The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Trying to please Percy Gryce, Lily Bart has said that she always goes to church. Gryce waits for her by the omnibus but she does not show; other young women come out, and he goes off to church with them.

At the dinner party the Saturday before, Lily is somewhat bored and worries that if she does not marry dull Percy Gryce she will have to befriend someone like Simon Rosedale. Coming down the next day too late to go to church, she finds Bertha Dorset and Selden in the library. She explains that she is going to walk to church; she says she hopes to catch up with the others who have driven to church. On her walk, sad and a little shocked that Selden was chatting with Bertha Dorset, she is glad when Selden shows up, having followed her. They flirt and Selden asks her to walk with him that afternoon.

Analysis

Wharton humorously shows readers a bit about this society's religious attentiveness by describing how glad Judy Trenor is that her daughters are probably going to church on Sunday, since that way the omnibus will be used. Mr. and Mrs. Weatherall, visiting the Trenors at Bellomont, always go to church, but without thought; their "circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list." Lily Bart intends to go to church, putting on a gray silk, borrowing a prayer book, but then she begins to wonder whether Lawrence Selden has come to Bellomont to see Mrs. Bertha Dorset or her.

At dinner Lily's opinion of the people at Bellomont changes. She sees them as "dreary and trivial" now. She compares Lawrence Selden to Percy Gryce, and "that comparison was her undoing." She is a "keen reader of her own heart" and sees that, though Selden is neither brilliant nor exceptional, she appreciates him. He has helped her see the superficiality of the society she wants to enter, and while she feels trapped by society, Selden, with his social detachment, his air of viewing the show of society objectively, has points of contact "outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at." Lily envies his being outside that cage.

On Sunday morning Lily impulsively chooses not to go to church. This is the second in a long series of decisions that Lily makes that threaten to put her outside upper-crust society, that are made in haste, and in which her true nature overrules her obligation to society. She really does find Percy Gryce boring, but if she wants to marry wealthy, she had better marry him, or else she will "have to be civil to such men as [the social-climbing, nouveau riche] Rosedale." Her discovery of Bertha and Selden alone is certain to further the former's dislike of her, as much as Selden's choice to join her deepens her approval of him.

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