The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth, is a beautiful young woman, an orphan, hovering on the edge of New York's highest levels of society in the late 1800s, the Gilded Age. Lily lives with her parsimonious Aunt Julia Peniston, but moves in a world of trips to Europe, gambling, and mansions along the Hudson River. Lily must marry well—she has been brought up to love beautiful things, and she plans to marry up into society. But throughout the novel, something in her rebels against the need to marry well.

In the first scene of the novel, she meets with Lawrence Selden, a young penniless lawyer, with whom she has a special connection. She makes a risky decision to go with him to his rooms. Simon Rosedale, a wealthy Jewish financier, sees Lily come out of Selden's rooms, an observation that could sully her reputation. On the train to Judy Trenor's party at Bellomont, Lily has charmed the wealthy bachelor Percy Gryce, and everyone expects him to ask her to marry him. But Lily decides not to go to church, where Gryce could ask her, and goes out on a walk with Selden instead. The wealthy Bertha Dorset, with whom Selden earlier had an affair, does not like this.

At the end of Lily's weekend at Bellomont, having lost money gambling and now worried that she has lost a chance of marrying well, Lily asks Judy Trenor's husband, Gus, if he can invest her money for her. Gus does this, and brings her checks that he says he has earned with her money. He makes it clear that he expects favors from Lily in return. She steers clear of him as much as she can, although she does sit in his box at the opera and meets him in Central Park. The reader learns later that Lily's cousin Grace Stepney, whom Lily has snubbed, tells Lily's Aunt Julia Peniston all the rumors about Lily—about her relationship with the married Gus and her gambling debts.

At Bellomont, Lily's plan to marry Percy Gryce has been thwarted not only by Lily's impulsive walk with Selden, but also because Bertha Dorset, who is angry that Selden seems to be falling in love with Lily, tells Gryce that Lily gambles and smokes. While there Lily purchases compromising letters from a charwoman, letters from socialite Bertha Dorset to Selden, asking him not to break off their affair. However Lily does not use the letters she purchased against her traitorous "friend" Bertha. Gryce soon marries Evie Van Osburgh.

Lily tries to combat the gossip surrounding her by helping Carry Fisher bring newcomers, the Wellington Brys, into high society. The Wellington Brys throw a party in which the women in the group dress in imitation of characters from art or history. Lily chooses Sir Joshua Reynolds's Mrs. Lloyd. At the pinnacle of her social success and the start of her plummet, Lily leaves everyone astonished at her beauty. Selden falls deeper in love with her and tells her so, kissing her. Lily leaves him, and Selden overhears men making lascivious remarks about Lily's figure.

The next day Lily receives two notes—one from Judy Trenor asking her to dine, and one from Selden asking to meet the next day. She goes to meet Judy after a dinner engagement at Carry Fisher's, but finds no one there except Gus Trenor. Gus demands payment for helping her get money; he practically rapes her, but ultimately relents. Lily leaves and is seen by Selden and another man. Shaken, the next day Lily asks her aunt to help her pay her bills, but when she confesses the bills are gambling debts, her aunt refuses to help. Selden does not come to visit her as he had said he would, but the newly wealthy Jewish investor Simon Rosedale does, and asks Lily to marry him. Lily refuses him, and then learns that Selden has left the country.

At this low point, Bertha Dorset invites a susceptible Lily on a Mediterranean cruise with her husband, George, and young Ned Silverton. Unbeknownst to Lily, Bertha intends Lily to entertain George while Bertha conducts an affair with Ned. Later, to divert suspicions away from her own affair, Bertha accuses George and Lily of being lovers. She refuses to allow Lily back on her yacht, destroying Lily's reputation. Selden helps Lily find a place to sleep that night, but when she returns home to the United States, Lily learns that her aunt has disinherited her because of the scandal, and most of her friends abandon her.

With Carry Fisher's help, Lily befriends the social climbing Gormers, but Bertha Dorset spreads rumors to them about Lily, and Lily is dropped. Carry tells Lily she must marry as soon as possible—either to George Dorset (who might divorce Bertha) or to Simon Rosedale.

Lily sinks lower and lower. She works as a personal secretary to Mrs. Norma Hatch, but leaves because Selden says she should. She tries to work in a milliner's shop, but is fired. While she lives in a boardinghouse, Simon Rosedale visits her. He is kind and tries to help her, but Lily refuses to use Bertha's letters to help herself. Instead she visits Selden one last time and secretly burns the letters.

Finally Lily receives her $10,000 inheritance and uses it to pay back Gus Trenor. She takes chloral to sleep, and it kills her. Selden comes to her house to ask her hand in marriage and finds Lily dead.

The House of Mirth Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Lily Bart is on her way to Bellomont.

Rising Action

2 Lily visits with Lawrence Selden in his apartment.

3 Lily wonders whether other women visit with Selden.

4 Lily makes a play for Percy Gryce but loses him.

5 Lily incurs gambling debts.

6 Lily has loving conversations with Selden.

7 Lily asks Gus Trenor to invest her money; he expects favors.

8 Lily buys letters that link Bertha Dorset and Selden.


9 Lily performs in the tableaux at the Wellington Brys' party.

Falling Action

10 Gus Trenor attacks Lily.

11 Lily burns letters that could be used to blackmail Bertha.


12 Lily overdoses and Selden mourns.

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