Book I, Chapter 1
Selden, a young bachelor, spots Lily Bart at the train station and wonders what she is doing there. He starts to walk past her and she greets him. After exchanging greetings, he agrees to take a walk with her and keep her company until her train arrives. They end up on the street where he lives and he invites Miss Bart up for tea.
In Selden's apartment they share their tea and discuss the various rules of etiquette for young women in the upper-class New York society. Lily points out that young women cannot live alone unless they have no plans to marry. She then starts questioning him about his book collection, and specifically focuses on Americana. He is curious about her sudden interest, but time soon runs out and she leaves him to head back to the train station.
While leaving his apartment building she runs into a Mr. Rosedale. Lily foolishly makes up an excuse that she was just coming from her dressmaker, but Rosedale points out that The Benedick, the name of the building she just came out of, does not have any dressmakers in residence. He knows this because he happens to own the building. Lily, ashamed by being caught in her lie, quickly grabs a cab and leaves him.
The House of Mirth is a novel of manners. As such the language used is one of curiosity and observation: "Selden paused in surprise...what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart...wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose...he could never see her without a faint movement of interest" (5) Notice how observation is mixed with Selden's curiosity. This is a society where every little detail is noticed and interpreted, and for which there are numerous possible interpretations. Lily Bart is interpreted with the words "inferred" and "surmised", not words that lend themselves to establishing the truth, but rather to playing games.
As part of the incessant interpretation of other people, the society has a cruelty that lends itself to testing. Selden, not content to merely observe Lily, decides to challenge her social skills. "It amused him to think of putting her skill to the test" (5). This is a cruel society, one that is always testing, and one where the slightest event in the past will haunt the rest of the novel.
The use of descriptive details is important in the novel. "He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must...have been sacrificed to produce her" (7) This is essentially true, as we find out when Lily describes her childhood. Her father is sacrificed on her behalf, and later her mother dies as well, leaving Lily with nothing but her beauty.
The role of Selden is highly important because it is a stock role in the novel of manners. He is the observer, the person who cannot marry. It is through his eyes that we are asked to interpret the society. Wharton makes his role clear at the beginning by putting him in The Benedick, essentially representing the Benedictine monks, or bachelors. His home forms a private enclave that will not be interrupted and into which very few people are allowed.
Lily, in her conversation with Selden, gives the reader a good sense of what the novel of manners, and this novel in particular, is about. She tells Selden that woman can enjoy the privileges of an apartment, but only "governesses - or widows. But not girls - not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!" (9). Lily implies that she has no choice of whether to marry; "a girl must, a man may if he chooses" (14). As a result of this, marriage becomes the only way of actually entering society, the only alternative being a form of social (or literal) death. Between marriage and death lies a transitory limbo world, a world that Lily inhabits throughout the entire novel until her banishment.
One of the symbols and images that recurs is that of the cigarette. Often this appears as a form of intimacy, hence in the cigarette scene in this chapter Selden notices Lily's lashes and her lids. Cigarettes are thus used as a form of flirtation, but also of sexual desire, as will be apparent later in the novel when Lily is confronted with Gus Trenor.
Notice as well the comparison of Lily to the goddess Diana: "wild-wood grace to her outline, as though she were a captured dryad...the same streak of sylvan freedom" (15). Diana, the huntress goddess, happens to also be a virgin goddess. For Lily this dual nature will be the paradox of her character; she will be hunting for a suitable husband on the one hand, but unable to commit herself to marriage (and sex) on the other. The description also explains her deviations from social conformity because as Diana she is a wild character, given to enjoying herself.
A key characteristic of this type of novel is that when lies are told, there are no repercussions if they are good lies. For Lily this is already shown to be a problem because she has told a bad lie to Rosedale, thereby putting herself within his power. Lily's lie to him fails for one major reason though: Rosedale always knows more than he will ever admit to. Here he knows more than she suspects because he owns the building, a rather bad shock to Lily who wants get away as soon as possible. Her bad lie also places her under Rosedale's scrutiny, putting her in a position that she now has to get out of.
Book I, Chapter 2
Lily sits in the cab and chides herself for making such a mess of her encounter with Rosedale. She realizes that she could easily have disarmed the situation if she had only told the truth. After barely catching her train, she sits down and starts to look around for someone else who might be heading to Bellomont with her. She spots a young man named Percy Gryce and immediately concocts a plan to engage him in conversation.
Lily starts walking through the aisle and nearly falls into Gryce's lap when the train suddenly lurches. She laughingly starts speaking to him and then invites him to sit next to her. He moves and they soon share tea together. However, the conversation starts to lag and Lily is forced to bring up the subject of Americana, a topic that she prepared herself to discuss while visiting Selden in the first chapter. Gryce, who inherited the best collection of Americana in the world, is immediately intrigued and starts telling her all about it.
The conversation goes well until Mrs. George Dorset arrives on the train. She immediately interrupts them and sits down next to Lily. Exasperated with her wait, she asks Lily for a cigarette, not realizing that Percy Gryce is strongly opposed to smoking. Lily, who has plenty of cigarettes on her, immediately tries to avoid the question by acting as if the question is absurd. Bertha George Dorset quickly realizes her mistake and covers herself, but ends up smiling brightly when she figures out that Lily is considering Percy Gryce as a future husband.
There is always a sense of ascendancy and descendancy implicit in everything that is done in the novel. For example, "Mr. Rosedale was still at a stage in his social ascent when it was of importance to produce such impressions" (18). He is one of the rising elite, a man who will soon join the fashionable New York set even though he is ostracized when Lily first meets him.
One of Lily's attributes is her ability to mold herself into whatever guise is necessary for creating the right effect. This can be seen in the importance of her learning about Americana before speaking with Gryce. Lily has used Selden to learn about Americana already, and although bored to death with the conversation, she is nonetheless able to win Gryce's attentions.
Smoking takes on a new level of meaning in this chapter as well. Having shared a moment of intimacy with Selden by smoking, the same thing will clearly not happen with Gryce. Thus no smoking means no flirting with Gryce. Bad habits such as smoking are condemned by him, and Lily realizes that Gryce will lose respect for her and not be interested in marrying her. This will work against her later with gambling, another vice that Gryce cannot abide in women.
Book I, Chapter 3
Lily is forced to spend her evening at the Trenors playing bridge for money. As a result, when she returns to her room she realizes she has lost a great deal of cash, and her personal wealth has been reduced to a mere twenty dollars.
Lily reflects on her past, informing the reader that her father was ruined financially when she was nineteen. He soon died, and her mother moved with her from one relative to another, always trying to keep the family from falling into poverty. She dies on a visit to New York and Lily eventually is allowed to move in with Mrs. Peniston, her father's widowed sister. She lives well with Mrs. Peniston but is unable to find someone to marry her and now is starting to feel quite old at age twenty-nine. She further realizes that she has too many debts to give up on trying to find a husband, and is therefore stuck in her dull society.
Lily's beauty is one of the most remarkable aspects of not only her, but of the novel. It is the only true wealth that she possesses, and her beauty will be mentioned dozens of times by other people and by her. The fear with which Lily looks at the two little lines in her face is real. Since beauty is her only currency, she must remain beautiful in order to marry into wealth. Through the revelation of her childhood, we learn that her mother told her to rely on her beauty as a means of getting out of her poor position.
In reconstructing Lily's past we learn a great deal about Lily's future. In her father we learn that death and financial ruin go hand in hand. This will of course be Lily's ultimate fate as well, as she sinks into what her mother abhors as "dinginess". Lily's entire upbringing is in tune with this attitude of money or death. When her father arrives home ruined, her mother immediately reacts, saying "shut the pantry door" (36). Her immediate sense of what is proper, making sure the servants do not hear anything and sending her daughter away, is the aristocratic desire to preserve the tranquility at all times. This is how Lily will react when her fortunes are dying around her, always relying on a superior sense of tranquility that will save her reputation but destroy her social standing.
Book I, Chapter 4
Lily wakes up the next morning and finds a note inviting her to help Mrs. Trenor with invitations. She reluctantly goes to help her hostess and listens while Mrs. Trenor discusses her various guests and comments on them. She finally mentions Mrs. Bertha Dorset and hints that Bertha might try to start an affair with Percy Gryce. Lily is shocked because she is hoping to marry Percy, but correctly asks Judy Trenor to help her by not asking her to play bridge again that evening, a habit she knows Percy would disapprove of.
Lily happily proceeds to start conniving to win Percy Gryce for herself. The other women start to help her by allowing her easy access to him. She sees her cousin Jack Stepney trying to form a couple with Gwen Van Osburgh, and thinks that she most likely can marry Percy whenever she wants. Hearing a noise behind her, she turns around and sees that Selden has arrived, but before they can speak he is swept away by Mrs. Dorset.
One example of how Lily is on trial in the society, rather than a full member of it, is in her activities. She is of use to hostesses, helping them reorganize, redecorate, and invite people. However, this usefulness is of a king that, although important, is still redundant. Her work with Mrs. Trenor promotes a sense of servitude rather than possession, a fact that will allow the society to dismiss Lily when they feel like it.
A structure to look for in the novel is the epigram, denoted as a witty phrase that sums up or freezes part of the novel. One of these occurs with respect to Carrie Fisher: "It's rather clever of her to have made a specialty of devoting herself to dull people - the field is such a large one, and she has it practically to herself." Mrs. Trenor's comment denotes a bitterness towards Carrie Fisher's success, a bitterness we later learn is due to Carrie's borrowing money from her husband.
The description of Gwen Van Osburgh's face, "the girl's [face] turned toward her companion's like an empty plate held up to be filled, while the man...betrayed the encroaching boredom which would presently crack the thin veneer of his smile" (51). In this cruel world the people are portrayed like photographs or paintings. This description is almost like a Degas family portrait.
This is a society of vice, a society in which Lily, the only virtuous person, will suffer. Bertha Dorset, a married woman, spends her time trying to win Percy Gryce until Selden shows up. Note the list of married characters who are affiliated with one of unmarried characters. In this world Lily will be judged as if she were one of the un-virtuous, even though we know that she never breaks in her morality.
Book I, Chapter 5
Percy Gryce, now fully interested in Lily, wakes up early the next morning and prepares to go to church. He is joined by the Wetheralls in the carriage, but Lily fails to show up. Her reason is that she has suddenly become interested in Selden rather than Gryce. Wharton recounts how, the previous evening at the dinner table, Lily started realizing how boring everyone at the table was when compared to Selden.
Instead of going to church, Lily instead goes into the library at Bellomont in order to see Selden. She catches him there, along with Mrs. Dorset, and carefully enters the room. Mrs. Dorset, upset about the intrusion, prepares to leave on the grounds that she had not realized that Selden and Lily had a prior engagement. Lily quickly turns the mistake to her advantage by asking instead whether she had missed the carriage to go to the church. She then leaves and starts walking to the church.
Selden eventually catches up with her and makes fun of the way she is interested in him. Soon Percy and the rest of the people who went to the service arrive, having chosen to walk home. Selden immediately realizes why Lily was interested in his Americana and laughs at her about it. She blushes and thanks him for the information, but Selden tries to instead invite her to take a walk with him that afternoon.
One of the main problems with Lily's personality is that her desire to join the elite society is matched by her desire to avoid the boredom of it. As a result, she misses church with Mr. Gryce. Even though the arrival of Selden removes Mrs. Dorset from Percy Gryce and gives Lily a clear field to capture him, she is not sure about wanting to marry him.
The use of books and libraries is also tied up in the elaborate courtship rituals. Books are not read, instead the library is merely used for smoking or flirting, the two being inseparable. Indeed, books represent the split between this world and the working world. No one is ever seen to be reading a book, and even Lily only uses a novel as a pretext for being able to watch Mr. Gryce on the train. We therefore know that there is something dangerous about finding Selden and Mrs. Dorset together in the library, a fact that Lily ignores in her attempts to see Selden.