The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

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Bertha’s Letters Symbol Analysis

Bertha’s Letters Symbol Icon

During Bertha Dorset’s affair with Lawrence Selden, Bertha wrote the young man love letters that he failed to destroy. When Lily Bart comes in possession of these letters, she realizes that Bertha’s reputation is in her hands, since these letters serve as incriminating evidence of Bertha’s adultery. Therefore, after Bertha spreads lies about Lily and ejects her from their social circle, the possibility for Lily to use these letters to blackmail Bertha represents a tempting opportunity, as it would allow Lily to regain her position in high society without creating a public confrontation. Although Lily’s visceral reaction to such a strategy is moral revulsion, she later feels tempted to use it to escape her desperate financial and social situation. Over the course of the novel, Bertha’s letters thus represent the difficult choice that Lily is going to have to make between two opposites: living a righteous life but being condemned to poverty, or sacrificing her moral values to re-enter the high society she so desperately wants to belong to. When Lily finally destroys these letters for good, she demonstrates her incapacity to behave in a way that is contrary to her principles, even if this means giving up on a lifelong dream. Bertha’s letters thus highlight the ways high society can be debased and immoral. They suggest that, to avoid its unethical temptations entirely, all an individual might be able to do is escape.

Bertha’s Letters Quotes in The House of Mirth

The The House of Mirth quotes below all refer to the symbol of Bertha’s Letters. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Dover edition of The House of Mirth published in 2002.
Book 2: Chapter 4 Quotes

“The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”

Related Characters: Lily Bart (speaker), Bertha Dorset, Gerty Farish, Julia Peniston
Related Symbols: Bertha’s Letters
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation long mobile
Book 2: Chapter 11 Quotes

She lay awake viewing her situation in the crude light which Rosedale’s visit had shed on it. In fending off the offer he was so plainly ready to renew, had she not sacrificed to one of those abstract notions of honor that might be called the conventionalities of the moral life? What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and banished her without trial? She had never been heard in her own defense; she was innocent of the charge on which she had been found guilty; and the irregularity of her conviction might seem to justify the use of methods as irregular in recovering her lost rights.

Related Characters: Lily Bart, Bertha Dorset, Simon Rosedale
Related Symbols: Bertha’s Letters
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Book 2: Chapter 12 Quotes

“There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you—we are sure to see each other again—but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you—I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you—and she’ll be no trouble, she’ll take up no room.”

Related Characters: Lily Bart (speaker), Lawrence Selden, Bertha Dorset
Related Symbols: Bertha’s Letters
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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Bertha’s Letters Symbol Timeline in The House of Mirth

The timeline below shows where the symbol Bertha’s Letters appears in The House of Mirth. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1: Chapter 9
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
...There, Mrs. Haffen reveals that, upon cleaning Selden’s apartment, she found a series of love letters addressed to him that the young man had clearly meant to throw away, but failed... (full context)
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
While Mrs. Haffen believes that Lily is the author of these letters and would want to keep them safe and private, Lily recognizes Bertha Dorset’s handwriting. Although... (full context)
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Feeling disgusted by the idea of reading the letters, Lily resolves to destroy them in her room, but Mrs. Peniston then walks in to... (full context)
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
In her room, Lily plans to burn Bertha Dorset’s letters. However, after Mrs. Peniston’s mention of the reasons that made Percy Gryce flee Bellomont, Lily... (full context)
Book 1: Chapter 10
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
...if Bertha and she are now on good terms. Since being in possession of Bertha’s letters has made her feel more powerful over Bertha, Lily now feels no animosity toward her... (full context)
Book 2: Chapter 7
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
...startles Lily by asking directly why she does not take her revenge and use Bertha’s letters, which he knows she possesses. As Lily listens on, too astonished to answer, Rosedale does... (full context)
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
...be for Bertha to be on her side, which Lily could achieve by using Bertha’s letters against her. Using logical, business-like arguments, Rosedale tries to convince Lily that not only could... (full context)
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
...attitude must be explained by an effort to protect Selden, to whom Bertha addressed her letters. However, Rosedale adds sarcastically that Selden seems to have done nothing to help her. (full context)
Book 2: Chapter 11
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
...that all she would have to do for Rosedale to marry her is use Bertha’s letters against her. Throughout her conversation with Rosedale, she is moved by his passionate indignation at... (full context)
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
That night, Lily reflects on the possibility of using Bertha’s letters to reintegrate into society. She argues to herself that she does not owe high society... (full context)
Morality vs. Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
...feels painfully lonely. Finally, in the afternoon, she returns home and decides to take Bertha’s letters to her. Feeling unusually calm and composed, despite the momentousness of the situation, Lily exits... (full context)