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

Summary

After an evening of playing bridge at the Trenors', Lily retires to her room. She stops on the stairs to take in the opulent Trenor house, and notices Bertha engaging Gryce in conversation. She envies the married Bertha for her ability to talk to men and discard them with no regard. Because Lily and Gryce are both marriageable, Lily knows she cannot treat him in the same fashion.

When she enters her room, Lily compares her lot in life to that of Gerty Farish. She does not believe that she has been equipped to cope with the inconveniences of Gerty's life, which she believes includes garish wallpaper and the "squalid compromises of poverty." Lily feels that she requires a luxury that is her own, a recent change in attitude from the previous comfort she felt in relying on the hospitality of others. She has come to the realization that the hospitality of others has come at a personal cost, and that she has been required to "pay her way" by participating in card games that she cannot afford.

Wharton reveals that Lily has developed a weakness for bridge, a card game for which she has neither talent nor luck. Although she has won substantial amounts in the past, the monies she won were never banked against future losses, but spent imprudently on jewelry and fine clothing. On this particular evening, Lily has lost all but twenty dollars that she has brought with her, in contrast to Judy and Bertha, who both have won large amounts of money.

Lily dresses for bed without notifying her maid that she is doing so, a rudeness she rationalizes as fitting due to the fact that she has been "long enough in bondage to other people's pleasure to be considerate of those who depended on hers." Lily contemplates that she and her maid are in the same circumstances with the exception of one major difference: The maid is paid on a regular basis.

Lily observes lines developing on her face, which she first blames as an anomaly of the electric light in her bedroom; the lines, however, remain in candlelight. She then blames the lines on her monetary and marital worries. She wonders if her worries were caused by her own actions or if they were her destiny, and recalls the circumstances of her upbringing, which Wharton depicts as a consistent pattern of living beyond the family's limited means.

Lily recalls her social debut at the age of nineteen, which was an extravagant affair. The reader learns that the nineteen-year-old Lily knew nothing about the value of money when she berates her mother for not supplying fresh flowers for luncheon. She repeats her request to her father, who sarcastically laughs at her and tells her that she should order twelve hundred fresh flowers each day. During this exchange, Mr. Bart reveals that he is financially ruined.

Her father's bankruptcy and death prompts Lily and her mother to pay extended visits to wealthier relatives. It also gives Lily the resolve to marry into wealth by cultivating her beauty as well as the social tact necessary to attract wealthy and eligible men. Lily, however, is not as mercenary as her mother. Lily considers her physical attractiveness as "a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste." She dreams of marrying into European nobility by wont of her beauty and her refined tastes.

After her mother's death, Lily is taken in by her father's wealthy and widowed sister, Mrs. Peniston. It is revealed that she is not the wealthiest of Mr. Bart's relatives, and that her motivations are not necessarily selfless. The narrator tells the reader that "It would have been impossible for Mrs. Peniston to be heroic on a desert island," which can be interpreted to mean that her motivation is simply to appear charitable to impress others. The companionship of the two women is a convenience for Lily until she finds a husband, but Lily considers her aunt to be financially well off but miserly when it comes to her niece. Mrs. Peniston refuses to give Lily a regular allowance, and instead chooses to grant her irregular monetary sums.

Lily's resolve to marry wealth is cemented by her realizing that she cannot live on the sporadic payments she receives from Mrs. Peniston. Such monies will not pay her dressmaker's bills and gambling debts.

Analysis

Wharton provides important details about Lily's past. Her family was once relatively well off, but a combination of economic downturns and financial mismanagement led to eventual bankruptcy. Lily, always beautiful, was told by her mother that the family's fortunes would be regained through her physical attractiveness.

The reader learns the details of Lily's youth, a life of money, European travel, and servants. Lily's mother is remembered as young and vivacious, while her father is seen as middle-aged, tired, and bald, even though he was only two years older than his wife. It is revealed that he struggled mightily to provide for his wife's extravagant lifestyle. The father is demonized by his wife and society at large for not consistently earning enough money to keep his family in the comforts to which it had been accustomed. His wife, however, is admired as a "wonderful manager" of money who always seemed to create the illusion that the Bart family possessed more wealth than it actually did. Any protest from Mr. Bart would result in a reproach from his wife that it would be considered "living like a pig" if her demands were not met.

Mrs. Bart's view of money overshadows any love she might have felt for Mr. Bart. This is revealed when Wharton relates that he "no longer counted" to his wife, and that "he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfill his purpose." Mrs. Bart's mercenary attitude toward her husband is summed up when she tells Lily, "You are sorry for him now — but you will feel differently when you see what he has done to us." Lily harbors hopes of marrying into wealth, yet considers herself better than her mother because she believes that her refined cultural tastes will serve as valued cultural enhancements — a belief Wharton belittles when she reveals that Lily's sense of culture is limited to pictures, flowers, and sentimental novels.

Glossary

Cole's Voyage of Life a series of engravings by Thomas Cole (1801–48) depicting rural New York landscapes. Copies of the engravings were inexpensive, and ownership of the engravings was considered middle-class.

Quirinal the Palazzo del Quirinal, built as the Roman summer home of the popes, eventually housed offices of the Italian government.

mauvaise honte a disingenous display of shame used defensively to protect the actor from chastisement rather than out of an honest sense of remorse.

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