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The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton

Chapters 4-6

Summary Chapters 4-6

Lily resolves to marry Rosedale. Carry, who has had enormous success bringing the Brys into her social world, assists by inviting both Lily and Rosedale to a party. When Lily sees Rosedale again, something about him leaves her with mixed feelings about the possibility of marriage.

Commentary

With the death of Mrs. Peniston, a pattern of rejection begins to develop around Lily. First, she is kicked out of high society by Bertha. Now, she has almost been kicked out of her own family by her late aunt, who disinherited her. Grace also aids in the excommunication from the family. If Lily no longer has society or her family to fall back on, that leaves her virtually no support except from Gerty Farish, and her continual support from Selden.

At several points in the novel, Wharton doles out criticism of the society she describes. One such instance is in Chapter Four, when we learn that Bertha's story of Lily and George will be considered more believable than Lily's denial simply because Bertha is more wealthy. In the upper-crust New York society, the truth is dependent on wealth rather than factual merit. This has some very dangerous implications in terms of power; Bertha, as we will soon see more and more, has total control over Lily because she is more wealthy than her. Bertha's finances give her the means to throw Lily out of society and keep her out.

When we see at the end of Chapter Six the successful incorporation of the Brys into society by Carry, it serves as a model for how Lily's life ideally would have gone. The Brys spent much of Book One as characters who were on the borders of high society. With a little coaxing and some string-pulling from Carry, they are eventually elevated to the position of one of the ideal couples in New York. Lily, too, could rise out of the pit into which she has fallen, but sadly does not. In terms of the plot, Lily moves in opposition to the Brys; she begins the book on good terms but slowly falls, whereas the Brys only rise in prestige during the course of the book. This literary technique is known as chiasmus, or a symmetrical crossing-over.

This section ends with a dire order from Carry: Lily must marry immediately. Carry does not even care who the husband is, provided he is of reasonable stature, like Rosedale. Carry orders Lily to do so because Carry recognizes that Lily is no longer part of a family or a social sphere, which leaves her floating with no real roots. A husband is the only way for Lily to regain a place in society and financial stability. Thus, the importance of marriage has changed for Lily. At the beginning of the book, a marriage to a rich, respected man would cement her place in society; it would give her a boost into the upper levels. Now, Lily is desperately trying to find a husband merely to survive and perhaps to get a foot in society's door once again. This is an indicator of how her position has worsened substantially.