The House of Mirth
The House of Mirth (1905), by Edith Wharton, is a novel about New York socialite Lily Bart attempting to secure a husband and a place in rich society. It is one of the first novels of manners in American literature.
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What does Selden admire about Lily's appearance?
For the time period (late nineteenth to early 20th century), an unmarried woman visiting the rooms of any man unchaperoned was a huge risk. Lily is risking her reputation in doing so, a risk that she cannot afford to take. (This annotation contains an image)
Based on their conversation, how would you characterize Lily and Selden's relationship?
Here is an excerpt from the book 'Etiquette for Americans' (1898) on women and smoking: "The etiquette of smoking among women has not reached the stage when it permits the habit to be publicly indulged. Women are obliged to smoke in corners, when they are at clubs or races. How long this state of things will continue it is impossible to say. At the present rate of progress, women and young girls will be smoking in the streets with men. It is a horror and a crying shame; for the debasing character of the custom will inevitably destroy the delicacy of women."
How is Lily a woman who is confined by her circumstances? Consider various angles of her situation, including how her position would be different in the present.
Consider Lily's position in society in comparison to this down trodden char-woman (house cleaner). Is Lily really that far away from being in the char-woman's position? (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Lily try to get away from Mr. Rosedale so quickly?
How has Rosedale introduced an element of conflict to the story? (This annotation contains a video)
How would you characterize Lily's actions here?
Read this brief article on the art of small talk. Have these manners changed since the turn of the last century? Is Lily following the rules? (This annotation contains a link)
What is Lily's interest in Mr. Gryce? In what way(s) is she skilled in the "game" of finding a husband?
Can you explain the meaning of this simile? How can one so small and ethereal take up a lot of room?
What contrast does Lily perceive between herself and Mrs. George Dorset?
So far, what character traits make Lily stand out from other female characters in other contemporary novels? How is she not a typical female protagonist? (This annotation contains a video)
What does Mr. Bart's appearance suggest?
Chaufroix (or chaud-froid) was a meat mousse in aspic. While not very popular today, these gelatinous dishes were delicacies and always on the table at fashionable dinner parties at the turn of the last century. (This annotation contains an image)
How has Lily's parents' marriage influenced her perspective of the institution?
This exposition revealing Lily's background gives insight into her current financial situation, as well as her motivations for finding a suitable husband. Lily would not be satisfied with just wealth; she also wants a man who is upstanding and good. (This annotation contains an image)
Despite her wealth, Lily still found Mrs. Peniston to be
At this time, being 29 and unmarried puts Lily on the fast track to spinsterhood. Without a husband to support her financially, and without any opportunities to make her own money (as a woman did not have at the time), Lily will continue to have to rely on her aunt and friends. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Mrs. Trenor ask Lily to help her with this secretarial business?
Watch this video on Edith Wharton and her estate in the Berkshires. Consider how her own affluent life in New York circles might have influenced this novel. (This annotation contains a video)
What "service" does Lily also provide for Mrs. Dorset in addition to note taking?
What do you think of Mrs. Trenor's advice to Lily on capturing Mr. Gryce as a husband? Do you think that Gryce's mother would consider Lily to be a "fast woman"?
Do you think that Mr. Gryce and Lily are well suited for each other? How does his interaction here with Mrs. Fisher influence your answer?
As the reader, do you think you are supposed to agree with Lily's estimation of her role as a wife? Do you think Wharton agrees with it? (This annotation contains an image)
In this instance, "smart" means
Here is one of the many "what ifs" encountered in this novel. What if Lily had indeed gone to church with Percy instead of lingering behind to see Selden? Is her impulsive behavior going to sabotage all that she has been working toward? (This annotation contains an image)
What does Lily find attractive about Selden?
What is the inference here about religion? (This annotation contains a video)
How would you describe the mood in the room here? Why is Mrs. Dorset on the defensive?
Flirting and romantic intrigue, such as what is going on here between Selden and Lily, could be a form of entertainment or a game at the time. It could be a dangerous one, though. Any perceived impropriety could jeopardize Lily's reputation.
Selden's reaction to Lily's interest in Percy Gryce is one of
What is the effect of this metaphor? (This annotation contains a video)
Why did Selden come to Bellomont?
Notice that everything that Selden wants here is also what Lily wants. Of course, he can achieve this form of success without marriage; Lily is not so lucky.
What does Selden mean when he says that he is "amphibious"? Are there any other connotations that can be applied to this comparison?
What alternative could Selden possibly give her?
What does Lily accuse Selden of?
What does this say about the depth of her friendship? Is she really invested in the happiness of her friend, Lily? (This annotation contains an image)
Why did Bertha tell Percy all of these unflattering things about Lily?
Can you explain how this is ironic according to Lily? (This annotation contains a video)
Why is it more acceptable (though not entirely seemly) for a married woman to borrow money than an unmarried one?
The husbands in this novel all seem to have wives who do not pay much attention to them, except perhaps when money is concerned. Why do you think this is?
What does this detail reveal about Mr. Trenor?
How effective is the shifting point of view here? Do you feel that you understand Mr. Trenor and his motivations better? (This annotation contains a video)
Make a prediction about how successful Lily will be speculating on the stock market. Has there been any foreshadowing in regards to this?
In the "language" of flowers, gardenias symbolize secret love. Perhaps Lily believes Percy is wearing this flower as a message to her personally. (This annotation contains an image)
How are Gerty and Lily similar in situation?
Does Lily have a right to be bitter about this? (This annotation contains an image)
Why is Mr. Trenor irritated with Lily?
Trenor called Rosedale a "bounder." This is an outdated term for a dishonorable man. Is this the kind of person Lily needs to associate with in her current situation? (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Rosedale mention the Benedick?
Is Lily living in a bad Alanis Morrissette song? Though not truly ironic, she sure is having a pretty bad day. (This annotation contains a video)
Why do you think this same charwoman has made another appearance? Why is she there?
Can you identify different types of imagery used on this page? (This annotation contains a video)
Based on her story, what does Mrs. Haffen want from Lily?
Read this article on the origins of the term "blackmail." Why do you think this is such a popular device used by writers? (This annotation contains a link)
What is Lily feeling at this moment?
Bertha has expensive tastes - her wedding outfit was an eccentric, yet luxurious, mix of fur and lace. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Lily stay away from Judy? How might Lily's pride eventually get her into trouble here?
Mrs. Bry is a parvenu, or nouveau riche, who is looking to gain social credibility. Wharton famously wrote about this group of social climbers in one of her last books, "The Buccaneers" (1938). In that book the young women from nouveau riche families married British aristocrats in order to gain social status. (This annotation contains an image)
Whereas Lily felt freedom while in the country, what does she feel now back in the city?
What does this narrative aside reveal about Lily?
What is Lily's main trait when attempting to gain the favor of a male benefactor?
Fifth Avenue in New York is still a very fashionable place where the wealthy reside. Here is a picture of the Astor mansion on Fifth Avenue, built in 1896. (This annotation contains an image)
Why would it be in Lily's best interest to keep on Grace's good side?
What can you say about the relationships between women in this novel? Do you think that this novel accurately portrays female friendships?
This proves that Grace's motivations are mainly out of
Mrs. Peniston seems to be having a difficult time adjusting to the more modern ways of the 20th century. Unfortunately for Lily, she is also quite unforgiving about it. (This annotation contains an image)
What best describes Mr. Trenor's attitude toward Lily?
If you watch the television show 'Gilmore Girls,' know all about living pictures. Participants dress up as subjects in famous paintings and must remain perfectly still for a short time, despite any distractions. (This annotation contains a video)
Compare Miss Farish's behavior to Lily's. What would Lily think of Miss Farish's outburst of praise?
Here is the portrait that Lily is portraying, 'Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd' (1775-6) by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (This annotation contains an image)
What characteristic is Lily displaying here?
Why does Lily run away from Selden? Isn't this what she wanted? (This annotation contains an image)
In rejecting Selden, Lily values
Can you identify the mood here? Is Mr. Trenor hiding something? Is Lily picking up on the signals? (This annotation contains a video)
Explain how this confrontation between Lily and Mr. Trenor is a turning point in the novel.
Mr. Trenor has taken advantage of Lily's vulnerable state as an unmarried woman of a certain age in need of a benefactor. Do you think he treated Carry Fisher in the same manner?
Mr. Trenor uses what metaphor to describe what he and Lily have been doing?
Mr. Trenor is your typical man of means and influence of the time period. He is white, male, and wealthy; therefore, he feels entitled to everything that privilege endows. With Lily, he feels more wronged against than wrong, and expects Lily to capitulate to him based on the power he has over her.
What literary element is at work here at the beginning of this chapter?
Is Gerty a 'Pollyanna' character? Read this excerpt from TV Tropes on this kind of overly-optimistic character: "When this character is played for drama... you sometimes get the feeling she's conducting some serious repression in order to continue functioning, and we are likely to see her break down; on the other hand, her infinite patience and good humor may give her away as an All-Loving Hero. If she's a member of a group that The Hero appeals to for help, count on her being the Least Is First" [or the first to volunteer, though among the least fit to do so]. Consider this as the chapter continues. (This annotation contains an image)
How does this detail separate Selden from Lily's other "suitors"? Do you think that Selden's infatuation with Lily is immutable?
Though they are cousins, Gerty has her eye on Selden as husband material. All of this constant talk of Lily is sure to try her patience, as well as test the stability of her friendship with Lily (especially if she is going to react like Lily's other friends).
In what way(s) is Selden acting like a lovesick fool?
This is an allusion to the Greek myth of Andromeda, who was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Will Selden be her Perseus and "save" her? What is Lily's "sea monster," so to speak? (This annotation contains an image)
Explain the significance of this statement. How can it be applied to other instances in the novel?
What power does Lily have that Gerty lacks?
Why are Lily's statements particularly thoughtless?
So, back to the earlier question regarding Gerty. In her inability to stay mad at her friend, despite having some good reasons, can Gerty be considered a Pollyanna?
Determine Lily's thoughts upon waking up in Gerty's room.
Why is this metaphor particularly apt for this situation? What does it reveal about her opinion of Lily?
Propose an alternative way for Lily to obtain the $9,000 instead of asking her aunt for it. Is this an insurmountable sum for Lily to make on her own?
Do you see a pattern in Lily's behavior when it comes to her relationships with her friends, as well as with men?
What does Rosedale's physical stance here divulge?
Marrying Rosedale would mean an end to her financial dilemma; however, he is still an outsider in regards to class and social status. While Lily is willing to make compromises in her idea of a suitable husband for Selden, she is not so willing when it comes to Rosedale. (This annotation contains an image)
Why doesn't Lily refuse Rosedale outright?
Monte Carlo has been a fashionable destination for the wealthy from all over the world since the middle of the 19th century. (This annotation contains an image)
Why is Mrs. Fisher traveling with the Blys? Compare her current situation to Lily's position traveling with the Dorsets.
Edith Wharton and Henry James were good friends. Do you see any comparison between Lily and James's character Daisy Miller (especially in these European sections)? (This annotation contains an image)
What does this prove about Lily's character?
Can you comment on the effect of the shift in narrative point of view at the beginning of Part 2? We have heard a lot of talk about Lily, but we have not had her perspective of her European travels yet.
Selden's thoughts here on Lily can be considered
This is the second time this image has been used in this chapter. Why is this such a vivid image, especially when used referring to Lily? (This annotation contains an image)
Knowing Mrs. Dorset, how do you think she will handle the fact that Lily is more popular than her in these European circles?
While Carry and Lily are 'employed' in a similar capacity, the real reasons for traveling with the Blys and Dorsets, respectively, are different. Carry was asked to travel with the Blys in order to gain them some social credibility, while Lily has been expected to keep George Dorset occupied while Bertha pays all of her attentions to Ned.
What power does Dabham have over Lily?
Why should Lily tread cautiously here? What conclusions is George coming to about his wife?
What would George need a lawyer for?
Could this recent source of friction be Lily's triumph in European society? Or could she be jealous of the rumors about Lily and George? (This annotation contains an image)
Does Bertha have any motivation other than jealousy to accuse Lily of misconduct with George? How is Lily in an untenable situation?
Remember that Bertha once sabotaged Lily's chances of a suitable marriage with Percy Gryce. How would Lily's life have been different if Bertha had not meddled?
What is the most disturbing aspect of this whole situation to Lily?
This is a powerful simile and image. What has happened to George? Who is this "alien" influence?
Why does Selden ask Lily to leave the yacht?
What is the connotation of this moniker for Dabham ("immortalizer")? Would you say that it is more positive or negative? (This annotation contains an image)
Do you agree with Carry's earlier belief about Lily sabotaging (purposely or not) her marriage prospect because she ultimately disapproves of the lifestyle?
Lily never attempts to defend her actions or relationships with married men. How might her situation have changed if she had?
What is the dominant feeling Lily has in regard to her aunt's death?
The only thing that kept Lily "relevant" (and marriageable) was the belief that she would inherit her aunt's fortune. Now that she has been disinherited, her circumstances have diminished drastically. At this point, she only has her charm and beauty to distinguish her. (This annotation contains an image)
What has Lily truly lost in being disinherited?
In this flashback we see that Lily recognized immediately upon her return to New York that he reputation had been seriously compromised by Bertha's gossiping. Why do you think Lily remains so passive about the whole situation?
Explain why Lily comes to the immediate conclusion that she must use her aunt's inheritance to pay Mr. Trenot back. What would this leave Lily with?
Watch this clip (to the 1:15 mark) from the 2000 film adaptation of "The House of Mirth." Do you think the film does a good job of portraying Lily and Carry in this scene? (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Carry believe that Lily should ingratiate herself to the Gormers, even though they are of a different "set"?
What do these country houses (such as this one and Bellomont) symbolize in the novel? (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Gerty disapprove of Lily's association with the Gormers?
This is a surprising suggestion -- George is still married to Bertha! Can you predict who Carry's "half-husband" suggestion will be?
How have Lily's feelings towards marrying Rosedale changed? Do you think he will be just as willing to marry her now as he did before?
Considering Mr. Dorset's previous behavior with Lily, do you think his friendliness is genuine and without ulterior motive?
What kind of prison is Mr. Dorset referring to?
How has Bertha become one of the main antagonists to our protagonist, Lily? (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Lily refuse to help George in securing a divorce? If she does not want to be named as correspondent, why not use the letters she bought from the charwoman?
This seems to be an example of Lily attempting to talk herself into thinking that being Rosedale's wife wouldn't be so terrible. Based on this description, do you think she is successful? (This annotation contains an image)
What literary device does Carry use here to describe the relationship between Mattie and Bertha?
How can this imagery also be applied to the character of Lily?
Lily uses the word "gross" a few times in reference to Mr. Rosedale. While it refers to her repugnance of the man, on another level it can also refer to his ability to accumulate wealth. (This annotation contains an image)
What would Rosedale sacrifice in marrying Lily?
Lily has been given a lot of advice throughout the novel. Which character has given her the best advice? (This annotation contains an image)
Defend the idea that Lily a better person than the society she keeps.
Take a look at some of the etiquette surrounding the use of calling cards, as written by Emily Post. What was the purpose of having so many rules for these kinds of social mores of the time? (This annotation contains a link)
Why would Lily be compelled to ask this question?
Mooching off of the rich is not cheap. One must keep oneself interesting and beautiful, and that costs money. (This annotation contains an image)
According to Gerty, what would be Lily's best course of action?
What does Gerty hope to achieve by coming to Selden? Do you think she still hopes to have him all to herself?
Do you believe that Selden is in the position to judge Lily?
Would you say that Lily's life has been figuratively dimmed? What is revealed about Lily under this "blaze of electric light" (figuratively, of course)?
How does the highlighted metaphor reflect Lily's new position in society?
Lily is a social secretary for Mrs. Hatch. This means that she handles her correspondence and appointments/events. In some ways, Lily was doing this at the beginning of the novel for Mrs. Trenor. (This annotation contains an image)
At this point, what does Selden not know about Lily's situation?
Here is a continuation of the light/dark motif. (This annotation contains a video)
Examine Gerty's rationale for thinking that millinery would help Lily regain status, as well as money. Why does it now appear like her plan is not going to work?
Learning the skill of millinery would help in actualizing Gerty's plan that Lily eventually branch out and offer her personal services to patrons. However, being a "shopgirl' would be a further degradation to Lily's position. This is especially true because she would be ion display along with the hats. (This annotation contains an image)
What does the treatment Lily receives from her fellow workers illustrate?
Read this background on Naturalism in American Literature. How does 'House of Mirth' fit into this definition? (This annotation contains a link)
What surprises Rosedale about Lily's beauty?
Some things never change. Lily has been starved of flattery, and she is basking in it right now.
Does Lily's plan of paying her debt back in full make good financial sense? Create a different payment plan or strategy for Lily.
Can you sense what the constant referral to the "phial" might be foreshadowing?
What does the phial of sleeping medication symbolize for Lily?
How has your opinion of Mr. Rosedale changed since he was first introduced? Has your opinion been influenced by Lily's own change in point of view?
Why does Lily refuse Rosedale's help?
Appraise Lily's conclusions as to why she is not able to be a "worker among workers." What is the crux of her argument, and do you agree with her claims?
Lily has had these letters for a long time. The fact that she is even considering using them now proves that she has hit rock bottom. The only thing she has now is her beauty and her integrity, and she is now risking the latter by contemplating blackmailing Mrs. Dorset. (This annotation contains an image)
What connection does Lily make here?
The similarities between now and that other afternoon not all that long ago is extremely difficult to Lily. Back then she had so much potential, and now she has no real prospects for success. Selden, however, has not changed.
What does this common metaphor describe about Lily's life?
Considering some other heroines in Naturalistic novels (like Madame Bovary, Carrie Meeber, and Tess Durbeyfield), should Selden be worried about Lily? (This annotation contains an image)
What immediate worries/cares does Lily have? Does she have any power to fix them?
Contemplate the function of this chance meeting in the plot. How will this new character affect Lily in her downward spiral?
What is Nettie proof of?
These dresses are just like Lily -- artifacts of a better time that still have beauty, but are out of place now.
When Lily states that she has had a rootless existence, what does she mean?
After being passive and directed by others for most of the novel, Lily takes action in writing out the check to Mr. Trenor right then and there. What is the significance of this act?
Why does Lily dream/hallucinate hold Nettie's child? What does the child represent?
What does Selden mean when he says it was the "real" Lily?
Based on context, what do you think this word could have been?
The fact that Lily was so close to getting what she wanted (Selden, not being alone, etc.) heightens the tragedy of the situation. It might also make you want to flip a table in frustration. (This annotation contains an image)
Formulate an argument as to whether or not you think Lily's death was suicide. Use specific examples from the text.