The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 15 | Summary

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Summary

When Lily Bart wakes up, Gerty Farish has gone, performing the housekeeping functions Lily is accustomed to having maids do for her. When Gerty returns shortly, an exhausted Lily tells Gerty she thinks she had a "nervous attack" in the carriage. Lily then goes home to Aunt Julia Peniston, and with much difficulty, asks her aunt for money. Slowly Lily explains she is in debt from gambling. Aunt Peniston rebukes her and says she considers Lily disgraced.

Lily now considers Lawrence Selden's love as her only hope. She expects Selden to come to her that afternoon, but instead, it is Simon Rosedale who appears. He tells Lily that he has enough money to enter society, and now he needs the right woman to pave his way. Lily listens to him and thanks him, but turns down his proposal. Rosedale apologizes if he has spoken too plainly and tells her she is getting older and he is offering her a chance to turn her back on all the cruelty in her society. She admits she has "had bothers," and it is not always easy to be independent and self-respecting when one is poor and living among rich people. She asks for time to think about his offer of marriage.

There is no note from Selden. She learns from the evening papers Selden has left for the West Indies. In the morning, as she begins to try to write a note to Simon Rosedale, she breaks down. There is a ring at the door, and a note from Bertha Dorset, asking if she will join them on a cruise in the Mediterranean.

Analysis

Lily Bart's disdain and restraint when she wakes up in Gerty Farish's house shows her sensitivity to beauty and the ways she is inadequately equipped to cope with poverty. She has never not had a maid, never had to fetch her own tea, or clean up after herself. Her nature may be rebelling against the choices before her, but her nature is also unsuited to the life of poverty and charity Gerty lives: "She was realizing for the first time that a woman's dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it."

Still she pins her hopes on Lawrence Selden, knowing he cannot give her the life she needs, and despite her previous reluctance to take him seriously as a suitor. Wharton's language demonstrates how desperate she feels: "But now his love was her only hope, and as she sat alone with her wretchedness the thought of confiding in him became as seductive as the river's flow to suicide."

Part of her desperation is caused by a paucity of choices. Since Gryce has married, the only eligible man left is Simon Rosedale, a thoroughly unsuitable mate for Lily, given his background. The reader must decide whether it is noble or naïve for Lily to ignore the commodity-based marriages that surround her, such as the Trenors or the Wellington Brys. These are mates who are obviously not suited to one another but who still manage to function, and Lily's need for beauty and luxury make compelling arguments in Rosedale's favor, arguments that Rosedale himself articulates in his proposal. In typical Lily fashion, she wavers but does not take definite action one way or another, allowing society to intervene rather than become a creature of volition.

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