The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Having planned to seduce Percy Gryce by convincing him that she is religiously observant, Lily plans to join him to go to church on Sunday. Mr. Gryce, who considers high society too materialistic, is impressed by what he perceives as Lily’s own discomfort in this social sphere. However, Lily, despite her best intentions, is too intrigued by Lawrence Selden’s presence at Bellomont to go to church. Looking out the window at the omnibus that is departing for church, she is glad to notice that Mr. Gryce seems dejected by her absence.
Lily’s relationship to Gryce is defined by social calculation and the pleasure of asserting her power over someone else, whereas her relationship to Selden is much more mysterious, fuelled by sincere interest and curiosity. Lily does not feel bad about trying to convince Gryce that she is someone she is not, since her entire relationship with him is defined by calculation and a lack of sincere romantic interest.
Themes
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Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Lily reflects on Lawrence Selden’s character and resolves to figure out if he has come to Bellomont for her or for Bertha Dorset. She wonders why she likes him so much, and admits that she has always enjoyed his company more than other men’s. She concludes that what she admires in him is his capacity to remain on the outskirts of high society, taking part in its activities without becoming its prisoner, as Lily feels she is.
Lily’s reflections on Selden reveal curiosity on her part, as she feels attracted by Selden’s intellectual and social freedom. Her interest in him is inherently deeper than her relationship with other members of society, since none of it derives from social calculation. At the same time, Lily does not yet seem ready to admit that she might be interested in him romantically.
Themes
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Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Lily makes a mental list of who is present at Bellomont and realizes that, compared to Selden, they are all empty and uninteresting. She smiles at this thought, since her friends had seemed so admirable to her the night before. She realizes that, however opulent their lives might be, they are also dull and empty, and she herself longs for an opportunity to escape the monotony of the life she has planned for herself.
The contrast between Lily’s previously positive assessment of Bellomont and her current criticism underlines the strong influence that Selden has on her, as well as Lily’s underlying aversion to a monotonous life. However much she tries to convince herself that she desires money and luxury, she seems incapable of accepting the boredom they are tied to.
Themes
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At the dinner table the night before, George Dorset, who was seated next to Lily, remarked to her that his wife, Bertha, who was seated next to Lawrence Selden, was ridiculing herself by trying so hard to seduce Selden. When Lily turned to look, she noticed that Selden, however, seemed uninterested in the woman’s advances. George, who felt that Lily was being particularly attentive to him, admitted that he was jealous and that that was what has caused him to suffer from chronic indigestion.
Bertha’s behavior toward Selden in front of her husband highlights her disregard for ethical issues regarding adulterous behavior, but also for other people’s feelings—in this case, her husband’s. She seems intent on getting what she wants without considering the consequences of her actions on other people’s lives. Selden’s lack of interest in Bertha, though, seems to suggest that he came to Bellomont to see Lily.
Themes
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Love and Friendship Theme Icon
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At the end of dinner, when Lily heard the name of Simon Rosedale mentioned, she wondered if she might one day have to consider marrying him if she failed to make Mr. Gryce propose to her. However, Lily was cheered up from these thoughts by the confidence she felt about her effects on Gryce. When she returned to her room, her happiness was increased when she found some money that Mrs. Peniston had sent her.
Lily’s consideration of Rosedale as a potential future husband reveals the lack of sincere interest she has in Gryce, thus highlighting how emotionally empty her marriage would be. It also suggests that part of her knows that she will fail to marry Gryce—perhaps precisely because of her lack of emotional interest in the affair.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
The next morning, as Lily imagines the endless tediousness of sharing a life with Percy Gryce, she feels that her plan to go to church is too rational for her not to want to break it. Therefore, instead of taking the omnibus with everyone else, she decides that she will walk to church, pretending that she woke up too late, so that she can take advantage of the beautiful morning to enjoy herself.
Lily’s behavior, in which she intentionally sabotages her opportunities to marry for money, indicate her lack of interest in actually marrying for money. At the same time, she seems incapable of giving up on that idea entirely, since it is her only direct avenue to secure wealth and power. Her elaborate social strategies aim to compensate for these existential doubts.
Themes
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As Lily walks around in the large house, she reaches the library, where she sees Lawrence Selden and Bertha Dorset in intimate conversation. Pretending that she had not realized she was late for church, she tells them she will walk to make it for at least part of the service. She then steps outside and realizes that she is disappointed to have seen Lawrence with Bertha, since she thought that he had come to Bellomont for her.
Lily finally admits that she feels emotionally invested in her relationship with Selden. This time, her jealousy toward Bertha has less to do with power dynamics than with the nature of her feelings themselves—although she does not yet directly admit that she feels anything for Selden.
Themes
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At a slow, leisurely pace contrasting starkly with her professed intention to make it to church on time, Lily walks through the gardens and into the woods, where she finds a beautiful spot to sit and rest. Unaccustomed to solitude, though, she feels that she is wasting the beauty of this spot by being there alone and misusing the potential of this romantic scene.
Once again, Lily shows, through her behavior, that she is not actually trying hard to make Gryce interested in her, since she seems willing enough to let this opportunity pass. Lily’s inability to connect with her own self becomes apparent, as she cannot accept solitude as an opportunity to engage with her own thoughts.
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When Selden arrives, playfully asking her if she was waiting for him, Lily replies that she did indeed want to see if he would come. Lily then reveals that her purpose in going to church was to accompany somebody else. As Selden and Lily then playfully debate what she should do to try to find that mysterious person, they suddenly see the church group walking toward them.
As a form of emotional self-protection as well as honesty, Lily does not allow her relationship with Selden to become too intimate, since she always reminds him of her parallel efforts to marry someone else. At the same time, the two of them only consider Lily’s future in a playful way, seemingly unable to trust that Lily would actually sacrifice her life for money and boredom.
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When Selden sees Percy Gryce among the attendants, he realizes that this must be the person Lily wants to impress and he admires her planning skills, telling her that he now understands why she asked him so many questions about Americana. However, Lily blushes, confused, and Selden is surprised by this reaction, which he believes can be interpreted in various ways. Before the group reaches them, Selden suddenly asks Lily if she will agree to spend the afternoon with him, since he is leaving the next morning.
Lily’s blush at Selden’s comment reveals her embarrassment at seeing her previous calculative behavior come to light. This signals her aversion to immoral practices such as deception and dissimulation, and also her shame at being so blatantly seen trying to impress someone else—a shame that (as Selden perceives) indicates Lily’s sincere interest in Selden, perhaps even as a romantic partner.
Themes
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