The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

At Bellomont everyone plays bridge for money. Lily Bart plays and loses. She knows she almost has Percy Gryce in her grasp, but she is jealous of women so wealthy they do not need to be kind to someone like him. After losing at the card table, she checks her finances. She has lost $300 at cards and has only $20 left. She sees some wrinkles on her face and that worries her further. Marriage to Percy Gryce would be "a rest from worry—no more."

As Lily recalls her youth in her parents' house, readers learn how she developed into the young woman she is. Her mother had been extravagant, and her father felt obligated to fulfill her material desires. Lily "had been brought up in the faith that, whatever it cost, one must have a good cook, and be what Mrs. Bart called 'decently dressed.'" From her mother she "imbibed the idea that if people lived like pigs it was from choice." Thus, though there never seemed to be enough money in her own house, she has grown up believing that she is morally superior to the poor.

But when spoiled, beautiful Lily was 19, just after she had "made a dazzling debut," which was accompanied by "a heavy thunder-cloud of bills," something happened. As Lily chattered about the need every day for fresh flowers in the house, at $12 a dozen, her father came downstairs and said, sardonic and weary, "Oh certainly, my dear—give him an order for twelve hundred." When Lily's mother asked her husband if he was ill, he said, "Ill, no—I'm ruined."

When Mr. Bart dies, Lily and her mother, Mrs. Hudson Bart, move from place to place, especially in Europe. Lily's mother, however, is comforted by "the contemplation of Lily's beauty." "She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property, and Lily its mere custodian."

Then Lily's mother died, and now Lily is spoiled and used to wealth, but unlike other girls in her situation, she has no adult to protect or guide her in the marriage game. She lives at her Aunt Julia Peniston's house in New York. She has a little bit of money left from her parents. Aunt Julia gives her no money but does provide an occasional gift for nice clothes.

Analysis

Lily Bart is intelligent and self-aware; she feels and mostly understands the forces at odds within her. She loves being in rich people's houses, like the one at Bellomont. Lily enjoys looking at the carpet, the spaniels, the marble columns of the house, the women with their sparkling jewels. Her sense of beauty is gratified by this. Wharton's luscious descriptions of the beautiful old houses Lily visits shows the importance of beauty to the character and how finely attuned Lily's aesthetic sense is. She wants money, and she seems to need to have beautiful objects around her.

The shift from Lily's daydream of a worry-free life with Percy Gryce to her memory of her carefree youth seems logical, but a careful reader will see in it the affecting picture of Mr. Bart, who is never present to enjoy the aesthetic, and some would argue, feminine side of the wealth he works to accumulate. Many of the men in the novel are considered valuable only for their wealth, even by their wives. When on vacation at Newport, Mr. Bart is "effaced and silent." When Mr. Bart is ill and dying, Wharton writes: "To his wife he no longer counted: he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfill his purpose" of paying her many bills.

Lily's mother taught her that "beauty is only the raw material of conquest," establishing beauty as a theme. For Lily's mother, beauty is a commodity that women use to gain wealth or power. But at 19 Lily is romantic; she values beauty as a part of culture in a way her mother did not. Whether culture is a commodity and what it is worth are questions with which Lily (and the readers) will have to wrestle.

Lily, an orphan, is taken in and sheltered reluctantly by her Aunt Julia Peniston. Her aunt is, like many characters in the novel, a source of satire. Wharton says Lily's Aunt Julia "belonged to the class of old New Yorkers who have always lived well, dressed expensively, and done little else." Aunt Julia does not intercede in any positive way in Lily's life, including introducing her to possible suitors or chaperoning her. Instead she occasionally gives Lily a handsome present, while "Lily, who was intensely practical, would have preferred a fixed allowance." Lily, who has turned 29 when the reader meets her, watches younger, less beautiful women married off to wealth. They have mothers who help them. Lily, who is beginning to have "fits of angry rebellion against fate" knows that she hates "dinginess as much as her mother hated it, and to her last breath she meant to fight against it."

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