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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Edith Wharton plots The House of Mirth on a series of encounters set in vividly distinct social settings. The first social setting is Lawrence Seldenís apartment at the Benedict and the meeting is between him and Lily Bart. The second is the Trenorsí country house during a week-long party. The encounter is between Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart. In later scenes in the novel, Lily thinks back on these two scenes an the ironic parallel they present to the situation she is in presently. For instance, she takes a walk with Simon Rosedale and cannot get the ironic parallel between this walk and the walk she had with Lawrence Selden out of her mind.
Whereas during the previous walk they had discussed the ideals of life--Seldenís "republic of the spirit"--with Simon Rosedale, she hears about his machinations at getting into society and his idea that she will be a tool to aid him in that endeavor. Sometimes, the novelís plot turns on meetings that never took place. When Lily waits for Lawrence Selden the day after Gus Trenor attempted to rape her, she waits in vain, because he saw her leaving Trenorís house and thought she must have been having sex with him. Instead, Simon Rosedale comes and proposes marriage to her.
Aside from these meetings, the plot also has a very traditional rising and falling action. It is quite clear from the beginning that Lily Bart will not succeed in her desire to marry someone like Percy Gryce, but it is never expected at that point that she will end up living in a poor boarding house, addicted to a sleeping potion, and considering black mailing someone with love letters written to Lawrence Selden. The novel traces the steady decline of Lily Bartís fortunes. It climaxes at the moment of her greatest danger, when she is threatened with rape.
In this climax, Wharton shows with great force the sexual transaction at the heart of the economic dependency of women. In the rising action, Wharton sets up the elements of Lily Bartís character by showing her in action in a social situation which constrains her choices. In the falling action, when Lily Bart has been ejected from the society that has structured her values, Wharton shows that Lily Bart is not equipped to adapt to a different way of life. Her portrait of Lily shifts from ironic distance to sympathetic identification. Lily Bart becomes a tragic figure, trying with her limited moral resources to live up to her sense of what is right, even when it means facing destitution.