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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 10 | Summary



Autumn is boring for Lily Bart because she is staying home with her aunt. She runs into Gerty Farish at a moment when she is feeling virtuous because she decided not to buy a dressing case until she has received the bill for her new opera cloak. Gerty tells Lily about her work with a charity organized so that young women "of the class employed in downtown offices" can have a place to live when they are out of work. Lily gives some money to Gerty, which makes Lily feel differently about herself.

Lily then receives an invitation to spend Thanksgiving week at a camp in the Adirondacks; it is an invitation she would not have considered before because it is given by Mrs. Wellington Bry, a lady of "obscure origins." She is nouveau riche (newly rich) and determined to climb the social ladder. In this Carry Fisher is helping her, and earning money by doing so. Carry wishes to enlist Lily in her endeavor, knowing that Lily will improve the party's social standing, a fact that makes Lily feel powerful.

When Lily returns home, Simon Rosedale visits her. He asks her to go to the opera with him and reveals that he knows that Gus Trenor has invested money for her. This worries Lily. At the opera she sits in Rosedale's box and is at first glad that Gus Trenor is there, as that makes her being with Rosedale less conspicuous. Gus Trenor is aggressive though, saying that if she does not visit him sometime she will not get any more money tips out of him. She tries to put him off and is saved by the arrival of George Dorset, who talks about how much he dislikes opera and how much Gus Trenor can eat. He tells her that Ned Silverton is spending a lot of time with his wife, Bertha, and asks her to visit Bertha sometime. Lily remembers that she has the letters, and this feeling of power helps her dislike Bertha Dorset a bit less.


Lily Bart is often bored by Gerty Farish's philanthropy, and does not have "the other-regarding sentiments," that Gerty has. When she hears about the working women Gerty's charity serves, she imagines herself leading a life like theirs—"a life in which achievement seemed as squalid as failure." After she gives some money to Gerty, Lily begins to see herself as a person with charitable instincts and to feel "a new interest in herself." For the first time Lily sees a different, positive use for wealth than simply acquiring possessions, and it gives a glimmer of meaning to her life.

Like the other men who want her, Rosedale sees Lily as an object to be attained for her beauty: she appeals to his "collector's passion for the rare and unattainable." When Rosedale visits, he talks to Lily about the money Gus Trenor has invested for her, and encourages her to visit him. Lily feels "a passion of disgust and fear." Unlike Rosedale, she thinks, Trenor is safe because he is married. However Lily's thoughts are full of "the consciousness of Trenor's shadowy claim."

Lily's handling of both Rosedale and Trenor show her innocence about the world; she does not realize, earlier, that Rosedale implies Trenor is unfaithful to his wife ("I wasn't thinking of Mrs. Trenor at the moment—they say Gus does not always, you know"). And she agrees to meet Trenor later, even though he says "Hang talking!" She is pleased when Dorset asks her to visit Bertha, whom she thinks of as an enemy, but who will, she thinks, help her escape Trenor.

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