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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 4 | Summary



Lily Bart goes to London with the Duchess. The Dorsets, Brys, and Stepneys go back to New York and tell everyone their own version of what Lily did in Monte Carlo. When Lily returns to society with Gerty Farish at her side, she is told her Aunt Peniston has died. Everyone assumes Lily will be the main inheritor of Aunt Peniston's estate. Instead Grace Stepney is given most of Aunt Peniston's money—an amount worth $400,000. Lily has been left with only $10,000.

After this shock Lily asks Gerty if her aunt had found out about the scandal in Europe. She does not tell Gerty specifically about what Bertha did to her, but tells her that whether she has done anything or not, she has been accused, and she is not repentant. They go to lunch and meet Carry Fisher.

Lily hopes that Judy Trenor might be a friend upon whom she can count, but when Judy passes by her table at a restaurant, Judy's "loudly affirmed pleasure at seeing Miss Bart" is embarrassing. Lily knows she has lost another friend. Lily realizes she has to pay her debt to Gus Trenor, and thinks the amount of money her aunt has left her is exactly the amount she owes Trenor.

She goes, humiliatingly, to Grace Stepney to see if she can borrow money. Maybe Grace can give her money from the inheritance she will get, early. Grace cries and says the money will not come for a long time. She tells Lily that Aunt Peniston did not believe in borrowing, and "it was the idea of your being in debt that brought on" Aunt Peniston's illness.


In her conversation with Gerty Farish, Lily Bart shows both what she has learned about the society she has been trying to enter and her increasing, and justified, cynicism. Lily says that "where a woman is concerned" truth is the story that is easiest to believe. She says it is easier and more convenient for people to believe Bertha Dorset's story "because she has a big house and an opera-box, and it is convenient to be on good terms with her."

Lily now has no hope. Grace Stepney, the gossiping rumormonger, has won Aunt Peniston's money. And even in victory Grace cannot be kind: she tells Lily about the stories she told Aunt Peniston, and says that is why Lily was disinherited. As Grace describes how "beautifully patient " Lily's Aunt Peniston had always been "Lily made a movement which showed her imperfect assimilation of this example." But she tries to behave like a lady—polite and calm—when one would expect her to behave in an angry way herself. Still, at the end of the conversation, it is Grace who rises "in sable wrath."

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