The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

Lily Bart walks on, unaware of her surroundings. She is buoyant from the high of her conversation with Selden. But she becomes weary and tired. Someone speaks to her, a woman named Nettie Struthers, to whom Lily had been kind when she worked with Gerty Farish. Nettie had been sick with "lung-trouble," probably tuberculosis, also known as consumption, a common illness of the era. Lily had given the girl the money to go away to the country and be cured. Nettie notices that Lily is sick, so she takes Lily to her own home.

Lily experiences the warm kitchen where Nettie helps her, and proudly shows Lily her parlor. Nettie has named her baby Marie Antoinette after the role performed by an actress who reminded her of Lily. She tells Lily that she had sex with an upper-class man she worked with, who she thought would marry her, and when he decided he was too high society for her and left her, she fell ill. But her old friend George "came round and asked me to marry him." He knew all about her but married her anyway. It is unclear whether the baby is George's or the other man's. Lily holds the baby, and Nettie says she hopes the baby will grow up to be like Lily.

At the boardinghouse Lily lays out the dress she wore at the tableau, remembering her triumph that evening. She receives the $10,000 inheritance from her aunt and thinks about how poor she is. She thinks about Nettie Struthers and feels very tired. From the $10,000 she received, she writes a check paying off her debt to Gus Trenor. She writes another check to her bank. She takes a little too much of the sleeping medicine, chloral. She no longer feels alone because Nettie Struthers's baby is by her side. She remembers there was a word she meant to tell Selden. She sleeps.

Analysis

Nettie Struthers is, significantly, the last person Lily Bart sees before she dies. The novel's second half shows many instances of women helping women and being true friends. Next to the evening spent with Gerty Farish, Lily's conversation with Nettie Struthers is the strongest moment of female communion in the novel. Lily is open with Nettie, who brings her into a warm kitchen, so different from the fancy cold drawing rooms Lily mostly has lived in. Lily, so unused to being touched, holds a baby, a moment of maternal tenderness Lily has never known.

And Nettie's story is at sharp odds with Lily's. Nettie found a man who understood her, and forgave her for having sex outside of marriage. Selden could never forgive Lily for even the appearance of indiscretion.

Lily's laying out of her clothes and then locking them up in her trunk is a strong foreshadowing of her death. She is locking up her memories, especially those of her triumph, and of Selden. She laments, "If only life could end now—end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and forgoing in the world!"

Critics disagree over the intent of the conclusion, specifically whether Lily intends to kill herself or just makes a mistake. Some say that if Lily does not kill herself purposely, the novel is drained of much of its power. Others say the text is deliberately ambiguous about the purposefulness of Lily's actions. In 2007 a letter was found that Wharton had written to the doctor who was taking care of her husband while she was writing The House of Mirth. In the letter Wharton asked the doctor what drug a person might best use to commit suicide. Some critics think this means Wharton intended Lily to kill herself on purpose. Hermione Lee, one of Wharton's biographers, thinks Wharton may have intended that as she began the chapter, but changed her mind as she rewrote it.

Critics have also argued about what it means that Lily dies with an imaginary baby in her arms. One critic writes that the first "glimpse of the continuity of life" has come to Lily in Nettie's kitchen. She realizes she had never had "such a vision of the solidity of life" before: her parents moved from place to place; her mating rituals had not been about connection, but about wealth. This "life-hunger" and sense of love may be what it means that Lily imagines herself holding Nettie's baby in her arms as she dies.

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