The House of Mirth By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapter II

Summary

Riding in the hansom on the return trip to Grand Central Station, Lily considers the societal dictates that have forced her to lie to Rosedale. She believes that she has erred in three ways. The first was to impulsively visit Selden's apartment. The second was to lie to Rosedale; she considers lying better than telling the truth that she was alone with a bachelor inside his apartment. The third error was her refusal of Rosedale's offer to give her a ride back to the train station. Had she accepted the offer, she believes Rosedale would have been a willing conspirator in concealing her impropriety.

Wharton reveals that Rosedale had exhibited romantic designs on Lily in the past — designs that Lily thwarted due to his presumptuous entry into New York society. Rosedale had used a business associate's debt to him as a means to attain invitations to social events. Rosedale was shunned, as was the business associate, Jack Stepney, who wrangled the invitations for him. Judy Trenor, the wife of wealthy financier Gus Trenor and a leading member of society, recounted to Stepney (later revealed to be a cousin of Lily's) that Rosedale "was the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within her memory." Though rejected by Judy and her ilk, Stepney continued his attempts to integrate Rosedale into society, appearing with him and attractive females from society's fringes in fancy restaurants where Rosedale paid Stepney's tab.

On the train, Lily spots the wealthy bachelor Percy Gryce. She maneuvers to sit next to him after discovering that he is also bound for the house party at the Trenors. Gryce, however, is frightfully boring to Lily, forcing her to resort to engaging him in conversation about his collection of early American artifacts. This tactic proves fruitful, and Gryce regales her with stories of his latest acquisitions.

Gryce is a recent addition to New York society. He and his overbearing mother arrived from Albany after the death of Gryce's father. His wealth and availability for matrimony make him one of society's most eligible bachelors. Gryce's wealth derives from his father's patent on a device "for excluding fresh air from hotels."

Gryce and Lily are joined by Bertha Dorset, wife of George Dorset, an obnoxious, self-centered woman who is of slighter stature than Lily. Bertha asks Lily for a cigarette, and Lily disingenuously behaves as if she doesn't smoke in an effort to impress Gryce.

Analysis

Lily considers the social precepts she must follow burdensome. She wonders why a female can "never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice." She acknowledges to herself that she has placed herself in Rosedale's power by lying about her visit to the Benedick, a power she feels he may use against her in the future.

Society's low regard for Jews displayed in the first chapter is elaborated upon in the second chapter. Wharton writes that Rosedale "had his race's accuracy in the appraisal of values" and continues that he believes being seen in public with Lily will enhance his social standing, as many might interpret her company as an indicator that he, too, is invited to the Trenors' house party. In addition, Wharton characterizes Rosedale as an opportunist who knows how to use his acquaintances to his financial advantage. Lily views the combined "artistic sensibility and business astuteness" traits of Rosedale as stereotypical traits of the Jewish race.

If Rosedale is an opportunist, Gryce is portrayed as a bore whose only defining characteristic — his book collection of Americana — is passed down to him from a wealthy uncle. This characteristic causes Lily to recognize Gryce as an individual lacking self-confidence.

Glossary

cutting a book the necessary practice of slicing open the paper folios of books and magazines in order to read both printed sides.

oubliette a concealed dungeon with a trap door in the ceiling as its only opening.

Sarum Rule the pre-Reformation, Latin liturgy that is the source of the Anglican religion.

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