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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 1 | Summary



Lawrence Selden, a young lawyer, watches Lily Bart at a train station. She sees him, too, and asks if she can spend time with him while she waits for the next train. They go to his apartment in the Benedick. There they talk flirtatiously, agreeing that, since Lily has decided she must marry a wealthy man, because she loves luxury and beauty, she can never marry Selden, and for this reason they can be friends. He asks if marriage is not her vocation, and she tells him she needs a friend who can say "disagreeable things" to her.

She tells Selden that she is on her way to Bellomont, Judy and Gus Trenor's place in the country, for a party. Selden says he finds those big parties boring, and she says she does, too, but she is looking for a wealthy husband, so she has to go. As she leaves she sees a woman washing the floors, and wonders if female guests often go to Selden's rooms; then she runs into Simon Rosedale on the street. Rosedale, "a plump rose man of the blond Jewish type," notes that Lily's been in the Benedick, and Lily lies as to why she has been there. She does not accept his offer to take her to the train and, knowing that she has made a mistake in rebuffing Rosedale, hails a cab for the train on her own.


It is fitting that readers first meet Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart in a train station, because this novel is in some ways about transitions—with new people making money, new kinds of industries in which to make money, a whole upper class of "nouveau riche" who were not privy to the ways of old wealthy cultured society, and immigrants coming into New York. Gender roles were changing, too, and in some ways Selden and Lily are each images of people caught in the changing ideas about their places in the world. Throughout the novel they are both confused about what they want, or what society tells them they should want.

Lily's name can be seen as a signal of the contradictions these changes might have created in her—like a Lily, she is pure, innocent, prized for her beauty and elegance. Like the lilies of the field in the Bible, Lily "neither toils nor spins"—she does not yet have to work. And like a lily she is changeable, blown about by the wind and tossed by the waters of the streams by which the flowers grow. Still she has to barter, as do many people in the novel's society. For Lily her beauty is the price she pays for the security of marriage.

When Selden admires Lily, he thinks how beautiful she is, and that "it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation." Speculation, in all its meanings, becomes an important word in the novel. Much of what Selden thinks in this first chapter prepares readers for the future as it tells about Lily's inner life. As they are walking together, Selden notices that "the material" of Lily "was fine" and wonders if "circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?" This is a clear statement about Lily's experience and future—she is a thoughtful, intelligent woman, but the society in which she lives has shaped her such that her focus must be on herself as a commodity for sale on the marriage market.

To this point, at the age of 29, Lily has been unsuccessful in trading that commodity, and the reader has to wonder if she will find success in the succeeding pages. She is speculating, or gambling, on her success, and in doing so she takes the risk of visiting a single man's apartment alone, something that in the late 1800s—not long after the end of the Civil War—respectable single women did not do.

In Selden's flat Lily describes her envy at his having his own apartment. "What a miserable thing it is to be a woman!" she says. Selden reminds Lily that his cousin, Gerty Farish, owns a flat. But Gerty Farish, who will become important later in the novel, is of a different class than Lily—she is a woman who has to work. And, not being beautiful like Lily, she cannot expect to marry wealth. Gerty is different from Lily, Lily says, in that Gerty likes being good, while Lily likes being happy. Gerty is free, and Lily is not.

This idea of Lily's lack of freedom is underlined when Selden thinks that Lily is "so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate." Lily is a victim, in some ways, of the culture that raised her to want certain things, like luxury and beauty, and she is a victim in that she is an intelligent, beautiful woman in a world in which women do not make their own ways. She and Selden discuss the fact that she has to marry, and soon, for money. Selden is not a problem to Lily, she says, because he is not wealthy enough for her to want to marry—he is a lawyer whose apartment, though pleasing, is a bit shabby.

The charwoman Lily sees as she leaves Selden's apartment is a vision of everything Lily dreads, and a good example of foreshadowing, the literary technique of predicting what will happen to a character.

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