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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 12 | Summary



Lily Bart visits Lawrence Selden. She apologizes for her anger at their last meeting. She thanks him for what he has said to her (his judgments of her). She seems to be in a trance, and she cries. Selden is bewildered and offers her tea. He thinks she is telling him she is marrying someone, and she says yes she is (because she is planning to). She asks him to let one of her selves stay with him, and she asks him to build a fire. Unseen by Selden, she throws into the fire the letters to him from Bertha—letters that could once have been her means of salvation.


Being watched has always been a big part of Lily Bart's life; perhaps it even gives her an existence. She has been watched by the men she dazzles, jealously or critically by her women friends, and most especially she has been watched by Lawrence Selden. Selden has been her most important audience. So it is meaningful that in this instance Lily rejects him as an audience, burning the letters under his nose, while he is almost completely unaware of her action. He remains permanently unaware she has ever known anything about the letters.

Sporadically throughout the novel Lily has acted on impulse, rejecting the paying public (like Percy Gryce, like George Dorset, like Simon Rosedale, all of whom offer to "pay" her for her performance). Instead she performs for Lawrence Selden, who has made clear that he will not marry her, will not pay for her performance. There is a kind of freedom in performing for free; there is also, in the view of her society, at least, a kind of waste.

But Lily's waste of Bertha's letters, her refusal to make use of them, present a number of interpretations. For one thing Lily's action may be seen as a luxurious wastefulness in which she has always wanted to indulge. Perhaps she no longer wishes to "save" herself in this world. Perhaps she no longer wants to save at all. She "wastes" this opportunity in the same way her father "wasted" nights reading poetry, and in the same way, in this society's view, she wasted time enjoying the textures and colors of the world. This action also links "waste" to reading, to words that are not bought and sold, and to words that are not part of a public performance.

Lily's refusal to use the letters for her own material advantage is a defiance of her society's social and marketing norms as well as a refusal, for once, to perform in front of an audience. In this way her actions are a rebellious act of freedom, a statement of her own separation from society and the values she deems wasteful.

In visiting Selden, Lily says she wants to leave him with "the Lily Bart you knew." She realizes she loves him, and has seen him as a moral teacher of sorts. She also realizes that "she could not go forth and leave her old self with him; that self must indeed live on in his presence, but it must still continue to be." She seems, when she drops the letters into the fire, to be representing her sense of herself as the woman Selden values most. And in a final act of artistic creation and human freedom, she becomes her own audience.

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