The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 1, Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden go for a walk on a path across a meadow, by sugar maples, oak groves, and farm houses. They sit on an open ledge of rock near beech trees. They talk about many topics, including several of the novel's most significant themes. They come close to declaring their love for each other, but both have their reasons not to.

Analysis

For the first time, readers see these two characters outside of the sitting room and the city streets, in nature. In Wharton nature often reflects the emotions of the main characters. On this "perfect" afternoon, in this "zone of lingering summer," Lily Bart, who "has no real intimacy with nature," feels that the landscape expresses her own mood, and though she appears calm, she feels herself as two "beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears." Lily wonders if she is in love. She knows she feels for Lawrence Selden; "she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together." Though she knows others criticize him, she admires him, most especially, perhaps, "for being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest man she had ever met," demonstrating one of her, and the novel's, many conflicts: the extent to which culture and wealth depend upon each other.

Selden calls Lily a "wonderful spectacle" and "an artist." He says that her "genius" lies in "converting impulses into intentions." They argue about what "success" is. Selden says success is "personal freedom," freedom from everything—money, poverty, ease, and anxiety—"to keep a kind of republic of the spirit." This "republic of the spirit," which values freedom and taste, is hard to articulate, since it is not valued or even acknowledged by the society Lily and Selden hover near. Lily yearns for such freedom but associates it almost entirely with Selden himself.

They discuss society and the importance of money. Lily says, in one of the novel's many comparisons of society to the theater, "it's just the other way with most shows—the audience may be under the illusion, but the actors know that real life is on the other side of the footlights." About her ambitions to marry rich, she says he despises her, but he says it is a tribute, because he thinks her ambitions unworthy of her. As their conversation becomes more intense, she cries, and he thinks, "somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art."

The novel goes to some lengths to show Lily as an art object, as a woman on display, causing the reader to question where her real self begins. Even the last-minute nature of her self-assertions demonstrate her own confusion about her ability to act as a creature possessing will and volatility.

Selden says it is natural for him to belittle the things he cannot offer her. He says she does care for those things—wealth and the security and beauty it provides—and he can do nothing about that. She asks him if he wants to marry her, and he says he does not want to, but maybe he would if she did. They call each other cowards, before the sight of a motorcar, hinting at the intrusion of society in nature, prefigures their return. Selden pauses to smoke a cigarette, which he shares with Lily, a shared moment of intimacy.

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