The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth | Book 2, Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

The next morning Lawrence Selden walks to Lily Bart's boardinghouse. There is something he needs to say to her, a word that will clear up everything between them. But at the boardinghouse he meets Gerty Farish, who explains that Lily died from an overdose of chloral.

Selden stays in the room alone and looks around it, thinking of Lily. He finds the letters Lily wrote, and, looking at an envelope addressed to Gus Trenor, begins to doubt Lily, and feel ashamed that he loved her. But then he searches the rest of the room and finds the note that he wrote her. He also finds Lily's checkbook and is astonished to discover Lily paid Trenor several thousand dollars, and realizes she had been in debt to him, but paid it off as soon as she could. He decides there was never any hope for a relationship between them.

Analysis

Though he thinks of himself as a spectator and a judge of character, Lawrence Selden never manages to see the real Lily Bart. Even in the end, he does not understand her with anything like sympathy. He remains a lawyer to the end, perpetually arguing and never able to reach a conclusion.

Whether readers agree with Lily's decision to commit suicide or not, it is apparent she has developed morally throughout the novel. She did not marry a man she found boring, did not become the mistress of either Trenor or Dorset, and never used Bertha Dorset's letters as blackmail. By the end of the novel her inner values match her outer actions: she has grown morally beautiful.

Some readers have argued that Lily killed herself from either cowardice or passivity, two character flaws that have haunted her throughout. She may not have been able to withstand a life of dinginess, or she may have been incapable of taking an active part in the creation of her own life, expecting society to shape it, as it had always done. Regardless, as a naturalist, Wharton could not give her heroine a happy ending. From the start of the novel Lily was destined to die.

Some feminist critics argue Wharton was showing that women's stories can end in ways other than marriage, or that in death there can be a kind of freedom. Others see much of the novel as being about women's desire to speak, to be the creator rather than the created. In some ways Lily's dead body is the "word" that passes between Lilly and Selden at the end—it is her own text, a text that Selden reads or, more likely, misreads. The closing lines of the novel again refer to the "word": "He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear."

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