The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

On the train Lily Bart spies Percy Gryce, a shy and boring but wealthy man whose main interest is collecting Americana, varied artifacts related to the history of the United States. Lily cuts the pages of her novel as she thinks about how to approach shy Mr. Gryce without seeming to. She gets him to sit next to her and orders tea, which he watches her pour. She charms him and asks him questions about his collection of Americana, shrewdly understanding that this boring topic will get him to open up and relax. Lily feels in command of the situation—she has almost got him—even though she is bored, until Mrs. George Dorset (Bertha) enters the cabin and asks Lily if she has got a cigarette. Lily knows that Percy Gryce does not smoke, or approve of smoking, so she acts shocked. Bertha Dorset, a troublemaker, sees through Lily.

Analysis

In the cab Lily Bart thinks, "Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine?" She knows that by lying to Simon Rosedale and then snubbing him she has given him some power over her. In one respect, she does not care—both because he is Jewish and because he is only now making his money. These facts put him outside the society of generations-old wealth Lily moves in and make him someone who can be snubbed.

Wharton was deeply anti-Semitic, as was the society she traveled in, as is the society she describes in The House of Mirth. Rosedale's Jewishness offers a convenient shorthand for the novel's characters, and perhaps its contemporary readers, to criticize the monetary delusions on which the novel's entire society rests. The language of money begins in this chapter and continues through the novel. Lily thinks that if she had let Rosedale drive her to the station, "the concession might have purchased his silence." She thinks that being seen with Lily Bart would have been "money in his pocket." This language of economics shows the values of the people in this world.

However, he has caught her in a compromising position, and the knowledge of that fact makes her perhaps a bit more amenable to Percy Gryce than she otherwise would have been, given her recent conversation with Selden. When Lily orders tea for herself and Percy Gryce on the train, she knows that if she imparts "a gently domestic air to the scene" she will capture him and help him see the importance of always having a companion to help him with tea. She has learned about Americana from Selden, and asks Gryce about his collection—a subject no one else cares about—cleverly. She also "questioned him intelligently, she heard him submissively" so that "he grew eloquent under her receptive gaze." This description is a little sarcastic, but Wharton is clear that this is the way society then had decided male-female conversation should go: a socially skilled woman creates room for the male to dominate the conversation, and lets him think he has taken over the conversation himself. Throughout the novel, women will manipulate men in this way. Some men are more skilled than others at being aware of and participating in this game.

In this chapter readers are presented with some of the main conflicts of the novel. Bertha Dorset will become Lily's primary foe and is emblematic of the society against which she struggles. Lily is depicted in internal conflict that will continue throughout the novel. Her real opinions—that she does not care about Rosedale's opinion of her or that Gryce is a bore—are socially unacceptable, but she is unable to escape them. Throughout the novel Lily vacillates between addressing one part of herself and then another, acceding to her own half-articulated desires or to those society has for her.

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