The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Working as secretary to the socialite Mrs. Hatch is a strange experience for Lily Bart. Mrs. Hatch is a social climber and the leader of the group at the "over-heated" world of the New York hotel, the Emporium.

Lawrence Selden visits Lily at the Emporium. They are both uncomfortable and defensive, she because he has stayed away so long, and he, apparently, because he has not thought he wanted to see her. He tells her Gerty Farish has been worried about her, and he says he wants to take her away from there. Lily tells Selden the depths of her poverty, and Selden is shocked she owes every bit of the inheritance she will someday receive. Selden says he disapproves of Mrs. Hatch, but Lily says she has been cut off from society anyway, so why not earn a living with this woman? The distant and condescending tone Selden takes is perhaps what stiffens Lily's back. She refuses to allow him to "rescue" her.

Analysis

Lawrence Selden may seem at times like a romantic hero, but at heart he is really no better than the other people in his world. He likes to think he is just an observer of the rapacious society he frequents, and his belief in a "republic of the spirit" helps him think he has a kind of freedom from the influence of that society. In this way he is similar to Lily Bart, but in many other ways he serves as a counterpoint to her. More properly he is what Lily might have been in this society, had she been born a man.

As a man Lily would certainly have more choices than she does now. Like Lily, Selden is confused by the changing mores and opportunities of his generation, and like her, he clings to an old-fashioned world while being tempted by new ideas. Still he is unimaginative and affected by the insidious influence of the world he imagines he is not really a part of. He succumbs to the gossip spread about her. He, like everyone else, considers her guilty without proof. He never really understands Lily, though at times he seems to love her.

Lily says, "I remember your once telling me that it was only those inside who took the difference seriously," calling him on his concern about how her relationship to Mrs. Hatch looks to the rest of "what we call society." But Selden seems to have forgotten how to step outside the "gilt cage," showing no sympathy for her, and framing the whole conversation in terms of telling her what she should be doing.

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