Part 4: Serial Reading Guide for The House of Mirth, chs. 2.4 – 2.14 (end of novel)
1. How does the opening line of 2.5 suggest yet another “new start” for Lily? How does the end of this chapter suggest the direction of that new start?
2. As you read the final chapters, look for opportunities to compare later scenes with earlier ones. In this way, you can more clearly see how issues are being developed. That is, note how the same two characters have conversations at different points (esp. Selden and Lily), or note how characters return to the same settings, with differing results.
3. What kind of modern “new world” is Lily entering with Mrs. Hatch? Consider some key passages and the social issues that are raised:
– The paragraph beginning, “The environment in which Lily found herself” (2.9).
– The long paragraph that describes Lily’s “odd sense of being behind the social tapestry,” and the notion that Lily is struggling against the world’s “concealed machinery” and “the great civic machine” (2.9)
– The paragraph beginning, “On and on it flowed” (2.10).
4. In general, note the remarkable use of language in 2.11. What specific images are familiar to you from earlier in the novel, and how have things changed? Consider Lily and the image of a “helpless organism” (paragraph beginning “The arguments pleading for it”).
5. Will Selden come to the rescue in 2.12? Compare the scenes in this chapter with any of the earlier meetings between Lily and Selden—what has changed?
6. How does Nettie Struther’s story (2.13) serve as a foil for Lily’s own life?
7. Be sure to read chapters 2.13 and 2.14 very carefully. Note how the details of language may suggest plot resolution (what happens to the characters), and how they also indicate thematic resolution (what kind of statement the novel is making about specific issues and questions).
8. Do you agree with the author herself? Here is an excerpt from edith Wharton’s own introduction to the 1936 edition of The House of Mirth:
Nature, always apparently wasteful, and apparently compelled to create dozens of stupid people in order to produce a single genius, seems to reverse the process in manufacturing the shallow and the idle. Such groups always rest on an underpinning of wasted human possibilities; and it seemed to me that the fate of the persons embodying these possibilities ought to redeem my subject from insignificance. This is the key to The House of Mirth, and its meaning.
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