The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Quotes


She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.

Narrator, Book 1, Chapter 1

Selden, and perhaps Wharton, sees Lily as the victim—a very intelligent, aware victim—of the world in which she has been brought up. She cannot live within or outside its mores. The bracelet, a beautiful feminine thing, is actually keeping her enslaved to her doom.


We're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy.

Lily Bart, Book 1, Chapter 1

With this blithe dismissal of Gerty Farish, Lily seems to predict the two women's fates: in the pursuit of goodness, unattractive Gerty will be happy, while in the pursuit of happiness, beautiful Lily will die tragically.


Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?

Lawrence Selden, Book 1, Chapter 1

Selden perceives that Lily and her like have been raised to see marriage as the goal of life, as their job, and she has been brought up with no other skills. In many ways this is true, but Selden and others in the novel neglect to see firstly that this might be a poor way to live and secondly that Lily has not been properly brought up to it.


Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man's heaven.

Narrator, Book 1, Chapter 4

The narrator makes a stark assessment of Lily's opportunities here. While Lily is confident at this point that she will marry well, the "revolving body" of society will eventually turn away from and against her.


She was realizing for the first time that ... the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents.

Narrator, Book 1, Chapter 15

This is Lily's thought after she is assaulted by Gus Trenor and spends the night at Gerty Farish's. She has decided she must repay Gus Trenor or feel sullied—"to restore her self respect she must repay the whole amount." She is deeply humiliated, angry, and aware that one's ability to behave in a moral manner, with ethics, is dependent on money.


What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's the story that's easiest to believe.

Lily Bart, Book 2, Chapter 4

Lily tells Gerty that people believe Bertha Dorset, even though she lies, because she is wealthy and important, and not believing her would mean one could not go to parties, and would be shut out of society. Her statement is a reflection of the power married women possess in this strange world.


That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic ... Sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for.

Carry Fisher, Book 2, Chapter 1

This is an insightful statement of Carry Fisher's; it is true that Lily does not value the things she is trying for, because the society in which she lives overvalues things that have no value and devalue those that are priceless, such as truth, beauty, and friendship.


I wasn't meant to be good.

Lily Bart, Book 2, Chapter 8

Lily makes this confession to Gerty as she struggles with her misfortunes. She has begun to realize that the choices she has made have narrowed her options and her ability to live a moral life.


Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency.

Narrator, Book 2, Chapter 11

After having been fired from the hat shop, Lily reflects on her fate. This is Lily Bart's sorrow—that she was brought up to no purpose, to no value. Like many women of her class in her time, her purpose was marriage, and to be beautiful, skills that are not useful. Up to this point she has treasured that uselessness as part of the beauty of her world; only now does she see it as useless.


There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you—we are sure to see each other again—but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part.

Lily Bart, Book 2, Chapter 12

Throughout the novel, Lily has sensed or spoken of two selves, or two parts of herself: one in a prison-house, one free. She describes herself this way to Selden. It is up to the reader to determine how she intends to dispose of the Lily Selden knew.

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