The first chapter begins on a Monday in early September as Selden returns to work ‘from a hurried dip into the country’ and sees Miss Lily Bart in the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station. He wonders what she is doing in town and her ‘desultory air’ perplexes him. He always feels ‘a faint movement of interest’ when he sees her and thinks it is characteristic of her to always have intentions behind the simplest acts she performs.
He walks past her as a test to see if she does not wish to be seen, but she greets him in an almost eager way. He has never seen her more radiant despite ‘eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing’ and thinks she must be 29 years old now. She says, ‘what luck’, and adds that it is nice of him to rescue her. He responds joyfully as if this is his mission in life and she tells him she has two hours to wait for her train to the Trenors at Bellomont and wants him to keep her company.
Selden has always enjoyed her ‘as a spectator’ and agrees to her desire: ‘Her discretions interested him almost as much as her imprudences.’ As they walk from the station, he points out where he lives (at The Benedick) and she is surprised and interested. He suggests that she comes up and sees his rooms and have a cup of tea. She blushes and he notes that she still has the art of doing this at the right time. She then agrees and says she will take the risk.
Inside, she praises his flat and says ‘what a miserable thing it is to be a woman’. She means that it is not fair that she (a poor marriageable girl) cannot afford to live alone like he does. He says he knows a girl who does this and she guesses correctly that he is referring to his cousin, Gerty, and argues that she said ‘marriageable’.
She pours the tea and he notes her pink nails and sapphire bracelet and he is struck by the irony of his suggestion that she lives as Gerty does (who has a relatively impoverished lifestyle). He considers Lily to be ‘a victim of the civilisation which had produced her’ and sees the links in her bracelet as manacles ‘chaining her to her fate’. After she apologises for being horrid about Gerty, the conversation turns to Lily’s life at her aunt’s and how he does not visit her. She tells him there are enough men to be pleasant to her and wants a friend who is not afraid to be disagreeable. Her aunt is full of ‘copy-book axioms’ and her female friends use and abuse her: ‘I’ve been about too long – people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry.’
He asks why she does not marry as this is her vocation and is what they are all brought up for. She explains that she is ‘horribly poor’ and ‘very expensive’. He offers her a cigarette and she takes three or four and then looks at his books. She asks if he knows about first editions and Americana and he stares at her and laughs. He answers and she continues to question him and although he enjoys watching her he can never be with her for long before he tries to find a reason for what she is doing.
The subject is changed slightly and she asks if he minds working for a living (as a lawyer) and goes on to ask if he would marry for money to stop working. He laughs and says, ‘God forbid’ and she says that there is the difference: ‘... a girl must, a man may if he chooses.’ She also points out that although his coat is a little shabby, people will still invite him to dinner; but, ‘a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as herself.’
When she leaves, he offers to see her to the station but she prefers to say goodbye at the door. On the landing, she looks around and thinks there are a thousand chances to one against meeting anybody, but one can never tell, ‘and she always paid for her rare indiscretions by a violent reaction of prudence’. There is only the ‘charwoman’ in sight and Lily has to gather up her skirts and brush against the wall in order to pass her. She is polite in order to convey her criticism and the woman continues to stare at her. Lily flushes and wonders what she is thinking, but smiles at her fears when she gets outside.
As she looks for a cab, she encounters Mr Rosedale and he looks at her with amused curiosity. She, however, is annoyed at seeing him. He is described as ‘a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type’ and is clearly wealthy. She shrinks at his friendly tone and tells him she has been to see her dressmaker and he says he did not know there was one in The Benedick. She pretends not to know the building and he explains it is an old word for bachelor and he happens to own it. He offers to take her to the station, but she stiffens under his pleasantry and hails a cab for herself.
Analysis – Chapter One
The House of Mirth is a novel of manners that has its focus on the upper class ‘old’ New York society in the early 20th century. Through its central protagonist, Lily Bart, the narrative explores the effect of the social conventions on women. These conventions lead to Lily having to secure a husband, as this is what is expected of a woman in this environment, and also accounts for why Lily and those of her set feel the need to ‘keep up appearances’. This is a superficial place that values appearance over reality and it is seen as unbecoming to reveal true emotion; financial security and class are regarded as more important than emotional sincerity. To remain in this world, it is necessary to follow the social rules and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that Lily resists conforming to the expectations at crucial times in her ‘career’.
In this first chapter, Selden, Lily and, to a lesser extent, Rosedale are introduced. It is mainly through Selden’s perceptions of Lily that the readers are given an insight into her thought processes as when he perceives that she usually has an ulterior motive or intention. It is also possible to see in this early stage that Selden takes pleasure in observing her performances and he assumes the air of a spectator. With regard to Rosedale, Lily’s repugnance toward him is on display when she comes across him outside The Benedick and the suggestion is made that this is tied to the fact that he is Jewish and, therefore, not of her set. This is emphasized further in the following chapter.