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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 7 | Summary



Lily Bart visits Carry Fisher and finds Mr. Rosedale there, playing with Carry's daughter. Lily realizes this meeting has been set up by Carry to help her. Lily learns Bertha Dorset and Mattie Gormer are now friends. Carry says the only way Lily can save herself from Bertha is to marry somebody.

Lily goes out for a walk with Simon Rosedale. Lily tells Rosedale she is ready to marry him. He is embarrassed and says he did not intend to ask her to marry him again. He tells her she is not as desirable a match for him as she once was. He says he does not believe the stories he hears about her, but they lower her value all the same. He says he knows that before she thought she could marry someone better than he is, and now he thinks he can marry someone better than she is. He says, "I know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones; and that's the reason I want to avoid mistakes."

Lily thanks him, and he is impressed by her, and asks her why she is not using the letters she has in her possession against Bertha Dorset, who, because of those letters, is "completely in your power." She can get Bertha Dorset back on her side by using the letters. Lily realizes Rosedale would "marry her tomorrow if she could regain Bertha Dorset's friendship," which she can do by bringing the letters to her. She refuses to do that, and Rosedale says that it is because the letters are to Lawrence Selden. "Well, I'll be damned if I see what thanks you've got from him!"


The way Lily Bart sees Simon Rosedale, and the way Wharton describes him have both changed. Earlier in the novel, Rosedale was described in simply stereotypical terms: He was a "plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes." He, the owner of the Benedick, was buying up New York real estate in ways that people of Wharton's class were worried Jewish people were doing at that time. Earlier in the novel Wharton described Rosedale, again, in anti-Semitic ways, as having "his race's accuracy in the appraisal of values." He had the air of "appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac." In the beginning of the book he seems to be a caricature of wealthy society, one they do not care to see set out so boldly.

But now Wharton's presentation of him has become a bit more complex. There are few children in The House of Mirth, and Rosedale is the only man Wharton portrays playing with a child. This suggests a kindness and domesticity in him the author does not show in any of the other male characters in the novel—not even Lawrence Selden. In this chapter, also, Rosedale speaks the truth to Lily, in a direct way that is rarely used by anyone in the novel. He openly states the unspoken codes by which everyone in this society lives. He shows respect to Lily, which many other men in the novel have not, and suggests she may even be innocent of the suspicions against her, a grace no one else has shown. He also suggests that he sees Lawrence Selden is not worthy of Lily's kindness to him.

At the same time, one of the markers of Lily's descent is her relationship to Rosedale. He has become, if not more pleasing to her, at least acceptable, as he was not before. Before she wanted to marry in order to move up into the world she frequented; now she needs to marry simply to stay afloat financially, and she is willing to marry someone she turned her back on before.

Rosedale is Jewish, and Lily lives in a world in which even successful Jews are considered inferior to the long-established old money white Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers with whom she associates. Wharton still describes Rosedale in ways that suggest stereotypical ideas of Jewish wealth—Rosedale has "plump jeweled fingers" with which he draws out his "gold-tipped cigarette." He uses the word "ain't," a grammatical mistake Wharton disapproved of. Lily is still physically repulsed by him: She draws away from him "with a movement of quick disdain." Despite the complexity Wharton has given him late in the novel, she still makes it clear that she considers him and all Jews—as many in her class at that time did—to be physically and personally vulgar.

Lily's decision not to use the letters to blackmail Bertha Dorset shows she is withdrawing from her society's tendency to make unethical practices the norm. For Lily blackmail is blackmail, whatever you call it, and however justified it might be. Lily is noble in that no one will ever know and recognize her valor.

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