The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Because she is so dependent on her friends' kindness, and because she has so little money, Lily Bart, in order to attend the big parties where she might find a worthy mate, has to help her hostesses. Mrs. Judy Trenor, whose husband, Gus, owns Bellomont, has called Lily to come to her sitting room at the early hour of 10 to help her with "some tiresome things." Lily unravels the woman's "tangled correspondence" as Judy Trenor, whose main purpose in life is giving parties, gossips about the people coming, and about who dislikes whom and who is having an affair. She advises Lily about Percy Gryce and says she will help Lily get him.

Judy Trenor sees Bertha Dorset as dangerous. She says, "It's much safer to be fond of dangerous people. But she is dangerous—and if I ever saw her up to mischief it's now." Judy Trenor says she can tell that Bertha is up to mischief by the way Bertha's husband, George, behaves. Judy Trenor learns that Lily plans to marry Percy Gryce and approves of the idea: "you know they say he has eight thousand a year—and spends nothing." She warns Lily to go slowly with him. She asks if Lily is sure she wants Lawrence Selden to come to the party.

Lily has told all of her friends that she cannot smoke or play bridge, because Mr. Gryce does not approve of either, and they all help her. She pleasantly feels that she is close to gaining the life of wealth she wants, and now, in this mood, sees her friends as lovely people, and feels "within her a stealing allegiance to their standards." They are now pleased to make a place for her in their "charmed circle" and will be better to live with when she does not have to flatter and humor them. Later, on the veranda, thinking of all of this, Lily is surprised to see Lawrence Selden coming toward her. Then Bertha Dorset comes between them and takes Selden away.

Analysis

In this chapter readers learn about the kind of superficial society Lily Bart travels in, as well as Lily's precarious place in that society. In some ways society itself can be described as one of the novel's most important characters. Wharton's upper-crust society is a character that lives on the principle of exchange, and defines all relationships in a material way. If Lily wants to be a guest at Bellomont, she must help her hostess. If Lily wants money for clothes from Aunt Peniston, she must keep the woman company and live in a way her aunt approves. If Lily wants to marry wealthy Percy Gryce, she must prepare to be bored.

Readers also learn, through Judy Trenor's gossip, about some of the major characters in the novel and their relationships to each other, which can be summarized as commodious and envious. In this society the purpose of women is to spend their husbands' money, to show through their beauty and their "conspicuous consumption" how successful their husbands are, and to make other women jealous of these so-called accomplishments. The reader may be justified in seeing Lily's appreciation of beauty as something higher and better than what this society offers its women.

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