Study Guide

The House of Mirth Marriage

By Edith Wharton

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She smiled up at him frankly. "But I don't think you dislike me – and you can't possibly think I want to marry you."

"No – I absolve you of that," he agreed.

"Well, then – – ?" (1.1.57-9)

Lily and Selden have a candor and frankness in their rapport lacking in any other relationship seen in House of Mirth.

It had always seemed to Selden that experience offered a great deal besides the sentimental adventure, yet he could vividly conceive of a love which should broaden and deepen till it became the central fact of life. (1.14.9)

Does Selden's love for Lily ever reach this pinnacle of his idealism?

But she is dangerous – and if I ever saw her up to mischief it's now. I can tell by poor George's manner. That man is a perfect barometer – he always knows when Bertha is going to – – "

"To fall?" Miss Bart suggested.

"Don't be shocking! You know he believes in her still. And of course I don't say there's any real harm in Bertha. Only she delights in making people miserable, and especially poor George."

"Well, he seems cut out for the part – I don't wonder she likes more cheerful companionship."

"Oh, George is not as dismal as you think. If Bertha did worry him he would be quite different. Or if she'd leave him alone, and let him arrange his life as he pleases. But she doesn't dare lose her hold of him on account of the money, and so when HE isn't jealous she pretends to be." (1.4.42-6)

Bertha and George Dorset's relationship is representative of a typical marriage among society's elite. It's no wonder Lily isn't looking forward to joining that big tea table in the garden.

"You see I came after all," he said; but before she had time to answer, Mrs. Dorset, breaking away from a lifeless colloquy with her host, had stepped between them with a little gesture of appropriation. (1.4.79)

Bertha Dorset is trying to take ownership of Selden in this territorial battle between her and Lily. Why does Lily fight back – on account of her pride, or because she has genuine feelings for Selden?

A special appositeness was given to these reflections by the discovery, in a neighbouring pew, of the serious profile and neatly-trimmed beard of Mr. Percy Gryce. There was something almost bridal in his own aspect: his large white gardenia had a symbolic air that struck Lily as a good omen. After all, seen in an assemblage of his kind he was not ridiculous-looking: a friendly critic might have called his heaviness weighty, and he was at his best in the attitude of vacant passivity which brings out the oddities of the restless. (1.8.8)

Lily is attracted to Percy Gryce's passivity because it's an opportunity to elevate her own level of power.

[Mr. Rosedale] was sensitive to shades of difference which Miss Bart would never have credited him with perceiving, because he had no corresponding variations of manner. (1.11.45)

In keeping with the war imagery in House of Mirth, we can conclude that Miss Bart's weakness is underestimating her opponents.

The sight of Selden's writing brought back the culminating moment of her triumph: the moment when she had read in his eyes that no philosophy was proof against her power. It would be pleasant to have that sensation again . . . no one else could give it to her in its fullness. (1.13.4)

Because no one else matters to Lily the way that Selden does. You'd think she'd have put this together by now…

It was not, indeed, anything specific that he feared: there had been a literal truth in his declaration that he did not think anything would happen. What troubled him was that, though Dorset's attitude had perceptibly changed, the change was not clearly to be accounted for. It had certainly not been produced by Selden's arguments, or by the action of his own soberer reason. Five minutes' talk sufficed to show that some alien influence had been at work, and that it had not so much subdued his resentment as weakened his will, so that he moved under it in a state of apathy, like a dangerous lunatic who has been drugged. (2.3.60)

Though Wharton never spells this out explicitly, George Dorset's change in attitude is no doubt the work of the treacherous Bertha Dorset. She has her hooks in George and she will stoop to any lows to keep him (and keep him miserable).

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