The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Lawrence Selden receives Lily Bart's telegram about George Dorset's problem and waits to meet him. After talking with Dorset, he worries about Lily's reputation. Painfully Lily is still on the yacht, trying to keep away from Bertha.

Lily meets with Selden, who tells her he is worried. Later at a dinner at the Brys' he urges her to leave the Dorsets' yacht. She refuses, asking "how can you think I would leave Bertha!" Her face is like a "tragic mask" to Selden. Soon enough Bertha announces to everyone that Lily will not be returning to the yacht. Lily manages this social shock with finesse and privately asks Selden to help her find a place to stay the night.

He advises her to stay with the Stepneys at their hotel, but Lily is afraid they will not have her. Selden confers with Jack Stepney who lets her stay the night, on the condition she not wake his wife and she leave by the early train.

Analysis

Lawrence Selden's behavior after Bertha Dorset's accusations is disappointing. As Bertha's former lover, Selden could have helped Lily by confessing his own affair with Bertha, at least to George, but he does not. Instead he behaves chivalrously to Bertha, leaving Lily again unprotected and alone, tempting the reader to accept almost any decision she makes as justified.

The structure of this chapter is reminiscent of Book 1, Chapter 14, when Selden and Ned Van Alstyne watched Lily and Gus Trenor on the doorstep. Again Lily is falsely accused, except the scene in front of the Trenor's house was private, and the scene in Monte Carlo is very public. In another reversal, Selden and Silverton have now changed places, lover and accuser now reversed.

At this point in the novel Lily is essentially homeless—banned from her Aunt Peniston's house, hiding from that reality by being in Europe, and now kicked off her temporary home on the yacht. Stepney's conditions hint at Lily's position in society. She is dangerous, a woman who cannot be trusted around other women's husbands. From now on Lily's financial and social lives will become more and more perilous.

Her loyalty to Bertha may seem strange to the reader. After all she has letters in her possession that at any time will reveal Bertha's treachery. But several factors prevent her from doing so. First, she still believes that some form of salvation resides for her in Selden, whether it be marriage, his "republic of the spirit," or something equally elusive. Second, a betrayal of Bertha will be a betrayal of the entire female social structure, and given the dangers posed by the male contingent, Lily can ill afford to alienate the female. Finally, despite Lily's questionable value system and her wavering spirit, she has no desire to hurt people for her own sake, a quality that makes her endearing, perhaps even tragic.

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