The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 11 | Summary



People in Lily Bart's circle are feeling poor because most have lost more on Wall Street than they have gained; only Simon Rosedale and Wellington Bry have made any money in the market. People say that Rosedale has doubled his money, and so people in New York society are feeling friendlier to him. Carry Fisher has helped him get to know important people; she has helped him learn more about appropriate behavior, too. Rosedale is ambitious; he needs the right woman to complement his "social personality": Lily Bart is the woman he wants.

Grace Stepney is angry at Lily because Lily disinvited her to the party Aunt Peniston threw for Jack Stepney and his new wife. Grace comes to visit Aunt Peniston and tells her that Lily has some association with Gus Trenor, and that Lily is conspicuous. Grace Stepney continues by saying there may be "material advantages" for Lily if she pays attention to this married man. Aunt Peniston gets it out of Grace Stepney—who seems to draw out the drama in order to make Lily look worse than she really is—that Lily has gambling debts. Aunt Peniston, who is from a different generation than Lily, is shocked, and made physically sick by this news. Grace tells Aunt Peniston it was Lily's gambling that caused Gryce to leave her.


Lily Bart's pride is somewhat at fault in her relationship with Grace Stepney: she did disinvite Grace to the party Aunt Peniston threw for Grace's cousin and his new wife. This hurt Grace more than somewhat self-centered Lily can imagine. Grace has a mind like "a kind of moral fly-paper to which buzzing items of gossip" were drawn. What she tells Aunt Peniston is a mix of rumor, truth, and lies. Still in the confused moral world in which she resides, Grace Stepney believes that "It was horrible for a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made."

The chapter is a good example of the way the women (and by extension, society) in the novel conspire against Lily to frustrate her ambition and her future, both intentionally and unintentionally. Earlier Bertha Dorset and the Van Osburghs intervened between her and Gryce, preventing Lily's marriage to him. Here Grace Stepney exaggerates Lily's crimes out of jealousy and spite. Lily's aunt is doubly to blame, both because she has refused to act as a true guardian for Lily and because she sets unrealistic moral standards for her that are out of line with the novel's society, such as condemning her for gambling, when bridge is a sort of tax that Lily must pay in order to be sociable (Chapter 3). These behaviors are complicated by Lily's own, which is neither harmonious with the scandalous behavior of other women nor entirely free from its own brand of rebellion.

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