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

The House of Mirth Read-Along

Book II

Chapter IV

Lily returns to New York only to find that her aunt Peniston has died.  During the reading of the will, Lily is expected to inherit her aunt’s fortune but Mrs. Peniston has been displeased with Lily’s European travels and perhaps with her behaviour as a whole and has left the bulk of her money to Grace Stepney, giving Lily only ten thousand dollars.  The shock is again born with a resignation by Lily.

We learn that from Monte Carlo, Lily had gone to London under the Duchess’ protection, but finally realizing that the Duchess was not the most respectable companion and that her loyalty might turn at any moment, she had returned home, as Selden had urged her before she left the Riviera.  However, the people who had played parts in the drama, the Dorsets, Stepneys and Brys had returned ahead of her and had distributed their version of the story.  Lily did not even try to defend herself, feeling her responsibility in the consequences as she had originally known she was to distract Dorset from his wife’s indiscretions and now felt it was time to pay for her mistake.  For the first time, she finds herself all alone, except for Gertie Ferish and there is only one thing to do; regain her position in society little by little.  However, upon meeting Mrs. Trenor with Carrie Fisher and Rosedale, Lily is snubbed in the most polite way and she reads that Judy Trenor is more irritated by the money that has been given to Lily from her husband; therefore she decides to pay him back, which would leave her only a mere $1,000 to live on.

Lily expects her legacy to be paid out immediately but when she learns from the lawyers that it may take a full year, she is shocked and applies to Grace Stepney for a loan.  Grace bemoans that she, too, is in the same position.  When Lily implies that Grace would be able to borrow again her upcoming fortune, Grace sternly refuses, saying it’s Lily’s debts and rumours of affairs that helped Mrs. Peniston to her grave.

The New York Window

The New York Window (1912) Childe Hassam
~ source Wikiart

Chapter V

As Lily leaves Grace Stepney, she feels that the door to her old life has been shut and she is facing a bleak existence. As she stands on Fifth Avenue alone, a hansom pulls up bearing Mrs. Fisher who apologizes for snubbing Lily at the restaurant and extends an invitation to join her and the Gormer’s for the weekend.  It will be a step down from the society Lily was used to but she realizes that it’s necessary to endure it.  She accepts the invitation, much to the dismay of Gertie, who offers to stay in town with her, but Lily believes it may work towards mending fences with her set.  When she returns to the city, she maintains her intimacy with the Gormer’s set.  Carrie Fisher urges her to marry and the first of her candidates is George Dorset, whose marriage to Bertha is failing fast.  Yet when Fisher offers Simon Rosedale as a possible husband, Lily seriously considers the suggestion. Although he moves mainly in high society, he obviously still admires Lily and she speculates: can she get him to fall in love with her?

Old and New New York

Old and New New York (1910) Alfred Stieglitz
~ source Wikiart


Chaper VI

Visiting the Gormer mansion on Long Island during its construction, on a walk Lily meets George Dorset, whose abode is not far from the Gomer’s.  Clearly distraught, he pleads with Lily to take pity on him and insinuates that she can alleviate his pain.  Yet although he apologizes for his part in her demise, Lily claims she cannot help him and in fact, they should not be seen together.  At his further pleading, she sees the chance to put her worries to rest and have retaliation at the same time.

“She stood silent, gazing away from him down the autumnal stretch of the deserted lane.  And suddenly fear possessed her — fear of herself, and of the terrible force of the temptation.  All her past weaknesses were like too many eager accomplices drawing her toward the path their feet had already smoothed …”

Yet though pondering the possibilities, Lily does not take the opportunity and escapes his presence.

Returning to the Gormer’s, she discovers that Bertha Dorset has been to visit in her absence and Lily experiences an uncomfortable forboding.  She sees Dorset again upon her return to the city and has an opportunity to end her plight again but she refuses his barely veiled offer of what appear to be marriage when he can extricate himself from his present one.

Lily sets herself up at a private hotel, still living beyond her means with the hope of reintegrating into upper-level society.  Meeting Rosedale at a function, she sees him playing with a child and not knowing if the softer side of him attracts or repels her, she seriously considers marrying him, while knowing their meeting has been orchestrated by Carrie Fisher, who urges her to marry for her own protection.

New York Restaurant Edward Hopper

New York Restaurant (1910) Edward Hopper
~ source Wikiart

Chapter VII

Lily’s meeting with Carrie Fisher has made her painfully aware of her circumstances  which were fresh in her mind when she went for a walk with Rosedale the next afternoon.  With a resolution of redeeming herself, she confesses to Rosedale that she is prepared to marry him, but Rosedale expresses surprise, as he no longer wishes to marry her, he only wants favours without committment.  The dignity of her response makes his admiration grow and he confesses love for her, but a marriage to her would now damage his prospects.  To Lily’s astonishment, he urges her to use the letters that she purchased against Bertha.  In a long monologue, he makes his case, offering to back her in order for her to rise again, but to Rosedale’s shock, she refuses.  Angrily, he implies that her refusal stems from the fact the letters implicate Selden as well as Bertha: “Well, I’ll be damned if I see what thanks you’ve got from him.”

Snow in New York Robert Henri

Snow In New York (1902) Robert Henri
~ source Wikiart

Chapter VIII

Winter arrives, and Lily’s habits are much different than they were before, more evidence of her fall from grace. “Lily, for all her dissatisfied dreaming, had never really conceived the possibility of revolving about a different centre: it was easy enough to despise the world, but decidedly difficult to find any other habitable region.”  She thinks of even the most tiresome tasks in her former life with a fondness now that they have deserted her.  While society doesn’t shun her, it simply ignores her and goes about its business, allowing her to feel her full disgrace.

Lily visits Gertie, whom she hasn’t seen in awhile since her manner of condolence is rather irritating.  While visiting, she breaks down, confessing the dire circumstances she’s facing, and that poverty will soon be knocking at her door.

Gertie applies to Selden to assist Lily, or at least speak with her, as his silence might be adding to her unhappiness.  He expresses willingness to help but questions if Lily will accept it from him, in a way that, I think, shows his own injured feelings with respect to her.  He had found himself somewhat piqued at her attaching herself to the Gormer’s and reverted to a conventional attitude of her but Gertie’s words brought to light the times they had communed and the depth he had found in Lily.  He searches for her at her hotel, only to find she has moved in with the lady with whom she has recently taken the position of private secretary.  When he is handed a slip of paper at the hotel, giving Lily’s present address of “Care of Mrs. Norma Hatch, Emporium Hotel,” Selden expresses anger by ripping the paper in two.

New York Winter Window (1918-19) Childe Hassam

New York Winter Window (1918-19) Childe Hassam
~ source Wikiart


Have you noticed a change in Lily?  She distances herself from Dorset and although she is tempted into marriage with him to fix her troubles.  She accepts the Gormers, even though she feels they’re beneath her, and integrates herself into their society.  And it appears that she doesn’t want to use the letters against Bertha?  It is really because they implicate Selden or is it because of a moral resistance?  Hmmm ….

I found myself wanting Lily to accept George Dorset’s offer.  He’s rather weak and self-centred, however he enjoys her company and would be kind to her.  Yet Lily refuses him and I believe THIS TIME it is from the strength of her convictions.  She still feels loyalty to them as a couple and to become the wife of her “friend’s” ex-husband would sully her further despite the money that would probably buy their way back into society, if necessary  Perhaps she also realizes that Bertha would be like a plague and she’d never get a moment’s peace from her.

I don’t understand what Lily means when she says, “She had rejected Rosedale’s offer (of using the letters) without conscious effort; her whole being had risen against it, and she did not yet perceive that, by the mere act of listening to him, she had learned to live with ideas which would not have been intolerable to her.  Does that mean she would never have thought of using the letters but because she listened to him that the idea is now inside her, working on her?

Selden is irritating me.  He shows very little understanding for Lily and condemns her quickly, just like everyone else.  I feel that his feelings were injured by her lack of response to him and he is still reacting because of it.  Gertie has the insight and patience to realize that Lily, slowly and carefully, needs to be drawn out of her past life and into a new one, but Selden has little of that insight and none of the patience.  I’ve lost patience with him.



“From the beginning? … Dear Gerty, how little imagination you good people have! Why, the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose — in the way I was brought up, and the things i was taught to care for.  Or no — I won’t blame anybody for my faults: I’ll say it was in my blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of the Charleses! ….. You asked me just now for the truth — well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks —“ (Lily)

” …. half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any.” (Carrie Fisher)

“If one were not a part of the season’s fixed routine, one swung unsphered in a void of social non-existence.”


⇐ The House of Mirth ~ Book I, Chapter V to Book II, Chapters I – III

12 thoughts on “The House of Mirth ~ Book II, Chapters IV – VIII

    • Thanks, Mudpuddle. I was so glad to have your comments for this read-along. Lily is so perplexing and it’s nice to have different (or similar) opinions as to her actions.

  1. I LOVE all these painting and photos in your post series! They fit the story beautifully. <3

    So one puzzling thing in this part was, what's the deal with Mrs. Norma Hatch? There seems to be an unspoken impropriety around her – or at least, that is what I gathered from Selden's vehement reaction and Wharton's description of her lifestyle. I just couldn't pinpoint what it was.

    Knowing where the story's headed, I find the whole portrayal of Lily's "descent" in the world to be deftly written. First it starts with her associating with the Gormers, then taking on work as a secretary, and later on a few more steps down… it's all so gradual and a little painful, you almost feel like it's happening in real time.

    Rosedale seems quite crazy about Lily but (like Selden) he has a higher sense of self-loyalty to his ideals which he can't quite reconcile with her. Also, I'm not sure I fully buy the idea that marrying her would be so "damaging" to his prospects. That comes across to me as an excuse. It seems more likely he's scared to have her in his life, cause she might exert too much power over him or something (?).

    • Thank you, Marian! I had fun finding them!

      I believe Selden’s shock is because she’s divorced? Or is it because of the set she frequents? I think the former but I’m not sure.

      Lily’s descent is so obvious, isn’t it? If only Lily’s behaviour was so easy to trace, lol!

      I thought that Rosedale was so much on the outskirts of society that he had to watch his step. Look at how he speaks; his manner is so different from that of most of the others in his set. Any misstep might have been his downfall. That said, he might be apprehensive of Lily’s behaviour or at least, perceived behaviour. He might not know what she’ll get embroiled in next.

  2. I was wondering the same thing about Mrs. Hatch. I wonder did I miss something. Because I don’t recall it discussing why Mrs. Hatch was not a good connection.

    Regarding using the letters, it seems to me that it was a moral objection. But also I think she wanted to protect Selden. I remember thinking that earlier in the book when she acquired the letters….that she did so in order that no one else would see them and thus protect him.

    I don’t know what I think about the whole George Dorset thing! 🙂

    “by the mere act of listening to him, she had learned to live with ideas which would not have been intolerable to her.”

    So regarding this statement. When I read that it stood out to me and my first thought was that she is beginning to see how she is having to tolerate things she wouldn’t have tolerated before because of her slipping downward in society. I didn’t relate it specifically to the letters. Although, there may have been a moment where she might have entertained the idea briefly.

    Ch. 8 also gave us insight into Lily’s thinking towards this whole society thing:

    “‘You asked me just now if I could understand why Ned Silverton spent so much money. Of course I understand – he spends it on living with the rich. You think we live on the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense – but it’s a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars – yes, but there’s a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries. The man pays it by big tips to the servants, by playing cards beyond his means, by flowers and presents – and – and – lots of other things that cost…..'” (p. 281-282)

    “It doesn’t sound very amusing, does it? And it isn’t – I’m sick to death of it! And yet the thought of giving it all up nearly kills me – it’s what keeps me awake at night…” (p. 282)

    • I thought it was because Mrs. Hatch was divorced but possibly there was a distaste over the set to which she belonged. I’m not entirely sure.

      I still don’t understand the “would not have been intolerable to her.” It’s like a double-negative which makes it confusing. She just heard his idea (about the letters) but she’s “learned to live with ideas” which indicate a passage of time? Your explanation makes sense though.

      That last quote is so effective. It’s almost like Lily loves and hates herself at the same time which give an emotional component to her plight. Poor Lily.

  3. I find myself wanting Lily to do SOMETHING. She finds a lot of reasons not to make a decision whether it’s accept Dorset’s offer or accept Rosedale’s offer or to just do what Gertie thinks is best (I think I tend to agree) and cut herself off from these people totally. That’s why I feel that her apparent passiveness is, in its own way, active. It seems counter-intuitive, but Lily’s refusal to do anything definitive is shaping her fate as much as actually making any of these decisions would. I think that she’s been in a position for so long where she dislikes all the options presented to her, and her only way of asserting any agency is to refuse them.

    • Me, too! If she did something, at least she’s be moving ahead but she’s stuck in her own ineffectualness.

      That’s such a great thought: her very passiveness is active. I completely understand what you mean.

      Even in her descent, there is a pride or perhaps a strength of conviction within her. She just CAN’T do what she intuitively knows is wrong or will make her unhappy even if it would give her comfort. She’s such a complex character.

  4. Count me in as another one who was puzzled by Selden’s reaction to Mrs. Hatch. I felt like there must be something horrible from Selden’s reaction, but it turns out she’s just a divorced woman looking for a new husband. Even in 1900 that doesn’t seem completely too bad. My first thought was, is Mrs. Hatch running a house of prostitution? (House of Mirth?) But no. A bit mysterious, though. Everyone think Lily could marry a divorcé in George Dorset, but maybe it’s just more double standard here.

    I think the horror Lily feels at even the thought of using the letters to blackmail Bertha Dorset is to her credit, and that seems to be how she sees it, no matter how monstrous Bertha Dorset has been (and she has!) to her.

    Marrying Dorset on the rebound doesn’t particularly seem wise, though it might be possible. One can’t really blame her for that either.

    She does seem to be getting more passive, though–I agree. And more still to come–I went ahead & finished it, but I won’t say anything more!

    • I wonder if it’s Wharton’s emphasis on the disparity of what’s expected from men and what’s expected from women. I do want Selden to get over it! Why doesn’t he just speak with Lily and tell her what he thinks? I suppose I know the answer … for plot development … 🧐

      I admire Lily for not using the letters. I think it’s a big change in her. She could perhaps get back into society without marrying … bribing Bertha for money would give her the means she’s wanted but she won’t do it. If she’s protecting Selden, she’s certainly sacrificing more for him than he ever did for her.

      Oh, you early-finishers! What will I do with you?! I guess it’s evidence of what a good read this is/was! 😎

  5. I think the problem Selden has with Lily working for Mrs. Hatch is two fold and has to do with the fact he still thinks Lily can save her reputation and her status in their class. But she has to get away from Hatch firstly because she is just close enough to their friends that they socialize with and seeing Lily as a secretary to her is embarrassing and demeaning to Lily if she is seen as a ‘working girl’ and would put an end to any chance of getting back into their good graces.

    The second issue is with the growing affection between Mrs. Hatch and Freddy Van Osburgh, which would be a disaster in his family’s eyes. Freddy said he thought of Lily as assisting that union, which would definitely put a nail in the coffin of Lily pulling herself back into her set.

    The last conversation Lily has with Selden in ch. 8 felt like the beginning of the end for her. I found her to be stubborn and nit picky about Selden’s intentions in seeing her. She was mean to him and though I believe he cares for her she is making it very hard for him to do so. I admire her for trying to get herself out of her financial situation, but the choices she is making are not working out, so why not let Selden help her? I think his advice about moving in with Gerty was a good idea and would have helped Lily get her bearings. But Lily is determined to do this on her own.

    • Sorry for getting the last post up a few days late, Laurie. I think some of these comments refer to that post.

      I’m not sure if Selden is really worried about Lily saving or regaining status as he’s already jettisoned status himself for his “republic” of the spirit”. But I do think he’s concerned about how Lily’s character appears to others. It’s too bad he didn’t dig deeper to find out the truth. However, you are right in that his responses are affected by his training in society. Interesting, huh?

      Ha, ha! I thought Selden was worse that Lily. I could understand her pride and injured feelings and her striving to be independent. I thought he was always too hard on her, given that his situation is quite stable. In the end, I liked Rosedale better.

      I think because of Lily’s drastic mistake with Trenor, she’s not only sensitive to relying on anyone, but she’s determined to make it on her own. And she’s never been able to trust anyone, so it’s hard for her to start. I can understand that.

      Please comment on the final section! Love your thoughts!

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