The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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

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Summary

The scene changes to Monte Carlo, where Lawrence Selden is feeling sick about the last few months of his life. He is at the casino, enjoying watching people walk by, when Mrs. Carry Fisher speaks to him. She is there with Mrs. Jack Stepney and Mrs. Wellington Bry. Carry Fisher is training the nouveau riche Wellington Brys in how to behave on the Continent. The group goes off to a restaurant and sees a great steam yacht coming in through the bay. It is the Dorsets' yacht, and the group tells Selden about Lily's success with the royals they have met. Bertha has been jealous.

Selden realizes he misses Lily and vows to try to avoid her. Later Mrs. Fisher complains to him about how difficult it is to bring the Brys into society, and talks to him about some of Lily's successes and failures.

Selden decides to go to Nice to avoid Lily, but she is on the train, going to Nice as well. He watches her and senses she has changed. He thinks being with her again will help him get over her. He feels she is governing herself better than before. She has adjusted to her circumstances—managing George while Bertha and Silverton flirt—very well. Later Selden learns that Lily has gone off on adventures with the Duchess, and she is bound to get herself into some trouble. Selden watches Bertha and Silverton calling a carriage so they can find a place to sleep together.

Analysis

Wharton uses the section of this chapter where Lawrence Selden meets Carry Fisher, Jack Stepney, and the Wellington Brys to satirize Americans in Europe. Selden learns "with amusement" they are all discussing where to eat. Which royalty dine at the restaurant seems to be an important criterion for choosing, as is the ability to properly cook peas. Such a combination of celebrity and low cuisine demonstrates the society's lack of substantive values.

As they are walking together, Carry tells Selden about Lily's problems. Years ago an Italian prince wanted to marry her, but she flirted with a stepson and the marriage was called off. "Sometimes," Carry says, "I think it is just flightiness—and sometimes I think it is because, at heart, she despises the things she is trying for." This is an insightful statement of the conflicts within Lily. She cannot live without the beauty that wealth brings, but she cannot keep herself from rebelling against the commodification of herself, or the choosing and valuing of a man purely for his wealth.

Carry tells Selden that Bertha Dorset brought Lily along on the trip to Europe because she wanted someone to keep her husband, George, busy while she had an affair with young Ned Silverton. Selden watches Lily on the train, and senses her beauty has changed. She is over 30 now: he thinks that he sees in her how "the warm fluidity of youth is chilled into its final shape." In Wharton's day, many believed that after 30 the personality was complete, solid, and never to change. Something of this idea is expressed here: novels of this era also suggested that nothing interesting happens to a woman after 30. At the least, readers see that Lily's beauty is changing.

Selden also realizes how carefully she is blending in to her surroundings, working with both George and Bertha, and "it flashed on him that, to need such adroit handling, the situation must indeed be desperate." He senses she is "poised on the brink of a chasm." This chapter is full of foreboding, foreshadowing perhaps something awful that is to come.

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