The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapters I – IV

The House of Mirth Read-Along

Are you ready?  Have you been reading? The House of Mirth Read-along begins!

Book I, Chapter I

We are introduced to the main character of Lily Bart through her meeting with Lawrence Selden.  Lily is now 29 years old and eleven years have passed since she was first introduced to society.  Selden encounters her waiting for a train and, against certain societal conventions, she agrees to have tea with him at his flat. While the action seems bold on Lily’s part, there is really no danger as Selden is beneath Lily and does not “belong” as the others do who frequent her circle; he is a working man with a lightly shabby appearance but somehow good breeding allows him at times to cross the ranks and mingle with Lily’s set.  Upon exiting Selden’s flat, Lily runs into Mr. Simon Rosedale, a Jew who is tolerated for his money, but rather on the fringes of society..  She escapes his curiosity with an excuse of visiting her dressmaker and then jumps into a hansom cab.

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station New York (1957) Brassai ~ source Wikiart

Book I, Chapter II

Lily is already realizing errors in her response to Rosedale, as her lie has increased his curiosity, and her dissatisfaction with her lot is further emphasized:

“Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from rountine?  Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice?”

Lily is stressing the unnaturalness of societies expectations and the falseness which ensues because of it.  On the train, she meets Mr. Percy Gryce, an awkward young man of her set who, though lacking in imagination, is charmed by her company. Benefiting unexpectedly from her talk of books at Selden’s apartment, she engages Gryce in a discussion of “Americana” while encouraging and appealing to his ego.  At the same time, she begins to make a mental catalogue of the components that may make him a suitable match for her, and even forgets about her exchange with Mr. Rosedale and its possible implications.  Suddenly, Mrs. George Dorset enters the carriage, demanding a seat with them. Asking for a cigarette, she expresses surprise at Lily’s claim that she does not smoke, which appears to be made for the benefit of Mr. Gryce, who is rather horrified at the thought.

Street Scene with Hansom Cab

Street Scene with Hansom Cab (1887) Childe Hassam
~ source Wikiart

Book I, Chapter III

After playing bridge at Bellomont, Lily assesses her situation, pleased at her hold on Percy Gryce, yet somewhat disturbed by Mrs. George Dorset’s effect on him. Lily dislikes Gryce, is bored by him, but what is a girl who needs a position in life to do?  “It was a hateful fate — but how escape from it? What choice had she? …..she had a vision of Miss Farish’s cramped flat, with its cheap conveniences and hideous wall-papers.  No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty.  Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in …”  A year ago she was content but now she feels that she is depending on the luxury of others and it unsettles her.  She has lost a large amount of money at bridge, a game she first resisted for fear of falling under its gaming addiction, which it turns out, she has. It’s money she cannot afford to lose.

We learn about Lily’s childhood, with a unresponsive, indifferent father and a domineering mother who loved fun.  Yet their lives were a financial rollercoaster, with a turbulent pattern that brought little stability.  Ruin was the inevitable result, bringing about her father’s death, whereupon her mother and her alternated from relative to relative.  When her mother dies, Lily is taken in by another relative, Mrs. Peniston, but nothing is the same and Lily has a heightened awareness of the precariousness of her situation and that she must find a wealthy husband.

Easy Money

Easy Money – Public Domain
~ source Wikiart

Book I, Chapter IV

Lily is summoned by her hostess at Bellomont, Mrs. Judy Trenor, to help her with her daily correspondence, a task she doesn’t usually despise, but due to her unsettled mind, today she resents the request.  Among a cascade of gossip from Mrs. Trenor, Lily implies that she is about to land the boring, but rich, Percy Gryce. Her friend is over the moon with the news but urges her not to go too fast.  She suggests inviting Lawrence Selden to Bellomont but Lily urges her not to, confident she can handle her own affairs.  On the terrace, she continues her musings, now confident that she has secured the affections of Gryce and that a life of luxury and comfort is nearly within her grasp.  Then appears Lawrence Selden at her side, who is soon appropriated by Mrs. Dorset.

Portrait of a Woman in White

Portrait of a Woman in White (1930) Frida Kahlo
~ source Wikiart


From the first chapter, Wharton begins the fine sketching of Lily’s character.  We already sense within her a disdain for the artificial character she must play; she is like a wild horse who is straining against the reign.  She displays a penchant for challenging the status quo by going to Selden’s flat and shows intelligence by inquiring about his collection of rare editions of books.  Selden is captivated by her beauty but also senses a quality within her that draws him further.  Lily reveals that she would like a friend and hopes Selden is that person, an admission that, in spite of her beauty and self-possession, makes her enchantingly vulnerable. Already, she is a multi-dimensional soul, one who realizes the importance that society’s expectations play with regard to wealth and comfort yet, on the other hand has a desire to challenge that status quo, recognizing the emptiness and the falseness within it and almost intrinsically knowing that money and status will not bring true happiness. And there is a tension explored between the aimless society she inhabits with its non-existent values, and a higher intellect shown by her as she exhibits insights into it and the questions that arise from her observations.  The descriptions of her are revealing:

“There was in Lily, a vein of sentiment, perhaps transmitted from this source, which gave an idealizing touch to her most prosaic purposes.  She liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.”

“Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.”

Already we witness an enormous amount of social posturing, as Wharton builds the bricks of old New York society for the reader.  A clergyman’s wife is an embarrassment but the society of a bishop is desirable; Lily is taken in by Mrs. Peniston, not out of kindness but more because “with the eyes of her little world upon her she took a certain pleasure in her act”; a wife freely has affairs and manipulates her husband’s reaction to them. What is presented on the surface is not necessarily the reality lurking beneath.

Even Wharton’s descriptions are also masterful:

“The fragrance of the late blossoms seemed an emanation of the tranquil scene, a landscape tutored to the last degree of rural elegance.  In the foreground glowed the warm tints of the gardens.  Beyond the lawn, with its pyramidal pale-gold maples and velvety firs, sloped pastures dotted with cattle; and through a long glade the river widened like a lake under the silver light of September.”


Why is Lily still single at 29?  Do you think she simply hasn’t found anyone she wants to marry?  Or does she intrinsically feel there is something “wrong” with the society she’s entrenched in and to marry would emphasis that “wrongness” in a way from which there is no escaping?


“Most timidities have such secret compensations, and Miss Bart was discerning enough to know tht the inner vanity is generally in proportion to the outer self-deprecation.”

“A world in which such things could be seemed a miserable place to Lily Bart; but then she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations.”

“… the two had the same prejudices and ideals, and the same quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them.  This attribute was common to most of Lily’s set: they had a force of negation which eliminated everything beyond their own range of perception.”


 The House of Mirth Read-Along    The House of Mirth – Chapters V – IX ⇒



46 thoughts on “The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapters I – IV

  1. Yay! I’ve been anxiously awaiting your first post! I read all of your summary and am just getting started on your thoughts for this section. I’ll have to come back later to finish reading. Interestingly enough, in some ways, Lily reminds me of the Rose character in the movie Titanic. Both don’t like the box they have to be put in because of the modes of society of their class in that time. Both don’t like the fact that they have to marry someone because of money and position. But yet, they are both stuck. Of course, we know Rose in Titanic breaks out of that, even though she is looked down upon for her hanging out with Jack. Yet, her time with Jack is liberating for her because it’s not bound in the prim and proper and all the conventions her part of society places on her. I can’t speak to Lily yet as I don’t know how it all turns out. LOL

    • Keep reading, Karen. I wonder about both of them ….. it’s one thing to dislike conventions but what is more important is WHY one dislikes them. The dislike could be born of selfish or insightful and valid reasons. I wonder “why” with both of them. You can tell me at the end if you think Lily is more complex than Rose. That’s what amazes me about this book …. how Wharton crafts Lily’s character. Lily is so complex underneath while often externally appearing so shallow. And I feel it all ties in at the end. But I will say no more …. on we go! 😁

      • Yes, why one dislike conventions is definitely important. I need to go back and look over this week’s reading again now that everyone is offering their thoughts. Interestingly, I haven’t seen Lily as being shallow. Sure, she seems to only be focused on marrying to support the lifestyle she wants. But I already see she’s got more depth than that. I mean, goodness. She was raised to think this way about marriage – that it’s a means to provide the lifestyle you want. Look at her parents. Did you pick up on her mother’s response to her father when he was ruined? Coldness. To her, he had lost his usefulness.

        “To his wife he no longer counted: he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfil his purpose, and she sat at his side with the provisional air of a traveller who waits for a belated train to start.” (p. 36-37)

        Not only that, her mother also seemed to ingrain in her that beauty is extremely important. That how she looks is everything. Hence, Lily feels she needs to take caution when she sees little lines creeping up on her face.

        “She knew that such emotions leave lines on the face as well as in the character, and she had meant to take warning by the little creases which her midnight survey had revealed.” (p. 44)

        At least I took this statement to mean she saw lines on her face and that it wasn’t a good thing….

        • Well, perhaps I should have said, at present, Lily “appears” shallow. And many of her actions point to that description BUT of course, she’s metamorphosing!

          Her mother’s treatment of her father bothered me immensely. You’re right in that she saw him as nothing more than a vehicle to what she wanted and when he was no longer useful, she was done with him. So sad to treat not only another human being that way, but her husband!

          So true, and a sensitivity to aging and the loss of beauty is still with us, however with Lily, her looks are a commodity. If she loses them, she loses some of her means to a happy future. Again, rather sad ….. 😞

          Thanks so much for your comments, Karen. I just loving mulling on other’s thoughts!

          • You said: “So true, and a sensitivity to aging and the loss of beauty is still with us…”

            I was watching a Hallmark Christmas movie just a minute ago and the commercials came on. At least a couple of the commercials were all about advertising products to get rid of wrinkles and to stay looking young. And I thought of our book and was like, oh yeah, unfortunately there’s still a lot of attention paid to women’s looks and remaining younger and beautiful.. 🙁

  2. I don’t think that Lily really wants to be married but I don’t think it’s due to any principles about “right” or “wrong”. She’s aware that she has expensive tastes and that the only way she can maintain her lifestyle is to marry someone with money. If she were independently wealthy I don’t think she’d be interested in marriage at all.

    In chapter three she thinks about the prospect of marrying Percy Gryce: “a few days work and she would win her reward. But the reward itself seemed unpalatable just then…” The “reward” is simultaneously the lifestyle that Percy Gryce would provide for his wife, which Lily feels like she needs, and Percy himself, who she finds “unpalatable.”

    The reason that she’s still since is that I suspect that she’s had similar dilemmas with other prospective husbands. She makes excuses to herself and others (she tells Seldon that one suitor didn’t work out because his mother wouldn’t let her redecorate) because she doesn’t really want to be married. She wants to be rich and marrying rich is the only way to accomplish that.

    What I don’t understand is why Lily doesn’t worry about a fate similar to her mother: marrying someone wealthy who then loses his money. I would imagine that her early experience would have taught her that wealth is transitory, but it doesn’t seem like it did.

    • I think Lily would want to be married but if it was on her terms and tied in to her world view. However at this point I believe she’s still forming her worldview. She is beginning to develop a sense that certain things are meaningless but she hasn’t figured out the “why” yet.

      ” The “reward” is simultaneously the lifestyle that Percy Gryce would provide for his wife, which Lily feels like she needs, and Percy himself, who she finds “unpalatable.”

      Oh yes! Exactly! And the two opposites are producing conflicts in Lily to add to other conflicts we see and are going to see. You’ve reminded me that I should be on the lookout for opposites which will be clues to Lily’s growth of character and views.

      Did you get a sense that Lily’s family was wealthy? I have to go back and read that portion. I had a sense that they were comfortable yet lived beyond their means, finally to their ruin. It may not have mattered in any case, as her mother lived as if they were wealthy and so the appearance to Lily would have been wealth, or at least the ability to have whatever she wanted.

      • I don’t know if they were wealthy or simply living as if they were wealthy, but as you say it may not have made much difference. Regardless I would have expected the experience to teach Lily that money is fleeting and not permanent. However she doesn’t seem to have gotten that impression. She regards obtaining wealth as the solution to her problems, rather than something impermanent that she could potentially lose.

    • What great insights you have. Lily has no reason to trust men OR women. Her Aunt Peniston wields power with cruelty. I agree with you–Lily wants money and she finds men mostly to be tedious. Who wants to have a husband who is physically and/or emotionally repulsive? Lily is like a “woke” Charlotte Lucas (from Austen’s _Pride and Prejudice_). She is about the same age but will not succumb to any suitor.

      • I’m not familiar with the term “woke”; what is it?

        As for Charlotte Lucas, Charlotte wasn’t choosy if the suitor would make her comfortable, and she expected her husband to be tedious (although perhaps not nearly as tedious as Mr. Collins, lol!) so she sort of went along with the flow, don’t you think? Lily “appears” to be headed that way, but there’s something more to Lily that seems to be coming to light.

        • To the best of my knowledge, “woke” means to be aware of a racial/gender divide and how the bias can operate in the “real world”. Charlotte Lucas wanted to marry ANYONE who could relieve her non-too-wealthy family from the burden of supporting her (as it was in that day). Lily, I think, feels a real sense of physical attraction/repulsion in the men she encounters.

          I do see Lily doing some “magical thinking” early on in the novel where she pushes the bounds of propriety by visiting the “Benedick” on her own. Lily reflects, in chapter 1 that “Could one never do the simplest, the most harmless thing without subjecting one’s self to some odious conjecture?”
          Chapter II begins with her thought that “Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine?” “Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice?”

          For me “Structure[s] of artifice” are among the main themes of the novel. Who lives with artifice and why?

          It’s also important to recall that Lily is not permitted to vote and that the idea of higher education is still rare for women. No wonder she still calls herself a “girl”. Today, I think, many “girls” of 14-24 abandon that term and start calling themselves “women”. For Lily, to make a transition from “girl” to “woman” perhaps requires marriage.

          Lily is very aware of her own sensibilities and she is easily disgusted by the rough, ugly, tedious, and fleshy.

          Lily is trying to avoid the “plenty of available oubliettes” which the NY 500 use to ostracize a wayward “girl” or any non-conformer.

          • Thanks for the explanation! I wonder if Lily disliked Percy Gryce because of his looks or because he was simply boring. His money is definitely the attraction but I thought she was more bored with him than repulsed. I should go back and take a look at that part because I remember she refers to Gryce and her dislike of him.

            “natural thing” ….. it’s interesting that Lily sees visiting an unmarried man at his flat, “natural”. I wonder what gives her that impression? She certainly didn’t behave as if it was “natural” when she saw Rosedale. More contradictions from Lily!

            I think you’re right in that the term “girl” was probably used for an unmarried woman.

  3. That photo of the train station – wow! <3

    This is a great summary, and what a fascinating question. I came to the same conclusion as Fran… There's an exchange – I think with Selden? – where Lily glibly says once she marries Percy she'll have enough money to decorate a room the way she wants. It's tongue in cheek, but points to the truth of her just wanting independence. Though I don't care for Lily's methods, I'm finding her motives quite relatable. I get the sense her one hobby is reading and she doesn't feel she has enough money to get all the books she wants…

    Overall it seems like she is incredibly bored. She embraces risks (gambling, meeting Selden) and seems to be attracted to the guys who aren't pursuing her (Selden again). However, she's held in check with her love of comfort and luxury – and caring about other people's opinions – and isn't going to throw that away merely for sake of novelty or independence.

    I think Wharton has done a great job of setting up the conflict and I'm curious how she's going to resolve it!

    • I’m so glad to hear that you’re enjoying one of your few fiction books for the year!!

      I get the sense that Lily is beginning to question the structure of the society she’s been a part of, yet because she’s been part of it for so long, her questioning may come across as shallow flippancy, which might appear like boredom. She does seem to be pushing the envelope to see how much she can get away with or to see what will happen. Her ability to handle people and situations seems so finely tuned that perhaps she thinks she can get away with it. I do get the sense that Selden will be the key, or at least a major influence, in the altering of her views.

  4. Loved your summaries! Great question…and I’m not sure I have an answer, yet. I find Lily to be a bunch of contradictions. I haven’t figured her out. She thinks she wants to be well off in marriage and society, but you can obviously see she doesn’t want to “work” for it, or make the sacrifice. She is surrounded by poor examples of marriage, including her parents, so maybe she really doesn’t want to be married at all. Although I think Seldon would have been a great friend/husband. But then there is the society barrier again, which I also think she secretly loathes.

    • Thanks, Ruth! I don’t think Lily has thought about marriage in any sense other than the financial benefits; it will afford her an exalted place in society and she will be able to buy what she wants. I don’t see Lily as not wanting to work; she just has no other concept of what she could be working for. Percy is not really a person to her but a vehicle for her to attain what she *thinks* she wants. However, it’s interesting that you mention her work ethic … I’ll keep an eye out for this quality in other areas.

      It’s wonderful you mention Selden as she obviously is not attracted to him for his wealth. As we read, I wonder more and more what goes on inside Lily’s head. She’s breaking out of society’s “cocoon”. Will she emerge a butterfly or a drab moth that’s blinded by the light? It’s been a fascinating read so far!

      • I’m ahead this week in my reading, so I keep finding that she covets the independence of other particular characters…I think that is what her heart truly wants; but she is not in a position to have it. It would take personal and private sacrifice on her part to be married, and she cannot bring herself to give up her independence for it, no matter how dire it becomes for her. It’s a rock and a hard place. I do think she appreciates her friendship w/ Selden, but that is all it can be.

        • Yes, I think she does want independence. Does that make her very different from her peers? Usually women go from their family to a husband. Is Lily different in that she’s attracted to Selden’s independence and wants her own?

  5. Thank you very much for starting this. My first comment is that “Seldon” is the first name we read (and the first word in the novel) and he lives at the “Benedick” which implies that it’s a place for unmarried men to live. It is also a recent build with “new brick and limestone house fronts” on his street. It’s “pseudo-Georgian” exterior points to how people and places can manipulate their appearances.

    Lily laments that she cannot live in a similar flat. She mentions her cousin, Gertie Farish. Gertie has her own flat, but it is a “horrid little place.” Wharton sets up the economic and power disparity between men and women quite early in the book.

    Lily has an unhappy encounter with a cleaning woman. When we meet Simon Rosedale, we learn that he “owns” the “Benedick” and thus he’s probably got more economic power than Seldon. Rosedale acts “knowing” when Lily says she’s been to see her dressmaker. He knows that there are no dressmakers in the building.

    The first chapter implicitly compares Lily to others: the pen, Seldon and Rosedale, have got the power and considerable freedom. The women–Lily, Gertie, and the cleaning lady–are working. Lily still hopes that she can make a great marriage but her feelings seem to be cynical: “Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop…” Wharton describes her as a “captured dryad”.

    • You’re so welcome, Gubbinal!

      What a great teasing out of the finer points of the reading! They are all good reasons to point Lily in the direction of a beneficial marriage but still she is questioning this path, almost without knowing it at this point.

      Do you remember if it was mentioned that Gertie was happy with her lot? I wonder? Just because one makes a splendid marriage doesn’t mean they’ll be happy, just like having menial work and living in a dingy flat doesn’t mean that one will be unhappy. I believe we meet Gertie later in the book if I remember correctly.

      Did you get the sense that Rosedale is not quite accepted by society because he is a Jew or because he doesn’t come from old money? Or is it simply his mannerisms and the way he conducts himself? It appears that just having money doesn’t get you comfortably into the top echelons of society.

      Again, great points you made! Please keep them coming! 🙏 I love Wharton’s description of a “captured dryad.” So effective!

      • Thank you for your response. I think that Simon Rosedale is not accepted simply because being Jewish is not acceptable to the traditional NY “500” in the social register. Nor would he be accepted were he Roman Catholic or another race. He can earn enormous sums of money but still not be accepted. Physically he is described as not appealing—but then again all of those men, such as Mr Trenor or Mr Dorset–seem physically repulsive.

  6. From the early chapters of this novel, Lily’s vulnerable state is obvious to me on every page. She is very aware of her dependence on her aunt and though she has friends and relatives with whom she stays, she laments that their nicely decorated rooms are out of reach for her. And while it is temping to call her shallow because she talks of money so much, I feel it’s because she has none and is conscious that she is trying to keep up with her social class when the truth is her financial situation is so fragile. That scene when she is accounting for the money she lost at bridge is particularly poignant, because if she truly was of the class her aunt and other relatives move in, she’d know nothing about her finances, because she’d never have to. ‘Never talk about money.’ She must literally count every penny and that is totally not of her class.

    From the conversation she had with Selden, I think wanting or not wanting to marry isn’t how she would frame it. She HAS to marry, because she is a woman, “…a girl must marry, a man may if he chooses. Your coats a little shabby–but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me; a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself….We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop–and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”

    And why at 29 is she still single? I wonder if it stems somewhat from the unstable environment she is in, because she ‘came out’ just before her father died, which left her and her mother compromised financially. Her mother had high standards for her, but then her aunt didn’t seem to push her marriage and she found herself more of a companion to her.

    In chapter 3, Lily is pondering her unmarried state. Her aunt “had not felt called upon to do anything for her charge: she had simply stood aside and let her take the field. Lily had taken it, at first with the confidence of assured possessorship, then with gradually narrowing demands, till now she found herself actually struggling for a foothold on the broad space which had once seemed her own for the asking.” Had her aunt been too passive about her marriage? Had Lily not been passive enough in showing too much eagerness?

    I tell you, the intricate ins and outs of a young woman’s life at this time….with all the minute rules and regulations in behavior and thought….boggle my mind!

    • Does Lily’s vulnerability attract you to her or do you feel an impatience with her?

      I wonder if Lily didn’t marry and was financial independent, what her life would look like. Right now her precarious situation is causing her to examine deeper life issues and I believe her character is growing because of it. But if she had money, would she have continued to be a shallow butterfly that simply flitted from one flower to the next without a thought? It makes me think that often adverse situations in life work towards our good as a person or human being, while perhaps working against us in other areas. We shall see …

      I rather think Lily is single at 29 because she inherently recognizes the shallowness of societies expectations, and while she is caught up in them, she is also fighting against them in her psyche. While she knows she must marry, something inside her won’t allow it for the reasons that are presented to her. Perhaps this is the beginning of her awakening.

      Thanks for your comments, Laurie! It boggles my mind too! I would not want to be Lily!

      • I don’t see her as shallow. I see her as calculating, meaning she has honed and fine-tuned the ‘rules’ she has to put up with as a woman in this society. She does see how shallow and superficial are the people in her circle, yet she wants to be one of them!

        One of the issues that I thought of is, love. Her marrying for love isn’t mentioned is it? Marriage for her class is a financial and familial arrangement, not an emotional one. And it occurred to me if that is also something that has held her back from marrying; that she is waiting for an attraction to someone, not just a financial arrangement? Because frankly, it almost seems a little odd in the writing of Lily Bart that she hasn’t taken the plunge as vulnerable as her financial situation puts her in?

        • I received the impression that Lily began to recognize the shallowness of the society at the beginning of the book. I think this realization was brewing for awhile, but hadn’t formed a coherent picture. With her visit to Selden, he seems to jumpstart her introspection and her views begin to formulate.

          “Because frankly, it almost seems a little odd in the writing of Lily Bart that she hasn’t taken the plunge as vulnerable as her financial situation puts her in?”

          Exactly! I feel the same way. I wonder if her behaviour will become clearer?

          • I agree that Lily is calculating and that she has very high standards. She wants her men to be intelligent but not in a dorky, nerdy way—not collecting “Americana” but rather amusing and witty and just slightly less than full-throttled masculine.

            But behind her calculations, I believe, lies a knowledge of how her ideal life does not mesh with the “normal” life of a NYC society lady. She wants something a little bit more than money or a M.R.S. in front of her name. Yes, she wants the money and the possessions but she also wants an ideal love.

            Like many people, Lily is full of contradictions and I found myself thinking like Lily when I wanted to buy a lot of extra things to help me to declutter!

  7. Hi Cleo! Great summary and a very interesting question regarding Lily’s unmarried state at the (gasp! shock! horror!) advanced age of twenty-nine! At this point in the novel, what strikes me the most about Lily is her duality. She’s the child of a very materialistic (if not grasping) mother and an ineffectual father who, Wharton hints, is inclined towards the more poetical side of life (he “wasted” his evenings reading poetry; isn’t interested in his wife’s circle of friends and,heartbreaking detail, has a trove of “dingy little volumes” sold by his wife after his death). I believe you quoted Wharton’s description which notes Lily’s tendency towards idealism; she’s a material girl in a material world but — she’s a little bit more. She’s smart enough to see the limitations of her world (hence her restless boredom with it and its inhabitants, such as Percy Gyrce) and imaginative enough to long for something beyond it, but NOT imaginative or courageous enough to visualize a way to exist other than as the wife of a rich man. (when Seldon asks “isn’t [marriage] what you’re all brought up for?” Lily responds “What else is there?” Although she envies Seldon’s flat –i.e., his independence and self-sufficiency, she’s appalled at his cousin Gertie Farish, a self-sufficient woman with her own space but who lives a “dingy” life with a bad cook).

    I think Lily is unmarried due to a combination of circumstances. To begin with, she’s fishing in a very small pool, i.e., very rich guys who are very socially acceptable, so there probably won’t be that many candidates. Bad luck may have affected her chances; she has no mother to help her along, remember, and Aunt Penniston is only going to do so much. Wharton states, I believe, that at this point in time Lily is also beginning to lose some of her “freshness”, which may be a hint that she’s acquiring a reputation for being something of a fortune hunter (although we don’t know the details, and Lily makes it a joke, her match with Dillworth failed to come off because his “mother was frightened,” implying his mum prevented the engagement). Lily herself tells Seldon that she “threw away” one or two good chances when she first came out, bringing us back to your question of “why”? I think at bottom Lily is too idealistic to take what’s available to her. She’s proud of her good taste and love of beauty, wouldn’t have cared to simply marry a rich guy (she’s a little ashamed of her mother’s crude worship of money) and initially dreamed of an English earl or an Italian prince, either of whom would enable her to stand aloof from the common mass of humanity.

    I think Wharton uses the encounter with Seldon to tell us Lily’s tragedy right at the beginning of the novel. As the two are walking along Madison Avenue Seldon first thinks that Lily’s beauty is what sets her apart from “the herd of her sex;” it’s as though “a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness” had been applied “to vulgar clay.” He’s dissatisfied with his analogy, however, “for a coarse texture will not take a high finish.” He concludes by wondering whether “the material was fine, but * * * circumstances had fashioned it into a futile shape.” In other (and far less skillful) words, I think Wharton is telling us that Lily possesses certain fine qualities but these will ultimately not do her any good or amount to much.

    Thanks so much for hosting this! It’s been so long since I’ve read anything by Wharton I’d almost forgotten what a great novelist she is; it’s a pleasure to be reminded. Also, BTW, I loved your visuals, especially the old photo of Grand Central and the painting by Hassam. They do much to establish the atmosphere@

    • Thanks, Janakay! Great point about her duality. That’s it exactly. I wonder how Lily develops the ability to look below the surface of society’s behaviour and begin to examine the meaning of it. Her father likes poetry so perhaps she inherited a depth of character from him, even while being influenced by her mother who was completely shallow. Lily definitely sounds like she’s trapped.

      Even with Lily’s idealism, what are her choices? If she’s idealistic, there must be some ideal she’s striving for yet I can’t see it. She does seem trapped into one choice, so why does she seem to sabotage her chances? It’s puzzling.

      Something that struck me ….. even with Lily’s dubious background, she seems to have fit into that society very easily while Selden and Rosedale, to a certain extent, seem like outsiders. I wonder if it’s her looks that have paved the way, perhaps in combination with her aptitude for controlling situations. She is certainly unique!

      I like your comments and quotes from her interaction with Selden. I think so too. So her qualities that she possesses are qualities that society wants, yet even so, they will do her no good. Interesting …!

      You are so welcome! Great comments and so happy to have you on board! 😊

      • I think you put your finger on the characteristic that puzzles me the most about Lily — her self-destructiveness and her tendency to sabotage her chances. Wharton shows us this right at the beginning: Lily is an unmarried woman who can’t afford a breath of scandal (double standard I know but that’s the culture she lives in), Lily is well aware of this and yet — she goes with bachelor Seldon to his apartment, with no one else present. It doesn’t matter that their encounter was entirely innocent; it’s the appearance of the thing that’s important. This little episode makes clear that Lily is a risk taker; her circumstances make her a risk taker who can’t afford to lose (another example: her gambling, which has gotten out of hand).
        Although I see Lily’s character as “idealistic” you hit on an important limitation — just WHAT is she idealistic about? It’s all very vague and doesn’t seem to amount to much — she envisions life married to an English nobleman who has a political career, or an Italian prince or whatever or that her personal beauty will somehow benefit humanity in some unspecified way that could result in “good.” Maybe that’s part of Lily’s tragedy, i.e., that she’s unable to formulate something meaningful that she could structure her life around.
        I think what gave Lily the ability to look beneath the surface of her world was her father’s tragedy. As Wharton puts it, “Lily was nineteen when circumstances caused her to revise her view of the universe;” i.e., when her father informs his wife and daughter that he was financially ruined. As he following paragraph makes clear, the horror of that event never leaves Lily, who continues to relive the details years later. It’s SUCH a great scene, isn’t it? And so painful to read. Remember the details about the flowers, and how Lily wanted fresh ones every day? How bothered she was by the fact that the roses on the luncheon table were past their prime? The juxtaposition of this frivolous detail her father’s financial disaster is masterful. If dad had been a better businessman, I suspect Lily would have ended up a nicer version of her mother; less grasping but with no tendency to question the mores of her little world.
        I also agree with you that Lily “fits” into the gilded age society much better than Rosedale or Simon. Rosedale is Jewish, which means that, for all his money, he’ll never be fully accepted, even if he were more polished and mannered than he is (I believe a couple of people commented on this). Seldon’s is a slightly different case — I think he chooses not to be fully a part of Lily’s world (remember — he’s invited to the house party but doesn’t initally intend to go. Also, do you recall the (very) early conversation he has with Lily, when she asks if he minds being poor and having to work? He minds, some, BUT he’s “rather fond of the law” and wouldn’t dream of marrying rich just to have an escape from what Lily perceives as the limitations of his life). I suspect Lily is “accepted” to some extent because she’s beautiful, she has a “pedigree” (wasn’t her aunt the granddaughter of a Van Alystne or somehing?), she’s useful (she plays bridge and adds to the fun house party atmosphere) and she has the backing of her very dull, but very rich aunt (and also has other moneyed family members). BUT Lily, too, is an outsider, as she’s well aware: her hostess expects her to help out with the correspondence and Lily, when she sees her cousin Jack making up to the rich girl reflects that all these dull rich people want “a creature of a differnt race, of Jack’s race and mine” to alleviate their dullness!
        My apologies for writing so much, but I found your questions very interesting! Now — back to Wharton (my reward for an afternoon of closet cleaning).

        • Oh my goodness, my comment might be as long as yours because you’ve brought up so many great points!

          The sabotaging of her chances is puzzling. I wonder if she’s become so comfortable with her role in society and it hasn’t changed for so long that she feels like she can coast a bit and even push the boundaries. She seems to realize the mistake of her visit to Selden upon meeting Rosedale, but if she hadn’t met him, I doubt the realization would have come. She’s definitely a woman of contradictions.

          A great linking of Lily’s “gamble” with her visit to Selden and her bridge gambling. It’s interesting that she seems to know what the outcome of her bridge playing would be (an addiction) yet choses to do it anyway for convention. You would have thought she could have explained her way out of it.

          Another great point about her father’s tragedy and the flowers. I’m going to pay more attention and see if they are used as symbols throughout the story. Have you noticed that Lily is named after a flower? Interesting, isn’t it?

          I wonder if society “wants” Selden because he won’t fit into their mold? He at first turns down the invitation to the party. Wouldn’t that make them want him more?

          And another great point about Lily helping with correspondence, like a secretary or maid. It’s like she’s straddling this society with one foot firmly entrenching in it and one foot firmly entrenched out of it. A precarious position.

          I’ve had painters and my electrician here all day, so I know what you mean. I was ahead on my reading but now I’m going to have to put in some time these next few days to catch up. House renovations do tend to upset things. It will be a relief when they’re done! 😅

          • Cleo: so funny! I promise I’ll keep it brief & shut up after this but I HAD to respond to your point about Lily’s name! Forgive me for jumping (slightly) ahead (I’ll forget if I wait) but in Chapter 5 (after Lily skips church, Wharton comments that Lily “was like a water plant in the flux of the tides” which were now carrying her towards Seldon! I had never thought of the symbolism of her name (great catch!!!) but — she’s a water lily! Ain’t Wharton great????
            You’re a woman of iron, to be hosting a complex novel like this in the midst of a house renovation. . .

          • Don’t every feel that you have to be brief on my blog, lol! 😂

            Yes, am I insane! I had painters paint the wrong colour halfway through the other day (satin instead of flat) and now they have to come back and fix it. The house is in total uproar. And I must get posting!

          • Wow Cleo! You’re hosting this in the midst of home renovations??? That’s a lot! Bless you!

            A thought about your comment of Lily realizing what playing bridge might do to her finances yet playing anyway for the sake of convention. Do you think it’s possible she continued to play for appearance sake….the appearance that she had the means to be able to play bridge thus not revealing her true financial circumstances?

          • Yes, and I’ve had some setbacks. Yikes! Going to try my best to get another post up today.

            I think your point is bang on. But sometimes she’s quite adept at getting herself out of circumstances so I thought she might be able to make an excuse if she knew the outcome would be worse for her. However, if they were pressing her, it would be difficult to deflect them for long.

          • Janakay, I did not pick up on what you brought up about Lily’s name. Thank you for pointing that out! So cool! I love these good book discussions!

  8. To begin with I am glad you are hosting this! I had for one reason or another not read a Wharton for sometime, and I had almost forgotten how beautifully she writes, how brilliantly she captures the turn of the century America and the nuanced character she portrays! I see contradictions and needs – for instance the treatment of Rosedale and even in Lily’s own character. There are things that needs to be done for money and while the heart may desire to break free, the comforts with which one has been brought up and taught to respect intrudes, with better feelings. While Lily scorns Sheldon’ cousin’s dreary existence, I cannot help but feel that, she is also envious of someone who lives beholden to no one and on her own rules. That in itself may be the reason why she has not married. that freedom, no matter how the cost, is still worthy! Also I think it’s in chapter 2 that we come across young Lily Barton’s idea of marrying someone wealthy but someone with a cause to espouse, an underdog who needs to win a battle. That shows that while money is an overriding concern, it was, atleast until much later the only concern, vis-a-vis marriage! I have never liked the character of Lily Barton, but everytime I come to empathize with her, though I do not appreciate her means or motives!

    • I just love this book! I’m so glad I decided to read it again and am glad of your company with the experience!

      I can understand her not wanting to marry, but the consequences of that decision must be obvious to her. I suppose her waffling can only be explained away by her idealism? Or is it something more?

      You don’t like Lily? I absolutely love her but only because of what happens later. Let’s read on!

  9. Well, my comment is going to be relatively brief. I haven’t read House of Mirth, although I have it patiently waiting on my shelf. It does seem that Wharton uses her stories to criticize the society she lived in. I’m sure there were plenty of artificial people back then, same as here. Obviously Wharton despised these sort of people.

    Yet, I feel that she is not even enough and a little too contemptuous of a culture that she, personally, greatly benefitted from. She never gave up her position or money and chose obscurity.

    Sometimes I think her kind are elitist.

    • Wharton is unusual in that she criticizes her society, yet is also able to see certain benefits it brings. I think this aspect was more evident in The Age of Innocence though than in The House of Mirth. The House of Mirth, if I remember correctly, is more of a critique.

      As I mentioned above, I don’t think she’s unduly contemptuously of the culture. She did see certain benefits. And she didn’t just sit around. She got out there and helped during the war and did a number of wonderful things. Her life was quite amazing. I think when people read her works, they focus on the criticism (which probably resonates with them, as people are hyper-critical nowadays) and forget other positive aspects of her novels. It’s too bad.

  10. Pingback: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – Simpler Pastimes

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!