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The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton
Summary Chapters 1-3
Summary Chapters 1-3

At the dinner party, numerous dignitaries show up, much to the happiness of Mrs. Bry, who is trying to establish herself as a member of the elite society with the help of Carry Fisher. However, after the dinner, when Lily prepares to go back to the yacht, Bertha suddenly announces to everyone that Lily will not be returning to the yacht and promptly disappears. Although Lily tries to cover up her expulsion, most people assume that Bertha has kicked Lily out because Lily had an affair with George. Selden walks the devastated Lily to a cab and takes her to Jack Stepney's apartment, where Jack will let her stay for the night. Lily is torn, knowing that she has virtually nowhere to go.


The first few pages of Book Two remind us that one of the major themes of the novel is Lily's knack at botching her many opportunities to get married. She is a beautiful woman, which allows her to associate with many figures of royalty, and we find out that when she was 19 she nearly married an Italian prince. She lost her chance, though, when the Prince saw her flirting with someone else. During the course of the novel, Lily has blown her chances with both Percy Gryce (by spending time with Selden rather than him) and Simon Rosedale. Before the novel ends, she will also give up even more opportunities to marry Selden. Lily's indecision and inability to commit herself, as well as her incessant belief that she can "do better," is ultimately what accounts for her failure to marry. Because she is intent on marrying not for love but for society, she would have been a great success if she had simply married any man of wealth when she had the chance.

Wharton, in Chapter One, ominously describes Lily's position as on the "brink of a chasm," with reference to her social position. The language seems to imply that Lily can either fall into the chasm without hope of recovery, or she can move away from the border to safety. Wharton is still trying to indicate that Lily could go either way, toward success or doom. The reader should know that in the next chapters, Lily will fall very deep into the chasm, and though she tries, she will not be able to pull herself out. Still, Wharton gives us the moment when Lily is on the very brink of the chasm; this could be the point from which her fall from society really begins.

Selden is also going through an interesting crisis as Book Two begins. As he leaves Monte Carlo and returns to Nice, he asks himself, "What the deuce am I running away from?" indicating that he cannot decide whether he should return to Monte Carlo and face Lily, or stay away from her. The deeper issue, however, is one of Selden's position as an outsider. Selden has always been described as an outsider who takes an intellectual interest in the events and politics of society without actually involving himself in them. He recognizes, though, that his love for Lily is drawing him more and more into the social circle, a thought that doesn't appeal to him. Ultimately, Selden's problem is one of reason versus emotion, and he cannot decide which instinct to obey. He ends up choosing reason, pessimistically deciding that if he does not see Lily, he cannot fall in love with her. As Book Two progresses, he will ultimately change his mind, but not before it is too late.