The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Lily Bart is working in a hat shop, where she is sewing spangles on a hat rim crookedly. Lily has left Mrs. Hatch because she was worried that her friends would look down on her. Other young ladies had been set up with millinery shops, but they sell hats based on the knowledge their society friends have of them. Gerty Farish learns that Lily has been tainted by her association with Mrs. Hatch, even though she has left her. Carry Fisher and Gerty join forces to help Lily, but Carry learns that Judy Trenor, whom she thought might help Lily, is very angry at her.

Carry finds Lily a job in Mme Regina's workroom. Lily is better suited for the showroom, where she could display hats, but she would be embarrassed to be seen there by her friends. Lily is not good at sewing spangles on the hats. She overhears the way the other women working with her talk about the people in the society set she used to belong to. She is reprimanded for her bad work by her supervisor.

As she leaves, another worker in the shop, a "Miss Kilroy," is kind to her. She buys the chloral that has been helping her sleep nights. The pharmacist tells her not to take too much. As she is leaving, she runs into Mr. Rosedale, who is worried about her, and buys her a strong tea. Lily tells Rosedale her reasons for leaving Mrs. Hatch: She did not want society people to think she was helping Mrs. Hatch get together with the wealthy Van Osburgh. Rosedale says he knows she would not have done that; that is not her style. When she tells Rosedale she is working in the hat shop, he is shocked, and very concerned about her. He wants to help her. Lily realizes there was no reason, really, for her to have left Mrs. Hatch.

Analysis

Here, finally, Lily Bart has found a group of women who talk to each other, who treat each other with friendliness, who are something of a community. She sees how these hardworking women idealize the life of women like she used to be, society women, and how they live through dreams of having lives like hers once was: "She had never suspected the mixture of insatiable curiosity and contemptuous freedom with which she and her kind were discussed in this under-world of toilers who lived on their vanity and self-indulgence."

However Lily's inability to belong to this world is evidenced on all sides. She cannot work in the showroom, nor in the workroom. Neither can she talk to the women or fit in in any way. Even the kind Miss Kilroy leaves her tongue-tied.

She can survive only by drugging herself. And the pharmacist foreshadows the danger of this particular coping strategy. Her renewed acquaintance with Rosedale is a sign of both how far she has fallen and how much she remains unchanged. He is the only one still willing to help her, but his offer only makes her realize that she need not have been afraid of ruining her reputation with Mrs. Hatch as it has already been irredeemably ruined.

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