The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

Gerty Farish is still feeling the pleasure of going to the Wellington Brys' house. She feels growing in her "a mild but unmistakable beam," created by Lawrence Selden's recent kindness to her. She and Selden have come, she thinks, to a "higher degree of sympathy" because they are both friends of Lily Bart's. She is also very happy that she has just received a telegram from Selden asking if he can come to dine with her that night.

At the same time Selden is thinking about Lily Bart. She reminds him of his mother, who was charming and graceful. Even though his parents did not care for money, and had little, they valued beauty. He is disappointed not to find a note from Lily in his box, and sees Gus Trenor, who asks if he will take a bite with him. Selden says no, and is horrified to remember that Lily's name has been linked with this man. At his rooms he finds a note from Lily.

He goes to Gerty and talks about Lily. Gerty realizes that Selden is in love with Lily. He leaves quickly when Gerty tells him that Lily is at Carry Fisher's. He goes to Mrs. Fisher's and learns that Lily has just left. And then Selden learns that Lily has gone to Gus Trenor's house when Judy is not there. He rushes to Trenors' house, and sees two figures on the doorstep.

Gerty is thinking about how Selden loves Lily. She wonders if Lily understands her life. She is angry at Lily, and then Lily rings her doorbell. The two women talk, and Lily asks Gerty to hold her. The two women go to sleep.

Analysis

Wharton contrasts Lily Bart and Gerty Farish throughout the novel: Lily's mode is pleasure, Gerty's is usefulness. Lily is surrounded by beauty and wealth, but she is not free; Gerty is dingy and poor, but independent. Gerty is one of the only altruistically kind characters in the novel. In this chapter her kindness is demonstrated by the obvious fact that she is in love with Lawrence Selden. However she sees clearly that he is in love with Lily, and she is content to bask in his "growing kindness," a byproduct of his love, if that will make him and Lily happy. Unfortunately in her generosity, Gerty mistakenly believes Lily is a generous and kind person, based on the fact that Lily went with her to see the poor women who Gerty's charity served. Wharton allows no character the purity of easy analysis. Gerty is in some senses a model of what Lily could become if she could abandon her love, her need, for beauty.

Selden is most interested in Lily when he believes he needs to rescue her, as he does when he meets Gus Trenor and recalls that Lily's name has been linked to this man. He finds a note from Lily in his rooms and dreams that "he would take her beyond—beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition and corrosion of the soul—"

Lily is a moral conundrum for Selden. Through her he begins to learn that his "republic of the spirit" applies only to him; it is a world he has created in which it is fine for him to have an affair with Bertha Dorset, but it is not OK for Lily to even appear as if she is having an affair with Gus Trenor. Learning that Lily is at Carry Fisher's, he rushes off to save her, but it is unclear whether he is saving her from herself, from Gus, or from his own bad opinion of her.

These forces converge in the image of Wharton's stereopticon, the lantern that combines two images of the same scene into one solid three-dimensional figure. Outside Trenor's home Selden meets Ned Van Alstyne and together the two men watch Lily silently. Then the house door closes and the hansom goes off, and "the whole scene slipped by as if with the turn of a stereopticon." The vision of both men merge to create a single solid figure of a fallen Lily.

Amid a society that will pass judgment on her, Lily knows she has no place to go. Even Gerty thinks Lily must have known she loved Selden, and feels jealous and angry. But when Lily rings Gerty's bell, Gerty's better nature shines through. She welcomes Lily and makes her tea. Lily speaks of "the Furies" whose wings she hears in the dark. The Furies are mythical Greek creatures, women who haunt people. Given her behavior, she is right to fear the women who will now make her life miserable. She tells Gerty she cannot sleep and she is "a bad girl," who has been "proud!" She wonders if always having "bad" people around her is any reason for her to be "bad" herself. Gerty is still angry at Lily as she sleeps next to her "in the motionless narrowness of an effigy," but Gerty holds her "as a mother makes a nest for a tossing child," demonstrating the capacity for love that remains possible for Lily if she can overcome certain facets of her own nature.

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