House of Mirth

House of Mirth Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 1-5

Book II, Chapter 1

Selden is on vacation in Monte Carlo for a week and is wandering around when he runs into a group consisting of the Wellington Brys, the Stepneys, Carrie Fisher, and a European lord. They all head out to lunch in a restaurant overlooking the harbor. From there, they see the Dorset's yacht pulling into the harbor. They soon mention that Lily Bart has been hugely popular among the aristocrats in the area, making Selden remember his feelings for her in a very painful way.

Later that afternoon Selden and Carrie Fisher enjoy a walk together and then sit down to smoke. She soon tells him that Lily was invited onto the Dorset yacht in order to distract George Dorset so that his wife could have an affair with Ned Silverton. Selden becomes quite upset by this news and hastily leaves, pretending that he has to return to Nice and do work. However, at the train station he unexpectedly runs into Lily and the Dorsets, all of whom have also decided to go to Nice and meet the Duchess. Lily is immensely polite to him, but Selden gets the feeling that she is hovering on the edge of a cliff, about to fall in. Later Selden meets with Lord Hubert Dacey and the aristocrat informs him that it is a pity Lily's aunt is in New York, alluding to the fact that Lily is about to fall socially without even realizing it.


We see that Selden has not forgotten Lily in spite of his attempts to avoid her. When he sees her he realizes that her beauty "had had a transparency through which the fluctuations of the spirit were sometimes tragically visible; now its impenetrable surface suggested a process of crystallization which had fused her whole being into one hard, brilliant substance" (198). The process whereby Lily moves from youth to adulthood is described here, from a malleable beauty that can adapt to different situations to a permanent one that cannot. Her solid form of beauty will be difficult because she can only rely on her beauty as it has crystallized; no longer will Lily be able to use her skills at being a different person to different people in order to survive.

The change in Lily's nature is reflected in Selden's unconscious opinion of her. "He seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her" (199). We see the metaphor for Lily falling from her heights and not even being aware of that fact.

The intimacy of smoking cigarettes is continued even between Selden and Carrie Fisher. She takes the moment to reveal secrets and confidences concerning the Dorsets and Lily. For Selden this moment is impersonal as he struggles to not think about Lily. What we see is that cigarettes are used when people want to be intimate in terms of friendship, perhaps with sexual overtones, but never actually leading to any form of sexual act.

Book II, Chapter 2

Lily is aboard the Sabrina, the boat belonging to the Dorsets. She goes on land in order to meet the Duchess, a woman whom most of the wealthy Americans are eager to become friends with. While in the Casino she runs into Carrie Fisher who tells Lily that she is leaving the Brys. Carrie asks Lily to make sure that the Brys are invited to meet the Duchess, an act that would put them in Lily's debt for a short while.

George Dorset catches Lily later in the day and asks her what time Bertha came home. He realizes that his wife was out all night with the young Ned Silverton and that she only got home late the next morning. He breaks down and tells Lily everything that he is afraid has happened to his marriage, and that Lily has been the only person able to help him for the past few months. He plans to go to a lawyer and Lily makes him use Selden, thinking to herself that Selden is the only lawyer capable of saving the reputation of both Dorsets.

Lily returns to the Sabrina and is surprised to find Mrs. Dorset on board along with the Duchess. They are finalizing plans for a dinner with the Brys and the Duchess the next evening. After the guests depart, Mrs. Dorset accuses Lily of being alone with her husband the night before. She hints that Lily was doing something irresponsible. Lily, taken aback by this reversal of the truth, foolishly does not mention the letters she has that Bertha wrote to Selden, and leaves in shame.


Dorset is symbolic of the men in his group in that, "he wanted her to suffer with him, not to help him suffer less" (211). Lily realizes that there is a desire to draw people downwards rather than help them move upwards. George Dorset epitomizes this desire after breaking down and revealing his feelings to Lily. Carrie Fisher acknowledges this problem later when she tells Lily that she has found one and a half potential husbands for her, meaning that Mr. Dorset is no longer a full man.

The ability of Bertha Dorset to harm Lily is almost proportional to Lily's inability to harm Bertha. There is no reason at this stage why Lily should not use her letters and force Bertha to become friendly to her again. In this tragic moment we watch as Bertha again reverses the truth and harms Lily rather than herself, all the while making the reader wish that Lily would get off her moral pinnacle and lash out herself.

Book II, Chapter 3

Selden meets with Mr. Dorset and convinces him to do nothing for a while, other than to act natural. That night they all eat dinner on the yacht and Lily struggles to keep up the conversation, but fails miserably since Mrs. Dorset is refusing to be friendly with her. The next day Lily returns to the shore and meets with Selden, who has succeeded in convincing Mr. Dorset to do nothing at all. Selden, after speaking with Lily, quickly realizes that Lily is in over her head and that Mrs. Dorset will likely contrive a story that implicates Lily in the marital scandal. He tries to find her immediately, but instead meets Lord Hubert and Mrs. Bry, who invite him to dinner.

Selden accepts, and meets up with the Dorsets and Lily at the restaurant that night. He takes her aside and asks her to leave the yacht, but she refuses, claiming she is necessary to protect Mrs. Dorset. He agrees that probably nothing will happen and they return to watch the Dorsets act as if nothing were wrong. Selden watches Lily throughout the dinner and notices that she seems in complete command of everything that is going on around her, and wonders about every thinking that she might need his help. However, when they get ready to return to the yacht for the night, Mrs. Dorset announces that Lily will not be joining them. Taken aback, Lily composes herself and acts as if she has decided not to stay on the yacht any longer. She leaves with Selden instead, who makes her go to her cousin Jack Stepney's hotel and spend the night there.


The true mark of the irreversibility of Lily's social decline occurs when she is kicked off the yacht. Not only is her permanent home no longer available (her living in Europe is a sign of this fact even if Mrs. Peniston has not yet died), but she now can no longer even live on a transitory boat. For Lily, this means that she will now progress downward through the circles of society. Again, the reader is left with the question of why Lily does not threaten Bertha Dorset in return by revealing her stash of letters. However, the reason lies in the fact that she is different from the social elite in precisely the way that she does not violate the moral codes. For Lily to resort to blackmail would mean that she is no longer Lily.

Book II, Chapter 4

Mrs. Peniston has died and all of her relatives are gathered in order to find out to whom she has left her estate. Lily is almost assured of the inheritance, but is surprised to receive only ten thousand dollars. Instead, Grace Stepney inherits the remainder of the estate, valued at nearly four hundred thousand dollars. In disgrace, Lily leaves the house with Gerty Farish and thinks that it is ironic that her aunt left her with just enough to pay off her debt to Mr. Trenor.

Lily heads off to Europe to escape her declining reputation in America, but soon returns to see if she can remedy the situation. She discovers that it is too late, the lies that Mrs. Dorset spread about her having already been accepted by the other families. She resolves to appeal to Mrs. Trenor, and carefully starts eating in restaurants that she knows the Trenors tend to go to. She succeeds in running into Mrs. Trenor, but the latter's unwillingness to be friendly to Lily implies that Lily has been completely kicked "out" of the social elite group.

Lily realizes that she must pay off her debt to Gus Trenor immediately but she is unable to do so since her inheritance has not yet been paid out. She turns to Grace Stepney and begs her for an advance on the ten thousand, but Grace informs her that she has not received the inheritance yet either. Grace then becomes infuriated with Lily's insistence and informs her that the reason Lily was cut out of the will was because of her debts.


Lily's disinheritance nails into place the final act of treachery that will ruin Lily. Grace Stepney, with her false gossip and rumors, wins out over Lily. The cruelest part of the scene is where she even tells Lily what rumors she passed on to Mrs. Peniston, thereby confirming the disinheritance. For Lily it is again a moment where she is called upon to remain aloof and absurdly polite, when by all normal standards she should be despising Grace for her actions.

Book II, Chapter 5

As Lily is leaving Grace Stepney's new house, she is met by Carrie Fisher who has taken pity on her. Carrie invites her to go join the Gormers at a party they are hosting, a party that includes people of a lower social set than what Lily is used to. She quickly joins them, however, realizing that she would rather be part of their society than excluded from it. A few days later Carrie convinces Lily to join the Gormers on a trip to Alaska so that she can stay out of the public eye for a while longer.

After returning to New York, Lily meets with Carrie Fisher and is informed that she will have to marry in order to get out of her present predicament. Carrie suggests either Mr. Dorset, who is having problems with his marriage again, or Sim Rosedale. Lily has been thinking about Mr. Rosedale and decides to try and make him marry her for love since she can no longer help him advance socially.


From this point on we will watch as Lily descends from one rung of society to a lower rung. On arriving in the world of the Gormers, "it struck her, now that she was in it, as only a flamboyant copy of her own world" (242). This sets up the image of worlds within worlds, or which she happened to be a part of the innermost circle. The irony for Lily is that all these worlds are the same, and it is merely that actors who are different.

Lily's state has noticeably declined while Rosedale's has risen. She realizes the nature of the change when she contemplates marrying him. Lily states that since she is no longer useful to him in a social context, she will have to rely on love to win him over. This is of course impossible; even Selden was able to prevent love for her from clouding his judgment, and a man such as Rosedale would never be so foolish as to put love before social standing.