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The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton

Important Quotations Explained

Analysis

Study Questions & Essay Topics

1.
Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven; and at present it was turning its illuminated face to Lily.

This observation, from Book One, Chapter Four, shows Lily at the height of her confidence in searching for a husband. She has just finished laying what she believes will be the groundwork for making Percy Gryce, an extremely wealthy but socially awkward bachelor, want to marry her. Lily is indeed basking in the glow of social success, feeling the attention of others and the much-desired success in finding a potential husband whose wealth would give her security and stability. She has pushed her romantic ideas about love and her relationship with Selden from her mind and has made the logical, calculated decision to pursue Gryce. This decision makes her feel as though she is in control and winning the game of manipulation and artifice that is upper class socializing. Unfortunately, just as society is at this moment turning “its illuminated face” to her, it will also continue to revolve, taking its glorious light elsewhere and leaving Lily in the dark. This passage and others contribute to the idea that perhaps Lily has little control over her existence, and that larger forces—such as fate or luck—might be more influential in determining the outcome of the story.

2.
I wasn’t meant to be good.

This comment appears late in Book Two, after Lily has been sinking lower and lower into poverty and despair. She sits at Gerty’s table, talking about two other women who have found themselves penniless, and begins to see the parallels to her own situation. Lily is starting to acknowledge that despite her best efforts, luck has been against her, and she may never be rich and esteemed. Here, “good” refers to being wealthy, a member of the upper-class elite social circles, and having a secure marriage. This definition reflects how deeply rooted this desire for money and status is in Lily. She cannot confine herself to the artificial behavior of the upper-class women, she cannot settle on a marriage that isn’t the best, and she cannot decide between the happiness of true love and the happiness of wealth.

3.
That was all he knew—all he could hope to unravel of the story. The mute lips on the pillow refused him more than this—unless indeed they had told him the rest in the kiss they had left upon his forehead. Yes, he could now read into that farewell all that his heart craved to find there; he could even draw from it courage not to accuse himself for having failed to reach the height of his opportunity.

The passage appears at the end of the novel, when Selden finds Lily’s cold body after she has killed herself by overdosing on sleeping medication. He has also found Lily’s check to Trenor and is unsure of what to make of it. In his grief, Selden reflects back to the last time he saw Lily, when she kissed him on the forehead and said goodbye, presumably for a short while, and finds in that moment that she had loved him too. He also finds the courage to not blame himself for being too late in discovering his own feelings for her. This bedside moment returns the reader’s focus to romantic love. It also somewhat redeems Lily’s character by both allowing for the possibility of her death being an accident and bringing her love for Selden up again at the very end of the novel. The reappearance of true love gives Lily’s tragic end a fated, pitiable spin, instead of a desperate, money-hungry tone. Also, it is appropriate that Selden, who opened the novel by observing Lily from across the train station, finish the novel observing her even more intimately, but with just as many questions in his mind.

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