The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapters V – IX

The House of Mirth Read-Along

Oh goodness, sorry everyone!  While I was initially ahead, now I’m running a bit behind with housing renos gone wrong, and time spent helping friends who are having some health problems.  I’m planning to catch right up this weekend!  Okay, here is week two:

Chapter V

While we are given a picture of the habits of church-going being attended to at Bellomont with no one actually going, Lily convinces Percy, with a number of prevarications and untruths, that she attends and also that her bridge-playing the night before was something out of the ordinary. Yet while Lily continues her machinations to land Percy as a perspective husband, her thoughts are on Lawrence Selden.  Suddenly, as if a gilded film has been removed from her eyes, she sees society in all its false shallowness and hypocrisy.  “That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way …. the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning …”

However, while she does plan to go to church, she misses the conveyance to the disappointment of Percy Gryce.  Lily finds Selden with Mrs. Dorset in the library and fields the woman’s jealousy with claims of the intention of going to church in spite of missing the carriage.  Setting off to walk there, her thoughts of Selden and the reason for his presence at Bellomont caused an introspection which slowed her walk and eventually she sat to think.  “She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky: she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her.” Selden, who had followed her, catches up, and Lily attempts to tease his jealousy by alluding to a meeting with Gryce.  They banter until the church party, walking back to Bellomont, comes upon them.

Marissal Path to the Front of the Church

Marissal, Path to the Front of the Church (1866) Camille Corot
~ source Wikiart

Chapter VI

Later, Lily manages to maneuver a walk alone with Selden and we are treated to more of Wharton’s lovely setting descriptions:

“In the woody hollows of the park there was already a faint chill; but as the ground rose the air grew lighter, and ascending the slong slopes beyond the high-road, Lily and her companion reached a zone of lingering summer.  The path wound across a meadow with scattered trees; then it dipped into a lane plumed with asters and purpling sprays of bramble, whence, through the light quiver of ash-leaves, the country unrolled itself in pastoral distances.”

Selden describes to her his “republic of spirit” and Lily is entralled:

“My idea of success … is personal freedom …. (freedom) From everything — from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of spirit — that’s what I call success.”

They engage in a very deep discussion of society and money and if there is any value in the pursuit of it.  He becomes more attracted to Lily as their conversation builds, as he tries to explain the freedom he covets and if she can be part of his “republic”.  When Lily asks if he wants to marry her, Selden responds in the negative but says he will if she will.  However, nothing comes of it and they start back to Bellomont.

Autumn in America Oneida County New York

Autumn in America, Oneida County, New York – Albert Bierstadt
~ source Wikiart

Chapter VII


It appears that because Lily has monopolized Selden that Bertha Dorset has poisoned Percy Gryce against her with gossip and he has left to return to his mother. Judy Trenor scolds Lily for her behaviour but Lily treats this catastrophe rather flippantly.  Again, she seems to vacillate, first of all not realizing her miscalculation with getting distracted by Selden and therefore perhaps losing her chance at marriage to Gryce, however by luncheon, her folly had hit her: “Mrs. Dorset’s pin-pricks did not smart, for her own irony, cut deeper: no one could hurt her as much as she was hurting herself, for no one else — not even Judy Trenor — knew the full magnitude of her folly.”  Musing on the unfairness of her not being able to borrow money from a male relative without being looked down upon, and Carry Fisher being able to borrow from men friends just because she is married, Lily decides to visit her aunt at Richfield to avoid any more debts, but first picks up Gus Trenor at the station who gives her an idea that she runs with: Lily asks Gus to help her invest in the stock market and, with a feeling of appreciation at her desperate situation, he agrees to help her.

equality money frantisek kupka

Equality (Money) (1902) Frantisek Kupka
~ source Wikiart

Chapter VIII

Lily’s investments initially pay off and while she does pay her bills, she incurs more, anticipating that her luck has turned. Her cousin, Jack Stepney, marries Miss Van Osburgh and to Lily’s shock, she learns at the wedding that Percy Gryce is angling after the rather dumpy Evie Van Osburgh as a bride. She must abide the advances of Gus Trenor who is getting more familiar as he acts as her financial advisor, and is disconcerted to run into Selden at the wedding but their conversation is cut short as Trenor attempts to introduce her to Simon Rosedale. Lily is taken aback and, repulsed at engaging Rosedale, offends him, whereupon he mentions her visit to the Benedick. Realizing her only option is to be nice to him, she tries to recover his approval and initially her response appears to pay off. Yet her thoughts turn to Percy and confident she can win him back, she goes in search of him, only to discover that he is already engaged.

Wedding Supper Martin van Meytens

Wedding Supper (1763) Martin van Meytens
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter IX

Staying at the home of her aunt, Lily is rather bored but finds that she has fewer invitations than normal, wondering if people are becoming bored with her.  Yet suddenly the char-woman from the Benedick appears at the door asking to see her and Lily discovers that she is offering for sale love letters that seem to have passed between Lawrence Selden and Bertha Dorset.  Disgusted at the lowness of the encounter and its subject, she intends to destroy the letters after purchasing them, but when her aunt arrives home with news of Percy Gryce and Evie van Osburgh’s engagement which was orchestrated by Bertha Dorset, and hears of some of the ridicule directed at her with regard to Percy, she decides to keep the letters, presumably to enact some vengeance on Bertha Dorset.

At the gambling house alexandre benois

At The Gambling House (1910) Alexandre Benois
~ source Wikiart


Did anyone else find the first sentences of Chapter V rather alarming?

“The observance of Sunday at Bellomont was chiefly marked by the punctual appearance fo the smart omnibus destined to convey the household to the little church at the gates.  Whether any one go into the omnibus or not was a matter of secondary importance, since by standing there it not only bore witness to the orthodox intentions of the family, but made Mrs. Trenor feel, when she finally heard it drive away, that she had somehow vicarious made use of it.”

Everything in this society is based on appearance (and often delusion) and reality does not enter into it at all.  It’s like living in the Twilight Zone.

Lily appears to latch onto Selden not only because of his “republic of the spirit” where he is able to escape the stifling expectations of upper society, but because at the depth of her psyche she really does not wish to marry Percy Gryce even if their marriage would secure her financial independence and ensure her a stability within society.

Goodness, it’s appalling that George Dorset could look on his wife’s affairs and joke, but more that she conducted them in public and everyone simply took it as a matter of course.  The irony of the situation is that Lily and George Dorset speak of the affair/flirtation and then next proceeed to discuss melted butter.  The contrast effectively weaves into the tapestry of Wharton’s condemnation of this society.

I’m attracted by the humanness in Lily but also to the complexity of her character. While there’s a selfishness within her and sometimes a desire to triumph over others even at their expense, there’s also a vulnerability, a softness, along with an intelligence, a tentative desire to examine life and search for a higher purpose.  These characteristics alone estrange her from the society she moves in and contribute to an isolation that is not fully realized yet.

Ah, here we are introduced to a number of weaknesses in Lily’s character:

“Her intentions in short had never been more definite; but poor Lily, for all the hard glaze of her exterior, was inwardly as malleable as wax.  Her faculty for adapting herself, for entering into other people’s feelings, if it served her now and then in small contingencies, hampered her in the decisive moments of life.  She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides ….”

When we see Lily’s actions in this section, is anyone reminded of lemmings running towards the edge of a cliff?  She makes one bad decision after another and even though there are signals that things might go wonky, she blindly makes excuses and keeps going on a precarious path.  Is this more of her idealism showing through? Or is it a willful blindness that is bordering on childishness?

Money Changers Marinus van Reymerswale

Money Changers (16th century) Marinus van Reymerswale
~ source Wikimedia Commons


Did you find Lily’s sudden, yet intense change of perception of the society she frequents believable?  Was it too sudden upon the arrival of Selden or were there clues to its appearance?

Is Lily feeling love for Selden?  Or are her feelings merely rising with the freedom he represents, a type of freedom that money can’t buy, that inwardly she longs for?

At the beginning of Chapter VI there is this quote: “Lily had no real intimacy with nature, but she had a passion for the appropriate and could be keenly sensitive to a scene which was the fitting background of her own sensations.”  What do you think this quote implies about Lily’s character?

What do you think about Selden’s “republic of the spirit”?  Is there an idealism to it that can never be realized?  Do you see any weaknesses in it?

Lily accuses Seldon thus: “Then the best you can say for me is, that after struggling to get them I probably shan’t like them?”  Do you think , if Lily can achieve monetary comfort, that she will be happy and content?

Freedom in the Aquarium Sabin Balasa

Freedom in the Aquarium – Sabin Balasa
~ source Wikiart


“They (the Wetheralls) belonged to the vast group of human automata who go through life without neglecting to perform a single one of the gestures executed by the surrounding puppets.”

“Her intentions in short had never been more definite; but poor Lily, of all the hard glaze of her exterior, was inwardly as malleable as wax.  Her faculty for adapting herself, for entering into other people’s feelings, if it served her now and then in small contingencies, hampered her in the decisive moments of life.  she was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides …..”

” … she was not accustomed to taste the joys of solitude except in company ..”

“Don’t you think,” she rejoined after a moment, “that the people who find fault with society are too apt to regard it as an end and not a mean, just as the people who despise money speak as if its only use were to be kept in bags and gloated over? Isn’t it fairer to look at them both as opportunities, which may be used either stupidly or intelligently, according to the capacity of the user?”

Seldon answered her with a shrug.  “Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths? ….”


⇐  The House of Mirth Chapters I – IV

22 thoughts on “The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapters V – IX

    • Well, while the roofers were putting on a new roof, they stepped on my en-suite fan and broke it and cracked the drywall. Then they put a big hole in the ceiling of one of the bedrooms. The painters painted part of the house in flat and part in satin (the paint shop’s fault, but they didn’t check). I’ve spent hours organizing the fixes. Makes me want to go back to doing stuff myself. Argh!

  1. So my first reaction from this section was, that was the MOST disappointing proposal scene I’ve ever read, lol. For all that, she and Selden seem to have a connection. However, I wonder how long that would last…after all, they’ve known each other for eight (?) years and she only recently finds him attractive?

    “no real intimacy with nature” – This jumped out to me as well. Taken metaphysically, to me it implies she is so inward looking she can’t connect with the bigger picture, except as it relates to her own feelings. I used to know someone like this…it is really hard for them to make any progress because their only point of reference is themselves. We see this in the way Lily perceives the charwoman as well (even before the charwoman turns blackmailer), a wilful distancing of anyone or anything that doesn’t “fit” into her life as she see it. I expect she got it from her mother.

    “republic of the spirit” – I love these kinds of Americanisms in literature…at least, it seems like a distinctly American theme. On the other hand, Selden is somewhat unreasonable, in part because of his gender. No one thinks twice about a bachelor living on his own “come what may”; by contrast, Lily shows us how society perceives single woman in her own derogatory descriptions of Gerty Farish. Granted, Selden is talking about personhood, not circumstances, but still I feel on a practical level, his ideals do not work so well for women of his time.

    I really have to hand it to Wharton… I don’t really like Lily, but I actually feel concern for her. She’s got herself into a really bad place with Gus, and at this point there is no good way out. It’s almost like Mary from Downton Abbey, only I feel more sympathetic towards Lily, since she isn’t actively vindictive (or at least, not self-conscious of being so). That said, I feel Percy had a lucky escape!

    • Love the comments, Marian!

      I didn’t really view it as a proposal scene, it was more like they were feeling each other out to determine how each other felt. Do you think she’s realizing her attraction after eight years because Lily is thinking about deeper things? She’s been basically shallow previously but with different interactions with different characters, I feel like her scope of life is widening. It’s probably drawing her out of her comfort zone, which is perhaps why we see vacillations in her actions. What do you think?

      Good point about her lack of intimacy with nature. It’s what she knows and I’m actually impressed that she’s beginning to have deeper thoughts despite constantly reverting to shallower ideals.

      I thought Selden’s “republic of the spirit” was rather idealistic and you’re right that it’s much more difficult to apply it to women. But I’m wondering (from the next section I’m reading) if it’s not impossible for women. Gertie Farish seems to have carved out a niche for her circumstances and is reasonably independent.

      I have sympathy for Lily as well. Percy and she wouldn’t have been the best match and I think Percy has a good boring wife that would suit him well. Lily, on the other hand …. well, I feel if she married a good man who would challenge her and expand her thinking in a meaningful way that she might turn out to be a better person than average.

      I’m so interested as to what the next section holds!

      • That’s a good point… sometimes you don’t fully value the people you know closely until you start meeting other people. Selden is looking like one of the few sane people around!

  2. You said: “Goodness, it’s appalling that George Dorset could look on his wife’s affairs and joke, but more that she conducted them in public and everyone simply took it as a matter of course. The irony of the situation is that Lily and George Dorset speak of the affair/flirtation and then next proceeed to discuss melted butter.”

    When I read this part in the book, I was like – are you serious? The husband talking about the wife’s affairs as if it was no big deal??? You’ve got to be kidding me. But then I think, I wonder if he talked that way because he thinks or knows everyone knows it and the only way he feels he can save face is to joke about it and act as if he doesn’t really care about it.

    “Did you find Lily’s sudden, yet intense change of perception of the society she frequents believable?”
    I think it can be believable. People can have epiphany moments where something suddenly clicks and makes sense. This could have been the case for Lily. It may not have been, but it could have been. 🙂

    “Is Lily feeling love for Selden?”
    I get the sense that she does care for him maybe more than she realizes.

    • “I wonder if he talked that way because he thinks or knows everyone knows it and the only way he feels he can save face is to joke about it and act as if he doesn’t really care about it.

      Yes, I think that’s a distinct possibility. However, no one else seems to think anything of it, so I’m not quite sure of his behaviour. I’m glad I’m still shocked by these things, lol!

      I find it believable too, but I don’t think she quite understands that she’s changing. Not yet. We’ll see if she ever realizes it. Selden also sees it but again, I’m not sure if it’s hit him on a visceral level. They are both so entrenched in a society that is shallow and does little self-examination that they often act likewise without being aware of it.

  3. I think that Lily’s feelings for Selden may be a case of wanting what she can’t have. While she’s attracted to/infatuated with Selden I don’t think it’s actually love at this point. But he’s someone she likes and enjoys spending time with. At the same time she’s aware that he’s not someone eligible for marriage according to her standards. She likes his attention, but she can’t allow herself to get more deeply invested than that. Meanwhile she sabotages her relationship with Gryce because she risks success. She obviously has no desire to marry him and when that becomes a legitimate possibility she throws a wrench into the works by turning her attention to Seldon, who isn’t a possibility in that regard.

    My perception of Lily is that she wants the money and social standing that a certain kind of marriage will give her, but she doesn’t actually want a husband, so she self sabotages.

    • Yes, I agree. I wonder though, if she’d married Gryce, if the money would have given her a certain amount of freedom, as actually having a relationship with a husband doesn’t seem important to her. Likewise, I don’t think she could avoid a relationship with Selden if they married, as he’s a thinker and probably wouldn’t let her escape it. Given the way Lily views the world so far, I don’t see an acceptable solution for her predicament. I want her to grow as a person, as I see there’s much more to her character than is initially shown. Yet how is she to do that?

      • I think if she’d been independently wealthy (like in an alternate universe or something!) and had been materially comfortable, she might have had the space to grow and get to know herself a bit better. Maybe then she’d have a better sense of what she wants (beyond just money) and what might make her happy in the longterm.

        • Yet I wonder if she’d been independently wealthy, if she’d keep coasting on the shallowness of life and not found much meaning to it, like the rest of her set. That would be sad, as well.

          • That’s true. I sort of imagined that she’d feel “safer” and have the time and luxury to get to know herself better, but now I wonder if she would use it that way. Maybe she’d be like a lot of the other people she knows.

  4. Caught up!

    Does anyone else assume that Gus Trenor is simply saying that Lily investments have been profitable and then cutting her a check? And that he expects Lily to recognize that he’s paying her for her company–with all that implies? I think Lily half knows what’s going on, but doesn’t recognize it, or doesn’t want to.

    I agree with Marian above: the republic of the spirit may be a nice idea, but I doubt a woman in 1900 can become a member on any sort of reasonable terms. Selden both means the idea and is ironic about it–that’s what I take to be his way–but is unrealistic about what a woman can do to be part of it.

    I do think his marriage proposal is more than half-serious. But he knows he’ll never be rich, and what he’s asking is, is Lily interested on those terms? She had told him at that meeting in his apartment, well you know I would never be after you to marry you. She says it ironically, but of course it is also very nearly insulting–which would be why Selden makes the proposal no more than half seriously. But there are signs that Selden’s affair with Bertha Dorset is not going well, and maybe he’s grown up now enough to decide he wants something different. Both Selden and Lily are pretty immature for 29-year-olds! (Which seems to be about what they are.)

    Lily Bart and Undine Spragg make an interesting comparison, I think. Lily is older and somewhat more mature, but they’re both ambitious women at odds’ ends and in a society that offers them few outlets. Lily is ten years older. But I think the main difference–the reason we see Lily more sympathetically–is that we see inside her in a way we never do with Undine Spragg. What troubles Undine Spragg? Nothing! It seems. What troubles Lily Bart? We know.

    Anyway, thanks for the fun posts. Looking forward to the next section!

    • Excellent! I wish I could catch up, lol!

      An astute observation about Gus Trenor. Lily half seems to know alot of things but brushes them off if they’re not convenient. To her own detriment, I think.

      Reading the first chapter of the next section, I was wondering if Gertie has found her “republic of the spirit”. One has to have enough money not to starve, but also needs to find contentment with what they have. Selden is somewhat outside of Lily’s circle, not quite rich enough to be fully included; yet he’s found his republic. I think it has more to do with contentment than anything else. And perhaps not conforming to certain rules which allows one to be more free …..??

      I agree about the proposal. They’re both attracted to each other yet there are other contingencies that prevent them from seriously considering marriage. It would be interesting to see what life would have been like if they HAD married each other.

      Argh! I so wish I’d read Custom of the Country with you! Rats! Life is so crazy lately. I’ve had about 1/3 of the reading time I usually have. I can only hope that 2020 slows down. I really need my reading time!

  5. ther i am! i gave up trying to get your posts so i (duh..)finally realized i could get them on email. now i wish i’d continued reading the book, as so many of the comments are so interesting… maybe i’ll try to catch up? sorry about the careless work persons… we had a kitchen put in last year but had to have it torn out because the new varnish or whatever it was smelled so bad; then we had the brother of our son in law put in another one and it was much better as well as cheaper… anyway, i’m glad to have connected again…

    • Hey Mudpuddle! Good to hear from you again! I hope you can catch up!

      I’m having kitchen tiling done this week. A little more electrical and then it’s finally finished. Woo hoo! Two kitchens! That must have been stressful, however you don’t want to be inhaling something that’s harmful. Glad to hear the new one is working out!

  6. two things impress me in the first ten chapters. the names: Lily as in lilies of the field and their non-self employment and Bart as in Baronet, being a position of upper-classness and frivolous relationships. Selden, as in seldom, meaning a rare sort of person. the second impression is that Wharton seems to be depicting the predicaments that physical attraction can involve a lady in. intellect seems beside the point in this book, for the most part, but clothes and posturing apparently are one of the prime values… we’ll see where all this leads…

    • I think you’ve got something there with the names. We were discussing Lily’s name in another post and Wharton’s reference to flowers. Flowers are beautiful but fragile and if someone intends to crush them, there’s not much they can do. They’re also fleeting…. beautiful for awhile but then they die … hmmmm ….

      Lily with her beauty would be someone who could be taken advantage of. I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened before and that she’s so stunned by it.

      You know, I’m surprised there’s not more intellect in the society or at least an appearance of it. I wonder if Wharton is emphasizing the shallowness or if everyone was so lost in materialism without anything else redeeming about their characters… ???

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