The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In The House of Mirth, how are Grace Stepney and Gerty Farish similar and different?

As the narrator says, "Miss Farish's heart was a fountain of tender illusions, Miss Stepney's a precise register of facts as manifested in their relation to herself." Grace Stepney has a mind "like a kind of moral fly-paper," and though she "has no abstract propensity to malice," she resents the fact that Lily Bart hardly notices her: "She did not dislike Lily because the latter was brilliant and predominant; but because she thought that Lily disliked her. It is less mortifying to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness." Grace correctly infers that she has not been invited to a dinner of "smart" people and feels slighted. She resents the fact everyone knows she has an empty social life. Like Grace, Gerty Farish lives in a boardinghouse, but unlike Grace, she seems to enjoy her life enough. She treats Lily with kindness and accepts some of the values of their shared society. She seems to accept Lily's opinion as her due.

In The House of Mirth, what is "the Republic of the Spirit"?

The "Republic of the Spirit" is one of Lawrence Selden's ideas. He believes success is "personal freedom," freedom from everything, money, poverty, ease, and anxiety. He says in order to have this freedom, one has "to keep a kind of republic of the spirit." This republic of the spirit, which values freedom and taste, is hard to articulate, since it's not valued or even acknowledged by the society Lily Bart and Selden hover near. Lily says she sometimes sees a way into the republic of the spirit, "your republic." Selden and Lily recognize that there's a place outside of the society they travel in; this is one of their bonds.

What are some of the double standards held by the upper society in The House of Mirth?

Because Bertha Dorset has money and is married, her society continues to accept her even though it is known that she has affairs with young, unmarried men. As Lily Bart says, "What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her." Another double standard is that Lawrence Selden—a single man—can have an affair with Bertha Dorset and his reputation is not ruined, but for Lily—a single woman—even going to a man's room alone in the daytime is a risk, let alone actually sleeping with a man. Another example is that because he is Jewish and of "new money," Simon Rosedale has to work and must work to be included into society (Gus Trenor complains that his wife will not receive Rosedale at her parties).

How does Lily Bart manipulate men to get what she wants in The House of Mirth?

Lily knows how to artfully use her submissiveness with men. In her society women have to be manipulative. There is no tradition of women being frank and straightforward—they do not have enough power for that. For example, in Book 1, Chapter 3, Lily Bart asks Percy Gryce about his Americana because she knows he will love to talk about it. When she speaks with Percy, she "question[s] him intelligently, she hear[s] him submissively ... he [grows] eloquent under her receptive gaze." In Book 1, Chapter 7, Lily talks to Gus Trenor to help her get money. Gus Trenor is an inarticulate man, ready and used to being manipulated by the women around him. When she wants him to help her, Lily skillfully allows Trenor to talk, and she listens well. She prolongs the drive, flattering him by suggesting she wants to stay in his society. Lily makes use of Trenor without his knowing it, maneuvering him to dominate the conversation. Lily makes him think he understands her better than her friends did, and because of her "exquisite nearness," Gus Trenor is "ready to swear that as a man of honor he [is] bound to do all he [can] to protect her."

In The House of Mirth, how is Lily Bart like an artist?

Lawrence Selden clearly thinks of Lily as an artist. In Book 1, Chapter 6, he says, "You are an artist, and I happen to be the bit of color you are using today," and later he thinks "somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art." Women are forced into artifice in this society, and Lily is aware of herself as a performer and as someone who is being watched. The most obvious example of her artistry is in the tableaux vivant, of Book 1, Chapter 12, in which she demonstrates "artistic intelligence," reveals "the touch of poetry in her beauty," and catches "for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part."

In The House of Mirth, what opportunities do Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart have in their society?

Lawrence Selden is similar to Lily Bart and in many ways a counterpoint to her: Lily would certainly have more choices than she does in the novel, and an easier life, if she were a young, single man, instead of a young, single woman. Selden's upbringing has been similar to Lily's in many ways: his family was also improvident and taught him to appreciate both beauty and culture. He has contradictory impulses in relation to society and in relation to the opposite sex, as Lily does. But Selden can work and earn his own money, and Lily, as a woman of her class, cannot, since working is seen as a sign of a woman's failure to find a husband; Selden can live in his own apartment, as a marriageable young man, and Lily cannot. Lily would need to be in a lower social set, like Gerty Farish and Grace Stepney, in order to have that kind of freedom. Lily is forced to spend money in order to gain approval. She tells Selden, "Your coat's a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself."

How do Lily Bart's surroundings affect her in similar ways in Book 1, Chapter 6 and Book 1, Chapter 9 of The House of Mirth?

In Book 1, Chapter 6, walking with Lawrence Selden on the grounds at Bellomont, Lily Bart's emotions are reflected by the nature that surrounds her. "The landscape outspread below her seemed an enlargement of her present mood, and she found something of herself in its calmness, its breadth, its long free reaches." In Book 1, Chapter 9, she is similarly affected, but now the surroundings weigh her down. Coming back from her cousin's wedding, she finds Aunt Julia Peniston's house repulsive: "as was always the case with her, this moral repulsion found a physical outlet in a quickened distaste for her surroundings." Aunt Peniston's house seems "as dreary as a tomb," and she feels as if she is "buried alive in the stifling limits" of her aunt's life.

In The House of Mirth, how does Lily Bart's naïveté get her into trouble?

Lily Bart's handling of both Simon Rosedale and Gus Trenor show her innocence about the world. For example, she fails to recognize that Rosedale tells her Trenor is unfaithful to his wife. And she agrees to meet Trenor later, even though he says "Hang talking!" She also fails to realize that Trenor has invested his own money and not hers and that she therefore owes him a much larger debt than she intended. She is pleased when Dorset asks her to come visit Bertha, whom she thinks of as an enemy, but who will, she thinks, help her escape Trenor. She also thinks it is noble to stay with Bertha Dorset on her yacht, so she does not do as Selden suggests and leave. Instead she stays long enough to give Bertha an opportunity to request that she not return to the yacht, which further ruins Lily's reputation.

How is Gerty Farish a foil for Lily Bart in The House of Mirth?

Gerty Farish, Lawrence Selden's cousin, is an upper-class woman who lives alone in what Lily Bart considers a "dingy" flat. Gerty is not beautiful and is rather "dingy" herself. But she has her own apartment, which in some ways Lily envies. Lily, however, has not been taught to think of other people, and Gerty has. Gerty is one of the few truly kind women in the novel. She has no guile and does not want anything from Lily. She is free in a way Lily is not. She is poor and runs in a different circle of society than Lily does. She seems to have few wants, while Lily has many and conflicting wants. Wharton contrasts Lily and Gerty throughout the novel: Lily's mode is pleasure, Gerty's is usefulness. Lily is surrounded by beauty and wealth, but she is not free; Gerty is dingy and poor, but independent. Gerty is one of the only fully kind characters in the novel.

What is the meaning of the reference to the Furies in Book 1, Chapter 14 of The House of Mirth?

In Aeschylus' play Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by Furies, winged creatures that torment those who have done wrong. When Lily Bart finds a copy of the play in a house where she is staying, her imagination is "seized" by the idea of the Furies. After she has nearly been raped by Gus Trenor, and is stumbling through the night, wondering where to go, the narrator recounts, "Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain." Later, at Gerty Farish's residence, she says, "You know the noise of their wings alone, at night, in the dark? But you don't know—there is nothing to make the dark dreadful to you." Typically self-involved and in pain, Lily decides Gerty is too good, or perhaps too simple, to have been pursued by these creatures. The Furies, early on, represent Lily's guilt about mistakes she has made. They also represent her worry about money. But soon they represent something else: they change into "prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea ... For the first time she forced herself to reckon up the exact amount of her debt to Trenor." Once Lily has decided to pay back the money to Trenor, the Furies stop bothering her. But as she becomes a more moral and thoughtful person, the Furies represent one particular woman who has been cruel to her: Bertha Dorset. In Book 2, Chapter 12, the narrator says, "More and more did the pursuing Furies seem to take the shape of Bertha Dorset; and close at hand, safely locked among her papers, lay the means of ending their pursuit. The temptation ... now insistently returned upon her; and how much strength was left her to oppose it?" Now that Lily has become a more deeply thinking, ethical woman, the Furies represent not her fears of poverty or of society's gossip, but her own moral strength and potential lack of it.

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