Study Guide

The House of Mirth Book 1, Chapter 3

By Edith Wharton

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Book 1, Chapter 3

  • That night, Lily plays bridge at Bellomont into the wee hours of the morning. As she heads up to bed, she looks back at the scene of opulence downstairs: women in expensive dresses and jewels, hunting hounds lounging about the floor, gilded furnishings, etc. Sometimes, she delights in seeing scenes like this, but, sometimes, it makes her realize that she doesn't have enough money to live like that – at least, not now while she's single.
  • She notices Mrs. Dorset drawing Percy aside for a little private chat. But she's not worried. Mrs. Dorset has nothing on Lily in the way of looks or charm.
  • Lily resents that she has to put up with the uber-boring Percy Gryce on the off-chance that he'll be taken in by her charms and ask her to marry him.
  • On the other hand, she doesn't have much choice (unless she wants to live like Gerty Farish, which she doesn't).
  • Lily isn't happy, especially since she's been spending a lot of time playing bridge for lots of money, and can't afford to pay off her gambling debts.
  • Lily knows that a young man named Ned Silverton is dealing with the same issue. He's a young scholar who's been taken in by rich divorcees, like Mrs. Fisher, who like his intellect and company, and often pay his way.
  • Lily would have given up bridge all together, but she spends a lot of time as a guest in other women's homes, and it's clear that, as a guest, she's expected to take part in the evening's activities – like bridge. She doesn't want to look stingy or boring or be a poor sport.
  • Back in her room this evening, Lily realizes she only has twenty bucks left. She discerns that she just lost 300 dollars. (Which, in the late 1800s, is quite extravagant.)
  • It gets worse when she remembers that she owes her dress-maker a ton of money, and that the 300 dollars was supposed to go towards paying down her debt (though not covering it completely, amazingly). She finds the universe particularly obnoxious when she realizes that Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset – both married to obscenely rich husbands – walked away with piles of winnings.
  • Lily concludes that she is just like the maid of the house – forced to do her duty – except that the maid gets regular wages and Lily doesn't.
  • If the night weren't bad enough already, Lily looks in the mirror and sees two age lines by her mouth. (And, alas, not a Botox shot in sight.)
  • She tries to comfort herself by thinking of her impending victory over Percy Gryce, but the thought of a life-long marriage to such a dull man doesn't exactly perk her up.
  • Lily remembers her mother telling her that she would become very wealthy because she was so beautiful.
  • Which brings us quickly into Flashback Land. Lily remembers her youth, a time of maids and dresses and elaborate furnishings. Her mother, Mrs. Hudson Bart, was very skilled at keeping up appearances and "living as though one were much richer than one's bankbook denoted." Anyone who lived below her opulent standards was living "like [a] pig" and consumed by "dinginess."
  • Lily's father, Mr. Bart, was overworked and prematurely aged. And we're certain that you can correlate this description with that of his wife.
  • Everything changed for Lily when she was nineteen. She was sitting having a late lunch with her mother and remarked that they should have some fresh flowers for the table every day. She figures it will only cost about twelve dollars a day (!), so why not?
  • Lily's father enters and she asks him about getting this daily bouquet. He laughs and tells her mockingly that she might as well order twelve-hundred of them – he's ruined. ("Ruined" = broke)
  • Lily's mother sends her upstairs with instructions not to breathe a word to the servants.
  • After that, Lily remembers that her father didn't mean much to her mother, since he no longer fulfilled his purpose of earning her lots and lots of money. Her father became very ill, but Mrs. Bart held no sympathy for her husband. Then, he died.
  • Left with no money, Mrs. Bart took Lily with her on long visits to friends and relations. She felt the only thing she had left was her daughter's beauty, i.e., a quick ticket to cash.
  • This rubbed off on Lily, who began to expect the world handed to her on a silver platter on account of her looks. But she knew that it wasn't enough to be beautiful; she also needed to use this tool the right way to get what she wanted.
  • Unlike her mother, Lily thought chasing wealth and only wealth was vulgar. She wanted a man who was noble and good. And rich, of course.
  • About two years after Mr. Bart's death, Mrs. Bart herself passed away. Lily's remaining family got together to try and figure out who would take in Lily (she was twenty-one now, but a young, single woman couldn't live alone). No one wanted her, but Lily's aunt Mrs. Peniston (Mr. Bart's widowed sister) finally agreed to try her out for a year.
  • Lily was adaptable, so it worked out. But she soon realized that the "dinginess" which her mother so feared didn't refer only to poverty. She found plenty of "dinginess" in Mrs. Peniston's expensive lifestyle.
  • Mrs. Peniston comes from old New York money, but has always been more of a spectator than a participant in social goings-on. Because of this, Lily gets lots of expensive clothes and dinners and such, but very few opportunities to meet the right people (and get hitched, is the implication).
  • Lily adapts to Mrs. Peniston's passive and sedentary lifestyle in order to appease the woman, but this is problematic for her own social life.
  • The way Mrs. Peniston provides for her further hampers Lily. The periodic gifts, rather than a regular allowance, keep the young woman dependent.
  • Now, at twenty-nine, Lily essentially oscillates between hating herself for throwing away marriage opportunities and hating the fact that she has to get married at all. She wants an independent life, but realizes it wouldn't be much of a life since she'd be poverty-stricken.
  • She concludes that she's too dependent on wealth to stay single.
  • And that's that.

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