The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 2: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Months later, in mid-April, as Selden exits the Casino in Monte Carlo, he feels renewed, detached from the problems he faced in New York. However, as he walks around, he runs into Carry Fisher, who is accompanied by Jack Stepney and his wife Gwen, Louisa Bry, and Lord Hubert Dacey, who talk about the best place to have lunch.
The irony that Selden’s relief at escaping the oppressive environment of high society is immediately followed by an encounter with the very people who constitute high society suggests that it is perhaps impossible to fully escape one’s problems, and that Selden’s effort at distancing himself geographically from them is only a superficial and temporary solution.
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When the group sees a boat in the harbor, they believe it to be George and Bertha Dorset’s cruiser, the Sabrina, where Ned Silverton and Lily are as well. They describe the success that Lily has had in the Mediterranean, in particular with the Duchess of Beltshire, and Selden remains quiet, as he had not expected to run into Lily on the Riviera. He believes, however, that after three months of not seeing her, he must no longer have strong feelings for her.
Selden’s belief in having forgotten Lily has not yet been put to test, and therefore remains highly uncertain (as well as improbable). His desire to forget her is also unjustified, since Lily never meant to hurt him and does not even know why he left New York so suddenly.
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After lunch, Selden walks with Carry Fisher, who has been helping Wellington and Louisa Bry integrate into high society, but has struggled to make their personalities agreeable to other members of the upper class. Carry then discusses Lily, saying that Lily has the bad tendency of working hard to achieve what she wants before letting it go at the last minute. Interested in this contradiction, Carry wonders whether this reveals mere fickleness or a more hidden distaste for the very objectives she is trying to reach. Carry also mentions that everyone knows Bertha has brought Lily on this trip so that Lily can distract George while Bertha and Ned Silverton have an affair.
Carry Fisher’s comments about Lily reveal how perceptive she is. Despite being part of the upper class, Carry understands that Lily might secretly reject upper-class values. Carry’s interest in Lily reveals her empathy, at odds with other people’s self-interested attitude toward the young woman. This foreshadows Carry’s later loyalty, as—unlike people like Bertha, who demonstrate utter lack of morality and compassion—she will prove the only member of high society to help Lily after her social downfall.
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Related Quotes
Selden then says he must leave, because he is staying in Nice instead of Monte Carlo. Although he feels cowardly for essentially fleeing Lily’s presence, which should no longer affect him, he also knows that he would rather not see Lily if he could avoid it. In the train, though, George and Bertha Dorset, Ned Silverton, Lord Hubert Dacey, and Lily all enter his compartment, having decided to go to Nice for a dinner with the Duchess of Beltshire.
Once again, Selden’s efforts to flee from Lily prove highly ironic, since his attempted escape only leads him closer to her. The fortuitousness of this sudden reunion accentuates the novel’s focus on fate and destiny, for it seems as though Lily and Selden are bound to meet and, one day, resolve their issues.
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Selden briefly observes Lily and notices that she is more impenetrable than before, which he sees as a crystallization of her youth. Lily treats him with ease and fluidity, as though they had never interrupted their relationship, and this easy behavior unnerves him, although he concludes that he is now in control of his feelings. Reflecting more on Lily’s expert management of this complex social situation, which involves all the people present in the train, he realizes that the young lady’s social skillfulness must reflect desperation on her part, as though she were engaged in a last effort to keep from sinking.
In the same way that Lily has expressed her frustration at Selden’s casual attitude in the past, Selden wishes Lily would somehow reveal that they once enjoyed a deep, intense relationship, instead of adopting such an opaque social façade. At the same time, Selden himself is responsible for Lily’s emotional distancing, since he refused to confront her about seeing her with Gus Trenor, choosing to leave New York instead.
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In Nice, Selden is confirmed in his observation that all of the people he is with are in insecure, unstable situations. Ned Silverton cynically complains about his companions’—especially Lily’s—trivial attitudes and constant concerns for food and fashion, whereas he personally cares more about the beauty of landscapes. After dining with an acquaintance, Selden appreciates the beauty of the moonlight views of the water, but sees Mrs. Dorset and Ned Silverton enter a cab on their own. He then runs into Lord Hubert Dacey, who talks to Selden about Lily, commenting allusively about some of Lily’s problems and the dangers of staying among people like the Duchess, who have had a “liberal education,” far from the more conservative influence of people like Lily’s aunt, Mrs. Peniston.
Selden slowly realizes that Lily finds herself in a delicate situation, since it is not her charming personality that brought her to this cruise but, rather, the convenience for Bertha to have someone who might distract her husband from her own adulterous relationship. In turn, Lily faces problems at home, where going on this cruise might be seen as a reckless decision. The difficulty for Lily to protect her reputation from any possible attack or manipulation is great. Selden’s alertness to this fact reveals that his compassion and concern for Lily’s well-being remain intact.
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