The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 9 | Summary



When Lily Bart returns from the wedding, her Aunt Peniston is having her house cleaned. Lily is disgusted by her aunt's house and knows that people are talking about her loss of Percy Gryce. Seeing there the same charwoman who was cleaning at Lawrence Selden's apartment brings out the worst in her temper.

Lily knows her friends are tired of her. She cannot imagine herself anywhere but in a beautiful drawing room, but now she must either go to the Trenors' (she does not want to see Gus again) or stay home. She decides to stay with her aunt in New York, and feels heroic, although Aunt Peniston tells her maid that she would rather have Grace Stepney instead of Lily.

Mrs. Haffen, the charwoman, is suddenly at the door to Lily's room. She has letters that she shows Lily. Somewhat reluctantly, and thinking that she is protecting Selden, Lily buys the letters.

She talks to her aunt, who wants to know every detail of the wedding. But Lily pretends not to have observed that closely. She tries to leave, complaining of being tired, when Aunt Peniston mentions that Evie plans to marry Percy Gryce, although everyone had thought, Aunt Peniston says, that he was bound to marry Lily. At this revelation, Lily does leave to be alone with the letters she purchased using Gus Trenor's money.


Lily Bart comes back from the wedding disgusted with herself at letting Percy Gryce go. And "as was always the case with her, this moral repulsion found a physical outlet in a quickened distaste for her surroundings." In her present mood, Aunt Peniston's house seems "as dreary as a tomb," and Lily feels as if she is "buried alive in the stifling limits" of her aunt's life. Lily's mood is showing here, but readers also see how ugliness affects her: In order to breathe, Lily needs what she considers beautiful around her. Critics have commented that Lily's room in Aunt Peniston's house is of the very sort—black walnut furniture, dark heavy drapes, and dark wallpaper—that Wharton most condemned in her book The Decoration of Houses.

Part of the home's dinginess is the charwoman cleaning the stairs, the same woman who was at the Benedick. While Lily treats her poorly, thinking that "it was insufferable that Mrs. Peniston should have such creatures about the house," she discovers in her a commodity not unlike those traded by higher society: gossip.

However while Lily gladly trades with the likes of Judy Trenor, Gerty Farish, and Miss Van Osburgh in return for food and lodging, she is appalled when the charwoman asks for money; her strongest sense is "one of personal contamination." Then she sees that the letters are from Bertha Dorset to Lawrence Selden, and readers learn that "the code of Lily's world decreed that a woman's husband should be the only judge of her conduct." Lily knows that George Dorset would not condone Bertha's having an affair.

She knows that Lawrence Selden, being a man, will not be much hurt by the letters, except that people will consider him negligent "in a matter where the world holds it the least pardonable," and that Dorset might cause problems for Selden. Lily realizes how thrilling it is that she now has the power to hurt Bertha Dorset, who has hurt her. She could rightly be either justified or condemned for playing the rules of society's game: she is attaining a weapon to destroy her greatest enemy, but she is doing so by paying cash to a social inferior. Undoubtedly, as her specious argument that Shelden would want her to purchase the letters reveals, she is acting against her better nature.

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