Study Guide

The House of Mirth Respect and Reputation

By Edith Wharton

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Respect and Reputation

"The fact that you don't want to marry me. Perhaps I don't regard it as such a strong inducement to go and see you." He felt a slight shiver down his spine as he ventured this, but her laugh reassured him. (1.1.63)

Even a casual conversation between friends is restricted by certain rules. Selden and Lily each must consider what they can and cannot say while conversing with each other.

Lily, with the flavour of Selden's caravan tea on her lips, had no great fancy to drown it in the railway brew which seemed such nectar to her companion; but, rightly judging that one of the charms of tea is the fact of drinking it together, she proceeded to give the last touch to Mr. Gryce's enjoyment by smiling at him across her lifted cup. (1.2.18)

How is this encounter over tea with Percy different than the tea Lily just shared with Selden?

Mr. Gryce was undoubtedly enjoying Bellomont. He liked the ease and glitter of the life, and the lustre conferred on him by being a member of this group of rich and conspicuous people. But he thought it a very materialistic society; there were times when he was frightened by the talk of the men and the looks of the ladies, and he was glad to find that Miss Bart, for all her ease and self-possession, was not at home in so ambiguous an atmosphere. (1.5.3)

Gryce is right to identify that Miss Bart is "not at home," but he incorrectly identifies the source of this discomfort. Lily's ennui stems from a deeper dissatisfaction with society itself, not with the small indulgences of the crowd at Bellomont.

"No; but your taking a walk with me is only another way of making use of your material. You are an artist and I happen to be the bit of colour you are using today. It's a part of your cleverness to be able to produce premeditated effects extemporaneously." (1.6.18)

Is Selden's view of Lily an accurate one?

Selden continued to look at her; then he drew his cigarette-case from his pocket and slowly lit a cigarette. It seemed to him necessary, at that moment, to proclaim, by some habitual gesture of this sort, his recovered hold on the actual: he had an almost puerile wish to let his companion see that, their flight over, he had landed on his feet. (1.6.103)

Looks like Selden, too, is as interested in the power dynamics of his relationship with Lily as he is in Lily herself.

This real self of hers, which he had the faculty of drawing out of the depths, was so little accustomed to go alone! The appeal of her helplessness touched in him, as it always did, a latent chord of inclination. It would have meant nothing to him to discover that his nearness made her more brilliant, but this glimpse of a twilight mood to which he alone had the clue seemed once more to set him in a world apart with her. (1.8.52-3)

If there are indeed two different Lily Barts, then Selden is only in love with one of them. He's not willingly to take the package deal.

Now, with a start of inner wonder, Lily felt that her thirst for retaliation had died out. If you would forgive your enemy, says the Malay proverb, first inflict a hurt on him […] (1.10.39)

Does Lily ever forgive Mrs. Dorset? Does her refusal to use the letters for blackmail have anything to do with forgiveness?

It was pitiable that he, who knew the mixed motives on which social judgments depend, should still feel himself so swayed by them. How could he lift Lily to a freer vision of life, if his own view of her was to be coloured by any mind in which he saw her reflected? (1.14.44)

Good question, especially considering that Selden's view of Lily continues to be colored by others all the way through House of Mirth – until she lies dead on her bed. It's arguable that Selden can't really love her, at least not completely, until this moment, when she exists only for him instead of for the eyes of society.

Selden saw two persons emerge from the opposite shadows, signal to the cab, and drive off in it toward the centre of the town. The moonlight touched them as they paused to enter the carriage, and he recognized Mrs. Dorset and young Silverton. (2.1.46)

This scene forms a foil with that in Book I, when Lily flees Trenors' house and Selden spots the figures in the dark. Of course, what's sad is that Bertha really is guilty, while Lily was not – yet the latter is the one to suffer through scandal as a result.

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