The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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

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Summary

Lily Bart wakes up on the Dorset's yacht and finds herself alone. She enjoys the beauty around her—"and how she loved beauty!" and is vaguely aware of "fresh difficulties ahead." She has little money but leaves the yacht for breakfast with the Duchess.

She runs into Carry Fisher, who tells her of her difficulty working with the Brys. Lily offers to help, and Carry suggests that Lily replace her. Carry tells Lily "that horrid little Dabham fellow" has written in "Society Notes from the Riviera" that Lily and George Dorset came back to the yacht alone after midnight. Lily does not see this as a problem, telling Carry they were waiting for Bertha and Ned at the train station, but the couple never turned up.

She then sees George Dorset, who asks her to walk with him a bit, and tells her that Bertha and Ned missed all the trains and had to drive back. He tells her, laughing perhaps with embarrassment, that the story was that the horse that was to drive them was lame. He then "pours out the wretchedness of his soul," at being deceived by his unfaithful wife, and Lily suggests he speak to Lawrence Selden, who is a lawyer.

Back on the yacht Bertha accuses Lily of being alone with her husband, George Dorset. It is clear that Bertha is having an affair with Ned Silverton, and is accusing Lily of having an affair with her own husband first in order to save her own reputation. Lily, taken aback, does not reveal she has letters that Bertha wrote to Selden. She leaves the boat in shame.

Analysis

Dabham, the society writer, is another example of a man who watches and talks about Lily Bart (like the men looking and talking about her at the tableaux vivant party). Dabham writes about her, enjoying both her beauty and her suffering. Again readers see that Lily is unprotected because she is single and lacking a guardian. Wealthy Bertha Dorset commits acts that are far more outrageous and immoral than anything Lily does, but Bertha is protected both because she is married and because she is wealthy.

Wharton critiques not only the problem of being a single woman in this upper-crust New York society; she critiques the whole apparatus of marriage. Women's special skill lies in the representation of themselves as artificial or artistic creations, as their identities are defined through the way they are reflected in mirrors and in the eyes of admiring men. But men's places in marriage are not good ones, either. The tragic case of Lily's father is one such example. In Wharton's novel men are either voyeurs, buyers, or potential rapists, like Trenor. Selden has difficulty finding his place in this commodious society. Wharton also shows the way men in this society are defeated, lonely, and anxious, as George Dorset is in this chapter.

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