The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapter XV & Book II, Chapters I – III

The House of Mirth Read-Along

Chapter XV

Lily awakes the next morning still exhausted but with a clearer view of her circumstances.  Gus Trenor would need to be repaid the nine thousand dollars he has given her and she feels a tired weariness at her predicament.  “She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.”

Her aunt is having the vapours over her absence and she departs Gertie’s home with an embarrassed discomfort felt by both women.  Lily meets with her aunt after luncheon and slowly and carefully discloses that she needs a good deal of money to pay off her debts but her aunt is horrified by her behaviour and steadfastly refuses to be of assistance with anything but her meager dressmaker bills.  Lily retires to her room in fear and anger but then remembers that Selden is coming at 4 pm and sees him as her only hope out of her dilemma.  Selden, however, does not come, and it is Simon Rosedale who appears at 5 pm wishing to see her.  He indicates his desire to marry her and all the benefits it would bring, but Lily puts him off, asking for time to think about his offer.  Lily expects Selden the next day but is jarred to find that he has left for Havana and the West Indies.  She is about to write to Rosedale when a note from Bertha Dorset arrives inviting her on a cruise in the Mediterranean.

Monte Carlo Seen From Roquebrune

Monte Carlo, Seen From Roquebrune (1884) Claude Monet

Book II

Chapter I

It is mid-April and we find Selden in Monte Carlo. By chance, he meets up with Mrs. Fisher, Jack Stepney and his wife, the Wellington Brys and a new face, Lord Hubert. Going for lunch at the Condamine, they spy the Dorsets, and Selden is told of Lily’s triumph in Europe, charming the people she’s met.  Selden had suspected that he was over Lily and had a fortunate escape but hearing of her nearness sent an ache through him that told him he had felt more than he thought.

After lunch, Selden goes for a walk with Mrs. Fisher who relates her problems with integrating the Welly Brys into society and tells of Lily’s success but also her foibles with men:

“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic ….. Sometimes … I think it’s just flightiness  — and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her an interesting study …”

She goes on to reveal that Lily is here to distract George Dorset as Bertha has her affair with Ned Silverton, but Bertha is becoming jealous of Lily’s success and there may be a break in their relationship any day.  Selden finally shows displeasure in her talk and says he must catch his train, whereupon Mrs. Fisher, with surprise, says she thought he was staying in Monte Carlo, but Selden claims he is making Nice his headquarters and escapes.  On the train, he questions, “What the deuce am I running away from?”, but concludes that it’s better not to see Lily.  However, the very person he was fleeing from enters the train with the Dorsets, Ned Silverton and Lord Hubert Dacey.  Selden’s is disappointed with Lily’s new demeanor:

“ …. a subtle change had passed over the quality of her beauty.  Then it 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 fixed her whole being into one hard brilliant surface.  The change had struck Mrs. Fisher as a rejuvenation: to Selden it seemed like that moment of pause and arrest when the warm fluidity of youth is chilled into it’s final shape ……”

She spoke with him as if nothing had passed between them.  “Such facility sickened him …..,” but Selden believes he will now be able to get over his infatuation with her.  She was obviously more practiced in the art of conversation, and Selden surmises that she has now decided her course, as is evidenced in her smoother manner.  In fact, she was so “perfect” with everyone that Selden suspects that she is “poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her.”

Lily’s group is headed to Nice as well and later, Selden sees Bertha Dorset and Ned Silverton out together, then from Lord Dacey he’s told that Lily and the Duchess of Beltshire are close companions, although he worries that the Duchess is too “liberal,” further planting doubts in Selden’s mind about Lily’s character.

Monaco Monte Carlo

Monace Monte Carlo (1897) Alphonse Mucha
~ source Wikiart

Chapter II

Lily emerges from her cabin on The Sabrina, the boat her party has been sailing on, and inhales the beauty of the morning. She muses on the luck of being invited by Bertha Dorset as, if she’d stayed in New York, she would have been obligated to pay back Gus Trenor and perhaps would have married Rosedale to get her out of her troubles. “Moral complications existed for her only in the environment that produced them; she did not mean to slight or ignore them, but they lost their reality when they changed their background.”  Her funds were low but Lily could only hope they would change as she enjoyed this special adventure that had catapulted her back on a pedestal of admiration.

She goes off to lunch with the Duchess, as Bertha rejects her inquiry, pleading sleep, and then Lily meets Mrs. Fisher in the Casino.  Mrs. Fisher is washing her hands of the Wells Brys (whom Lily has so far snubbed) and is giving them to Lily to deal with, as she is going off with another couple who seems to need her assistance.  She mentions hearing that Lily returned alone with George Dorset the night before and when Lily says it’s only because Bertha did not turn up to meet them, Mrs. Fisher says she hopes she won’t have to pay for it before making her exit.

Lily makes a move to mend fences with the Welly Brys and then encounters George Dorset who commandeers her for a walk, appearing agitated and disturbed.  He reveals that Bertha returned to the yacht at 7 am. that morining with excuses for her lateness, but her husband has finally seen through her charade.  He pours out his heart to Lily and then declares he will send for a lawyer to end their marriage, naming Selden as the lawyer, to which Lily protests. Finally she realizes that Selden is the best man to handle the situation with tact and sends a telegraph to him.

Returning to the yacht, ready to comfort Bertha, she finds her entertaining the Duchess and Lord Hubert.  When they leave, Lily is ready to face her friend’s rattled emotions, but instead Bertha accuses Lily and her husband of not waiting for her and Ned Silverton at the train station.  This turn of attack paralyzes Lily so much that she does not at first know how to respond.  She feels pity for Bertha as she is like a cornered animal, and Lily almost expresses her compassion for Bertha, but in the end, she takes all of Bertha’s railing and insults silently and returns to her cabin.

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo – Micaela Eleutheriade
~ source Wikiart

Chapter III

Selden receives Lily’s letter and meets with George Dorset, but while he has little hope for his case (“ … the dirty rages, however pieced together, could not without considerable difficulty, be turned into a homogeneous grievance…”), Dorset is not in the frame of mind to listen to reason and Selden has to settle for soothing and pacifying him.  He agrees to meet him the next morning and sends him home counselling him to act as if nothing is awry.  As for Lily, he inexplicably wishes to shield her reputation and sends her a note in the same vein.

The Dorsets and Lily dine together but the atmosphere is charged with resentment and unrest.  Lily honestly wishes to help the couple without a thought for herself or her situation: “To be of use was what she honestly wanted; and not for her own sake but for the Dorsets’”

Now shunned by George Dorset too, Lily goes out for lunch and afterwards meets Selden.  Although Selden tries to reassure her, he is uncomfortably aware that Dorset’s attitude has changed and while he still feels aggrieved, there is something he is holding back and Selden wonders what will come of it.  Also aware of Bertha’s iron determination to escape consequences yet at the same time to fight like a soldier in her own interests, he also sees Lily’s precarious position in the matter and wants to see her again to offer help, as he has always resisted judging her. (cough, choke!)

Selden meets Mrs. Bry and Lord Hubert and is invited to a restaurant for dinner that night where he observes his company, claiming he is now emotionally detached from Lily (see my comment in my thoughts below), is suspicious of Dabham the journalist and feels that while Dorset looks normal that he is thrown way off-centre.  The dinner, however, appears to be a wonderful success, and Mrs. Bry bestows her gratitude on Lily.  Yet when Lily goes with the Dorsets to be conveyed back to the yacht, Bertha announces that she will not be coming back to the yacht with them.  You could hear a pin drop.  Everyone in the company is embarrassed beyond belief and while George Dorset tries to intervene, Bertha is adamant.  Lily braves the situation admirably:

“The faint disdain of her smile seemed to lift her high above her antagonist’s reach, and it was not till she had given Mrs. Dorset the full measure of the distance between them that she turned and extended her hand to her hostess.”

Giving an excuse that she would be staying with the Duchess, with admirable composure Lily asks Selden to see her to her cab.  Selden convinces Lily to seek refuge with her cousin, Jack Stepney, but Lily at first refuses because it seems as if his wife does not like her, then she relents.  Jack agrees to take her in but only for the night and then she must catch the train.

Nice at Night

Nice At Night – Ivan Aivazovsky
~ source Wikiart


Oh heavens, one of the problems with this society is that no one says what they mean.  Everyone is so busy posturing and, at times, protecting themselves, that their words and behaviour often don’t reflect reality.  The upper class live in their own self-imposed delusion.   Lily’s problem is that while she does live in that delusion, sometimes she leaves it and interacts with reality.  This is what causes her problems.  I wonder if she’d been able to live wholly in one or the other, things wouldn’t have turned out better for her.

I know that Lily looks slightly neurotic and perhaps shallow as she bounces from contemplating marriage to one man and then another.  On one hand, you think society is pushing her to make herself secure and comfortable, but I think she’s also indecisive because she senses that marriage (and money) may not bring happiness.  The conflict of these two feelings within her make her appear even more unstable and vacillating.

Ugh.  I find Selden somewhat self-absorbed in his reaction to Lily.  Didn’t he think, with her light-hearted manner towards him when they meet again, that she was trying to save her pride from when he didn’t show up at their meeting.  He’s rather hard on her, especially since he’s known her behaviour from the start and has admitted that he’d glimpsed the “real Lily,” indicating that she’s more complex and deep than her behaviour gives her credit for.  I find myself annoyed with him.

Oh my goodness, how disgusted I am with Bertha Dorset.  I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything better but to tell such a blatant lie and one that includes her own husband is totally reprehensible!  And Lily still feels a friendship for this person and her response is so mild.  I’m not sure whether to admire Lily in this situation or wonder at her lack of retaliation.

I just don’t understand Selden’s reaction to Lily.  He claims no emotional attachment to her now but says the break didn’t happen with his disenchantment (I’m assuming her means seeing her leave Trenor’s house) but now, when : “in the sober after-light of discrimination, where he saw her definitely divided from him by the crudeness of a choice which seemed to deny the very differences he felt in her.  It was before him again in its completeness —– the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of food and the showy dullness of talk, in the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance.”  What the heck?!  Is he bothered by Lily’s passiveness, that she seems to sink in comfort and never seems to act unless there’s a crisis?  And as for the last part … things have always been that way.  Why does it hit him now and why would it cause an emotional break towards Lily?  Does anyone know?  I’m puzzled …  And he says he could give his admiration freer play because he was not emotionally attached anymore.  Does that mean he feels freer to flirt?   And isn’t that one of the things that he doesn’t like about society?  So confusing!!

Baie des Anges Nice

“Baie des Anges” Nice (1875) Vincent Fossat
~ source Wikimedia Commons


When Selden urges Lily to leave the yacht because the situation might affect her, she answers, “If you knew how little difference that makes.”  Do you think she intuitively is sensing her downfall and has accepted it, or at least is on her way to accepting it?



“She had never learned to live with her own thoughts …..”

“Even while his nerves raged at the subjection of husbands to their wives and at the cruelty of women to their kind ….”


⇐ The House of Mirth Book I Chapters IX – XIV

The House of Mirth ~ Book II, Chapters IV – VIII ⇒

24 thoughts on “The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapter XV & Book II, Chapters I – III

  1. “Do you think she intuitively is sensing her downfall and has accepted it, or at least is on her way to accepting it?”

    Hmmm…..this is hard to say. In a way, I think she has become resigned to it. That it was incredulous what happened with the Dorsets and now she’s feeling like it just doesn’t matter.

    As you know, I really wanted to read The House of Mirth with you but honestly, I’m wondering if I should have waited until I finished Les Mis. I started out fine in my reading of The House of Mirth but lately I have found myself distracted when reading it. So I’m afraid I’m not picking up on everything in the novel. 🙁 Good news is that I finished Les Mis last night (which was bittersweet because it was SO good!) so hopefully I won’t be as distracted when finishing The House of Mirth. I usually don’t have a problem with reading multiple books. But Les Mis was so engrossing and totally sucked me in.

    • That’s what I thought …. that she sounded resigned. Which means she must have had some inkling that something bad was going to happen, even though at that point things were going well for her.

      Yes, when you have two books you want to read closely it can be challenging! Isn’t Les Mis wonderful? *** sigh! *** I so wish I could have read it again with you. But I’m sure you’ll read it again one day, so let me know when you do!

      • Yes, I’m sure I will read Les Mis again at some point. 🙂 Oh, and I finished The House of Mirth this evening. Later on, there’s a couple of places that better help the reader understand Lily’s views. The ending……well, I can’t say anything yet…..

        • Oh no, you finished!! I was hoping we’d all finish together. Yes, don’t say anything yet but I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

          • Sorry….I was on a roll and before I knew it, I was almost done with the book. So I just went ahead and finished it. 🙂

          • No worries! And I’m sorry that I haven’t been on your blog lately to comment on your Les Mis posts. I’ll get there! I’ve just been trying to keep my head above water lately! 🌊

  2. my impression was that she felt like she was trapped. the only way out of her money predicament was to get married to some person with money but the ones who want her she doesn’t want and the one she wants seems too mosquito-like(flighty). plus the Bertha thing has her floored pretty much… i’ve finished the book so i don’t want to say too much more, but the one thing i can say is she doesn’t change her mind about things very much…

    • Sadly, Lily doesn’t seem to have any choice but one that will diminish her and one she doesn’t seem to want to make. The only alternative would be to marry someone like Selden, but then she would have so much less money and entertainment than she’s been used to all her life.

      Ack, you’re finished?! Well, I’m beginning to get nervous that the wonderful insightful point that I thought Wharton was making with my first read of this book, is no longer so obvious, as it seems I’m the only one to notice it. However, we’ll see ….

  3. I found Mrs. Fisher’s comments about Lily’s behavior very interesting. It seems like Lily has a pattern of creating a scenario where her future is assured and then backing away from that scenario. The situation that Mrs. Fisher tells Selden about, that took place ten years earlier, is almost identical to the situation with Gryce earlier in the book. I think on some level Lily is aware that becoming fully integrated with upper class society won’t make her happy, so she backs away from her opportunities.

    In this portion of the book that pattern seems to become almost self destructive when she refuses Selden’s advice about leaving the yacht. Leaving the yacht might not have completely protected her at that point but it might have mitigated the damage a bit. At this point though, Lily doesn’t seem to care about mitigating the damage. She almost embraces it. I don’t know if “resigned” is the word I’d use though. Something about it seems too passive. Lily is actively making these choices.

    • I completely agree with your first paragraph!

      I didn’t find Lily’s behaviour necessarily self-destructive; I thought that she truly wanted to be of service to the Dorsets in a very selfless way that was somewhat different from her behaviour in the past. Lily , to me, always seems like she’s searching for a friend, someone whom she can trust. She truly doesn’t seem to have anyone like that in her life. It’s so sad.

      To me, Lily does seem more passive. She doesn’t protect herself against Bertha but allows her to rant and rave and she doesn’t leave the yacht upon Selden’s advice. Something in her seems different yet I can’t put my finger on why.

  4. Yeah… that’s one thing where I can relate to Lily. You work so hard for something and right before you reach the point of success, you quit. That really used to be a problem for me. But it can come from a place of sheer fear – a sense of loss of stability, or control – rather than actual indecisiveness, if that makes any sense (?).

    And Bertha Dorset surely wins the Odious Character award!

    • I can relate to her in that I think she has a good heart but life circumstances have put her on a bad path. Instinctively she knows the society she’s part of is sick but what is she to do? She attempts to do what is expected of her yet cannot clear it with her conscience.

      Yes, it makes total sense. That fear could cause her to be indecisive.

      Someone behaved towards me once like Bertha did to Lily. I was fifteen years old and I still remember it. Odious, indeed! 👍🏻

  5. I was also much taken with Mrs. Fisher’s quote that begins ‘That’s Lily all over…’ I’ve been thinking about the nature of the tragedy, and that made me think of Hamlet–the tragedy of a person who can’t decide what they want to do. Of course unlike Hamlet she’s got a lot fewer possibilities. But Undine Spragg knew what she wanted!

    I think I’m a bit more sympathetic to Selden. He is a bit selfish, but he probably believes Lily was sleeping with Trenor. Effectively for money. Also Lily would really have to be willing to change his lifestyle to marry Selden. I think he’s genuinely in love with Lily, partly of course simply because she’s beautiful, but he also knows himself well enough to know he’s not going to become rich, though he will be solidly middle-class. Can Lily change so that she could live a middle-class existence? Lily wants freedom, but she also wants material goods and she doesn’t know which she wants. Going all Custom of the Country again 😉 the tragic flaw in Ralph Marvell was he didn’t know himself well enough to know he couldn’t either support or control the extravagances of a high-spending woman. I feel Lily has it in herself to change–that’s the tragic part–but can’t make up her mind to do it.

    I also think Lily’s naivete is showing again–and her desperation–when she sails with the Dorsets. She does know that Bertha is given to affairs; she knows her role is to keep George Dorset occupied; she runs from a problematic romantic entanglement, just as Selden does. I don’t think she has any idea of helping Bertha, or of helping Bertha in anything she should be helping her with.

    Bertha’s implication that Lily is having an affair is, alas, exactly the sort of accusation we’re seeing all the time in politics now

    • That’s a great point about Hamlet. And what about Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex? He cannot escape his destiny and it is tragic. Lily might have been able to escape hers, but I think it would have taken too big a change in her worldview and she just couldn’t do it. If something is drilled into you for 29 years (you have to have lots of money and marry well) then it must be almost impossible to change.

      I’m not impressed with Selden although he is certainly better than many of the other characters. He claims he saw something different in Lily, something no one else can see (except perhaps Gertie), yet he doesn’t even talk to her about seeing her leaving Trenor’s house and instead believes the worst of her. For heavens sake, she visited his apartment and they just had a nice talk; why believe that she’s having a relationship with Trenor just because she left his house? Because it was nighttime? In any case, Selden should have spoken with her and he didn’t and therefore, he’s not high up in my good-books!

      Lily is indeed naive, to the point she wants to help Bertha even though she must have sensed Bertha’s animosity even before this incident. And she did want to help the couple as it says, “To be of use was what she honestly wanted; and not for her own sake but for the Dorsets” I truly think she wanted to help with a reconciliation between the two. There is definitely goodness in Lily.

      I was shocked by Bertha’s turnabout and thought it disgusting. It’s a double-lie which is reprehensible.

      • It’s definitely the case that Selden’s worst moment is when he sees her leaving Trenor’s house and assumes the worst. Societal conventions for women back then are ridiculous, but they’re also sometimes a little hard to even understand anymore. (At least for me.)

        We know that she’s worried when she’s caught leaving Selden’s place by Rosedale right at the start and that is in the daytime. Selden is hardly pure after his dalliance with the odious Bertha, but he probably doesn’t even see there’s a double standard–and would any male at the time see it? I suspect not.

        Even if Lily is a bit self-serving in traveling on the Sabrina, Lily certainly doesn’t wish Bertha ill, and Bertha’s lie and use of Lily is contemptuous. Lily clearly has no intention of making a play for George–even when it’s suggested (later)–even when it seems her only way out–she can’t do it.

        I just realized I need to refresh this page more often–I was getting an old cached version somehow.

        • Yes, that scene at the start sets the whole scenario. The double standards, the unwise decision by Lily, Selden’s interest, Rosedale … a great intro by Wharton.

          I didn’t really think Lily was self-serving travelling on the Sabrina. I thought she went to be part of that set and it was her only way. She realizes part of the reason why she’s asked but goes in hopes nothing bad will happen. Lily always seems to grasp on to the first person who “appears” nice to her, even if she knows their character is untrustworthy. But honestly, she doesn’t have a good bunch of people to choose from!

  6. I think lily says that line to Selden, “If you knew how little difference that makes,” because she is well aware that society is always against the single girl and for the rich married couple and will think her behavior bad regardless of the truth. Selden said just before this that he doesn’t think anything will happen (regarding the Dorset issue), but it really doesn’t matter because Lily will not be believed over Bertha Dorset.

    Lily is very frustrating to me right now, because she knows how the system works and it keeps bringing her down, yet she still wants in.

    Her choice to not answer/fight back is, I think, getting to a lot of us now!

    • Perhaps Lily is frustrating because her metamorphosis (if she has one) is so slow. She sees reality and the deeper aspects of life, yet she keeps making the same mistakes. It’s very real, like all of us.

      Yeh, I believe that she sees the futility of fighting back, but it would have been nice to see what would’ve happened if she did.

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