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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”