The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 2: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Selden receives a telegram from Lily about George Dorset, Selden decides that his most important task will be to keep the situation from exploding into a scandal—especially one involving Lily. After talking with George for two hours, he is overwhelmed by the man’s long list of grievances and realizes that this case will be difficult. To keep the situation from turning more violent than it already has become, he tells Lily to keep on behaving as though everything is fine.
The complexity of George’s long-standing grievances serves as the first indication that the sudden reconciliation between George and Bertha the next day is probably dishonest. At the same time, the necessity for Lily to behave as though everything is fine highlights the importance of maintaining civil appearances. This tension between underlying grievances and outward normalcy creates a situation in which no one’s behavior can be fully trusted.
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This strategy succeeds for a while, although when George shows up to dinner and remains largely silent, Lily wonders what Bertha’s ulterior motive could be, since Bertha behaves as though she is the one who has been wronged. Lily hopes that Bertha might confide in her, because Lily believes that she could help smooth over the situation between the couple, but she remains puzzled by Bertha’s confrontational attitude. Lily is then even more surprised when, after going to bed, she hears the couple talk for an hour before Bertha retreats to her cabin.
Lily’s surprise at Bertha’s attitude highlights her naïve belief that friendship is possible between them—a belief that fails to recognize that Bertha is infinitely more calculating and malicious. Lily’s willingness to help Bertha only highlights how deeply ungrateful Bertha’s treason will later be, since Bertha will intentionally crush someone who actually tried to be her friend.
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The next day, Lily notices not only that Ned Silverton is gone—a fact that everyone chooses to ignore—but also that George is avoiding her. After leaving the yacht, she runs into Selden, who tells her that the affair seems settled, and that nothing will happen. Selden, though, feels anxious, because he has also noticed a change in George Dorset’s attitude that he cannot explain. He notices that Lily is deeply troubled, as she worries that she might become involved in a scandal, and he also feels afraid for her, although the blame in this situation should logically fall on Bertha. Carry Fisher, who is attuned to mysterious, underlying dynamics, suggests that Lily should marry George in case of trouble.
The unexplainable nature of George’s behavior creates suspense and insecurity, since it becomes impossible to understand what people’s actual motives are. Even though Lily has done nothing wrong, Selden and Carry’s worries about Lily suggest that Lily is in a vulnerable position—having done nothing to offend people directly, but also having no protection against a potential attack from Bertha. Selden and Carry’s attitudes, though, at least indicate that there are people around Lily who actually care about her.
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Selden then realizes that his greatest duty should be to protect Lily. In the evening, as he heads to a dinner organized by the Duchess, he finds a moment to tell Lily that she should leave the yacht, so that she might stay out of trouble if ever anything happens. However, Lily says that she cannot possibly leave Bertha in this situation, and she seems resigned to accepting that there is little she can do to protect herself.
Selden’s decision to commit to Lily’s plight reveals his loyalty, even if the two of them have not actually redefined their relationship. Lily’s inability to leave, though, highlights her lack of freedom, since anything she does might potentially be used against her. Her unwillingness to at least try to protect herself shows her giving in to her fate, however unfair it might be.
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George and Bertha Dorset then arrive at dinner together, which suggests that their problems have mysteriously vanished. Over dinner, Selden admires Lily’s perfection, feeling once again that she deserves to belong to a more elevated environment, and that he does not understand her choice to remain in such a degraded milieu. Selden also wonders about the journalist Mr. Dabham’s presence, wondering if the man understands the details of these people’s relationships.
The apparent harmony between George and Bertha suggests how little people’s attitudes in high society reflect their actual feelings. This complicated social situation gives extra credibility to Selden’s assessment of Lily as someone who does not belong in her milieu—since this milieu is about to prove morally degraded and, through Bertha Dorset, eject her for no reason.
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Related Quotes
By the end of the dinner, everyone seems satisfied. Mrs. Bry, in particular, is extremely proud to have been invited to one of the Duchess’s dinners. As everyone leaves, Lily stands up gracefully to accept her cloak from George Dorset. As people take their leave from each other, Mr. Bry calls Lily to return to the yacht but Bertha suddenly interposes herself, saying with cruel finality that Lily will not be returning to the yacht. Everyone looks at each other with utter puzzlement, and while George tries to convince his wife to change her mind, Bertha reiterates her order.
Bertha’s irrevocable statement proves that, thanks to her power and social standing, she does not need to justify herself for her actions. Rather, despite even George Dorset’s knowledge that what his wife is doing is wrong, the people present are happy enough to demand no explanations from Bertha and fail to come to Lily’s help—an attitude that contrasts starkly with outward shows of appreciation, such as Mr. Bry’s friendly call to Lily.
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Although deeply shocked, Lily retains a surprising composure, explaining to everyone that she planned on staying on shore because of an engagement with the Duchess the next day. In an atmosphere of intense bewilderment and tension, she then casually reminds Selden that he promised to take her to her cab.
Although Lily is not as conniving as Bertha, she is capable of demonstrating her social prowess at all times, reacting with elegance to the most unpredictable occurrences. She also knows that, in these circumstances, the only person she can count on is Selden, who does not belong fully to this milieu.
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Outside, Lily and Selden sit down and remain quiet for a while. While Selden is trying to understand what could possibly have happened, he is afraid to speak out in case he might say something offensive, but he then realizes that Lily might interpret his silence as a condemnation, comparable to the other men’s failure to defend her. The two of them then begin a tense conversation, in which Selden can tell that Lily is mad at him for his prolonged silence. Selden advises her to go to her cousins Jack Stepney and his wife Gwen, although Lily dreads Gwen’s reaction. However, Selden insists and Lily finally spends the night there, although Mr. Stepney only accepts on the condition that Lily will leave first thing in the morning, and that he does not want to wake up his wife.
Despite her outward demonstration of courage and dignity, Lily is deeply disturbed by what has just happened, and no longer can discern friends from enemies. Although only Bertha spoke up directly against Lily, everyone else’s silence was an equally unfair and cruel act, since their failure to step up in the face of injustice condemns Lily to her fate. Jack’s reaction shows how little he cares about Lily’s well-being. Instead of treating her with the care and support a family member would deserve, he judges her exclusively based on her newly degraded social situation.
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