House of Mirth

Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 11-15

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Book I, Chapter 11

In the poor stock market of the winter, Rosedale and Wellington Bry rank among the only men able to continue making a great deal of money. Rosedale, we are told, has started thinking that Lily might be the perfect person to complement his social ambitions were he to marry her. Meanwhile, Lily has accidentally offended her cousin Grace Stepney by excluding her from one of Mrs. Peniston's infrequent dinner parties. The next time Grace visits Mrs. Peniston she reveals to her that Lily has been seen with Gus Trenor a great deal lately, and insinuates that it is because Lily needs money to pay off her gambling debts. Mrs. Peniston, a highly moral woman, is extremely upset to hear that her niece is spending time with a married man, and even more upset to learn that she is gambling.

Analysis

The issue of revenge emerges again. Grace is seeking revenge here, the same way Bertha Dorset did, for a perceived slight against her. One of Lily's problems is that she is unable to take revenge the way the other women do and therefore suffers for her "immorality" in spite of being the most virtuous of the entire group. Grace will succeed in turning Mrs. Peniston away from Lily and eventually disinheriting her. It is also in Grace's interest to do so, since she stands to inherit everything.

Book I, Chapter 12

Lily, upset by the way things are proceeding, passes Judy Trenor in the street one day and receives a colder reception than she expects. She wonders if Mrs. Trenor has heard anything about her husband and his loans. In order to clear things up, Lily invites herself to a weekend party at Bellomont, but she does not succeed in making things better and returns home.

Meanwhile, the Wellington Brys have decided to throw a big party in order to seduce "society" into accepting them. Most of the necessary people arrive at the party, where the main attraction is a play in which various women present themselves in the settings of portraits. Lily is in the play and cleverly chooses to be in a Reynolds', thereby allowing her beauty to shine.

Selden is so taken in by her looks that he tries to immediately find her. He eventually does, and quickly leads her away to the privacy of the garden. They soon share a kiss and he tells Lily that he loves her, but this causes her to run away in distress. When Selden returns to the coat-room he sees Gus Trenor there. Mr. Trenor complains about the entire evening; he is obviously upset about Lily's display of herself.

Analysis

Lily's greatest triumph appears in this chapter, in the form of acting out a Reynolds' painting. Selden is taken with her beauty: "Its [her beauty's] expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart" (142). One question that arises is, what is the real Lily Bart and why does he think he sees her? The answer lies in her ability to display her beauty to the world in a modest yet overpowering way. Coupled with this beauty is Lily's morality, evidenced in this scene by the white dress she is wearing. Selden realizes that the "real" Lily is like a painting, with her beauty on display for the others, and yet maintaining her ethical and moral distance.

The garden scene with Selden is extraordinary in several ways. First, a garden is always a dangerous place to be, going back in literature to Eden in the Bible, and occurring as such in many Shakespearian dramas. The garden is a place where passion overcomes reason. Wharton even acknowledges this by explicitly connecting the scene with Shakespeare, first by alluding to The Tempest (Caliban and Miranda) and later to A Midsummer Night's Dream, "and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer night" (144). The scene culminates in a kiss, the only intimate sexual exchange in the entire book.

Book I, Chapter 13

Lily wakes up the next morning and has two invitations, one from Selden and one from Mrs. Trenor. She agrees to meet with Mrs. Trenor that night and goes to the house, but is instead admitted by Mr. Trenor. He tells her Judy is upstairs with a headache, but when Lily tries to leave he prevents her from going. She threatens to go upstairs and tell Judy what is going on, but he laughs and admits that his wife is not even in the house. He then demands that she pay him for the money he has invested for her, implying sexually, and Lily recoils at his advances. At the defining moment Mr. Trenor's old habits and upbringing make him stop accosting her, and she is able to call a cab and leave the house.

Analysis

The use of cigarettes to denote intimacy again emerges here. Mr. Trenor offers her a cigarette, but when she realizes that Mrs. Trenor is not there, she throws it away, symbolizing the rejection of his advances. Lily is saved in this scene by the strict training that each of them receives, namely the avoidance of any emotional dilemma. Trenor is stopped not by reason, but by his abhorrence of emotional conflicts. Note the paradoxical crudity of his manners combined with the force of his training; these two oppositions are at the heart of the elite society that Wharton is so lavishly criticizing.

Lily finds herself "alone in a place of darkness and pollution" (156). This use of pollution and dinginess, words that show up numerous times in the novel, foreshadows her rather swift decline. For Lily, who abhors dinginess, the rest of the novel will be a nightmare of either being involved with moral pollution or living in dinginess.

Book I, Chapter 14

Gerty Farish is excited by Selden's new interest in Lily, an interest that marks the first time he has fallen in love. Selden is excited when he returns to his rooms and finds a note from Lily agreeing to meet with him. He goes to eat with his cousin Gerty that night and compliments her on the way she lives. Later Selden turns the conversation to Lily and talks about her for the rest of the evening before leaving to go to Carrie Fisher's dinner party. He arrives after Lily has already left and overhears them talking about how Rosedale is now inclined to marry Lily after seeing her the night before. One of the people comments that she took off early and went to the Trenor's house, but they doubt it considering that Judy Trenor is at Bellomont.

Selden leaves the party and walks along Fifth Avenue with Mr. Van Alstyne. Van Alstyne points out the new house that Rosedale purchased and the house that the Wellington Brys just built. They stop in front of the Trenor's house and are talking when Lily happens to emerge and catch a cab. Mr. Van Alstyne tries to ask Selden not to talk about what they just saw, but Selden is already hurrying off.

Gerty Farish is livid that Selden has fallen in love with Lily because she feels that she has been pushed away by him. She starts to hate Lily and goes to bed but is unable to sleep. Lily shows up at her door late in the night and is crying, upset about her encounter with Mr. Trenor. Gerty overcomes her hatred and takes care of Lily, finally getting her to tell the entire story. They then share the single bed in the apartment and Lily falls asleep.

Analysis

The use and value of cigarettes is explicitly explicated by Van Alstyne at this point in the novel. "It would be a curious thing to study the effect of cigarettes on the relation of the sexes. Smoke is almost as great a solvent as divorce; both tend to obscure the moral issue" (168). This line indicates the intimate nature of smoking, the way it "obscure(s) the moral issue". By linking it to divorce he is making a judgment, implying that smoking leads people to make poor decisions. Indeed, Lily could easily be said to be the victim of smoking, a vice that twice gets her into trouble as a result of sharing a cigarette with Selden.

The second great mistake is made here, this time due to observational problems rather than revenge. Selden sees Lily emerge from Trenor's house and thinks that the rumors about her and Trenor are true. Selden's fault lies in the fact that he thinks he knows what has happened when in reality he knows nothing.

Book I, Chapter 15

Lily wakes up in Gerty Farish's bed and has some tea. She then heads home to her Aunt Peniston's house and goes to her room. After counting up all the money Mr. Trenor has given her, she realizes that she is nine thousand dollars in debt to him. Lily makes the bold move of going to her aunt and asking for money. Mrs. Peniston listens to Lily but only offers to pay her dress-makers' bills. When Lily admits to gambling debts she becomes stony and refuses to hear another word in addition to refusing to pay the debts.

Lily then realizes that it is almost time for Selden to arrive and meet her. She waits for him, but he does not show up. After an hour the doorbell rings and Rosedale walks in. He soon tells her that he has enough money to be a member of the elite New York society, but that he lacks the right woman to spend it. Rosedale hints that marrying him would end all of her monetary problems forever. Lily, still enamored with Selden, is polite to him and asks for more time to consider his offer. After the next day passes with no message from Selden, she reads in the newspaper that he is sailing on a cruise ship bound for Havana. Later in the day she receives an invitation from Bertha Dorset inviting her to go on a cruise in the Mediterranean.

Analysis

Rosedale, also enamored by Lily, offers her what seems to be a last chance at marriage. Always afraid of actually marrying anyone, Lily again passes it up for Selden, not realizing that he will not marry her anymore. Indeed, she only learns about Selden's departure in the newspaper. This is a sign that rather than making the news, i.e. being in the paper herself, she is now being cut out of the loop and has to receive her knowledge the way common people do.

The end of the first book also marks a move from her aunt's house, a solid location, to a ship. The ship, an unstable location, represents the move in her life from secure surroundings to insecure poverty. This will take place by degrees, but from this point onwards Lily will no longer have a place to call her own and will instead have to rely on the charity of others.