Dorset is angry at her because Lawrence Selden, with whom Bertha once had an affair, might be coming. Lily is surprised to learn that Bertha apparently still has feelings for Selden, who does not seem to feel the same way.
Mrs. Trenor’s fear concerning Lady Cressida Raith’s presence reveals that people’s attitude toward morality is superficial, since what ultimately matters is less morality itself (for example, religious observance or Carry Fisher’s divorces) than people’s enjoyment. Lily’s detached comments about Bertha and Selden’s relationship are not as disinterested as they seem, since Lily will later prove jealous of Bertha when she sees Bertha and Selden together.
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Love and Friendship Theme Icon
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Lily and Judy then discuss Percy Gryce, whom Judy invited on purpose for Lily. Judy tells Lily that she is infinitely more attractive and intelligent than Bertha, but that, unlike Lily, Bertha is mean, which is more likely to benefit her in the long run. Feigning surprise at this harsh comment, Lily wonders about Judy’s friendship with Bertha but Judy simply explains that it is safer to keep dangerous people on one’s side. Judy adds that Bertha takes pleasure in making her husband George Dorset jealous and miserable.
Judy’s willingness to share her thoughts about Bertha with Lily seemingly indicates that she feels closer to Lily than to Bertha. However, Judy’s mention of Bertha’s malice also foreshadows Bertha’s later social prominence and thus highlights the extent to which sincere affection matters less than relations of power in this upper-class milieu.
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When Judy says she might call Lawrence Selden to make sure he comes, Lily blushes and says that, if Judy would be doing so to keep Bertha from seducing Percy Gryce, she shouldn’t worry. Judy then exults at the idea that Lily has successfully seduced Gryce. Knowing Gryce’s conservative nature, though, Judy encourages Lily to go slowly, but also promises to help her out as best she can in the young girl’s efforts to marry him.
Lily’s blush reveals her potential feelings for Selden, and her desire to keep him away from Bellomont might derive from her knowledge that Selden’s presence would keep her from wanting to spend time with Gryce. Judy’s excitement for Lily’s potential marriage with Gryce shows that she is less concerned with Lily’s happiness and Gryce’s suitability than with the prospect of a materially successful marriage.
Themes
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Over the next few days, Lily feels satisfied by her slow progress in seducing Percy Gryce. When she sees her cousin Jack Stepney with Gwen Van Osburgh, she realizes that their situation is similar to hers: Gwen seems deeply attracted to Jack, who only expresses boredom. However, Lily feels jealous of Jack’s situation, in which he simply has to let Gwen marry him, whereas Lily has to engage in complicated social strategies to make sure that Gryce is actually interested in marrying her.
Lily’s desire to seduce Gryce does not make her blind to the reality of her situation, in which she knows she is choosing a life of monotony and boredom for the sake of money alone. Lily’s lucidity, though, does not keep her from wanting to succeed. Her criticism of having to use social strategies relates less to morality and ethics than to the practical effort it takes to behave in socially savvy ways.
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Reflecting on her possible marriage with Gryce, Lily feels relieved that her money troubles might soon end, and that she might be able to live her life independently. Amazed by the pleasures and luxuries that such a life would afford, Lily feels optimistic about the potential for her beauty to seduce anyone. She looks tenderly upon the people at Bellomont, reveling in the beauty of the setting and the elegance of the people around her, whose world she will be happy to share. When she hears footsteps behind her, she believes Percy Gryce has come to join her but, upon turning around, discovers that it is in fact than Lawrence Selden.
Most of Lily’s attitude toward money and her own future is characterized by the alternation of moments of self-confidence and moments of discouragement and worry. Lily’s trust in her own beauty serves as her primary source of optimism, and also fuels her conviction that she belongs in a luxurious, beautiful world. Selden’s arrival when Lily expected Gryce symbolically replaces one man for the other, suggesting that Lily will have to make a choice between two opposite life paths: her friendship with Selden and her necessity to marry Gryce.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Gender, Class, and Freedom Theme Icon