Part 3: Serial Reading Guide for The House of Mirth, chs. 1.4 – 2.3.
1. “It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about” (1.11). Consider the problems with such a principle.
2. “Lily was in her element on such occasions” (1.12). Consider the idea of “the real Lily (1.12) in the very ironic setting of the tableaux vivants, and in the context of art, nature, and masks generally. How is the “real Lily” defined by different characters? What does it tell us about these other characters themselves? In our own experience, how does it feel to have someone say that he or she knows the “real you”?
3. In chapter 1.13, note how carefully Lily tries to manage or navigate (if not control) her conversation with Gus. The narrator, in revealing Lily’s thoughts, also shows the subtext of the spoken dialogue. That is, while Lily and Gus talk, their conversation is shown to be much more complex than a mere transcript would suggest.
4. Note how the explicit idea of Lily’s “two selves” is mentioned in 1.13 and consider how this theme might be developed. And, by the way, what’s with all the references to drowning in the current installment? Could it foreshadow later events?
5. Book 1, chapter 14—A big chapter. Lots of moving plot parts accompany Lily’s change in position.
6. How does the scene between Lily and Rosedale (1.15, starting at “But the hour sped on”) develop and complicate the themes of marrying for money, advancing in society, and/or being defined by circumstances? Note also how the end of chapter 1.15—the end of Book 1—allows us to take stock of Lily’s changing fortunes and options.
7. What do you think of the characters’ readings and mis-readings of each other in the first three chapters of Book II? And while you’re thinking about that, prepare yourself for the schemes and intrigues of 2.2 – 2.3.
Literary Criticism: Some Arguments to Consider at this Point (no spoilers)
1. “I incline to the theory that Mrs. Wharton really intended us to accept this plaster-cast figure [Selden] for a hero, but that she had a low opinion of heroes in general.” – Louis Achincloss.1
2. Selden’s “assessment of Lily is gradually revealed to deal almost entirely with externals: he is willing at every point to accept appearance for reality.” – Cynthia Griffin Wolff.2