One busy Monday afternoon in intense September heat, Lawrence Selden sees his acquaintance Lily Bart in the middle of the crowd in New York’s Grand Central Station. Although he is struck by her beauty and admires her greatly, he also wonders about her aimless attitude, as she seems to be waiting for something mysterious. As much as he is glad to see her, he also feels that she causes in him a permanent sense of uncertainty, as he feels that all of her actions are the result of calculation.
In light of Lawrence’s description, the reader’s first impression of Lily is that she is beautiful yet potentially treacherous and manipulative. This gives Lily an aura of mystery, but it also introduces the harmful effect that her high-society milieu has had on her behavior; her calculative attitude is in fact meant to protect her reputation from slander.
Curious to figure out why Lily seems to be waiting in the train station, Selden greets her. Smiling beautifully, Lily thanks him for saving her, to which he replies that this will always be his mission in life. Lily then proceeds to explain that she is on her way to Bellomont, where their mutual friends Judy and Gus Trenor are organizing a party. Having just missed her train and waiting for the next one, while knowing that her aunt’s house is closed, Lily feels at a lost about what to do and asks Selden to take her somewhere less stuffy.
The two characters’ exchange about saving Lily’s life shows playful exaggeration, an over-dramatization of their actual relationship, but also serves as a subtle introduction to one of the novel’s main themes: the possibility for Lawrence to “save” Lily—or, through love, to inspire her to break free from her social environment. At the same time, Lily’s feeling of being lost highlights that what Selden initially perceived as mystery was nothing more than confusion, and that he might in fact be attributing too much intentionality to Lily’s actions.
Feeling honored by such a proposal, since Selden is not used to spending time alone with Lily, he suggests going to a tea-house, but Lily fears meeting boring people there. Selden, who has the impression that Lily is deliberately making her speech both intimate and provocative, decides to call a hansom (horse-drawn carriage). However, feeling inspired by the fresh air, Lily decides that they should walk. During their walk, Selden silently admires Lily for looking superior to all the other people around her, taking pleasure in her physical closeness and the details of her body and dress. He wonders whether Lily is superior to other women only because of superficial additions to her figure, or whether—and this is his preferred hypothesis—her nature is truly unique, yet society has made her seem trivial.
Despite noticing what he interprets as Lily’s calculating behavior, Selden feels that Lily’s true nature is hidden beneath her social appearances, which distort her true qualities. One indication of a possible separation between Lily’s true self and her social persona is her lack of interest in going to a public place with Selden. She seems to dislike the idea of having to socialize with other people and, instead, prefers to spend time alone with Selden. This suggests that, in the same way he finds her unique, Lily might also recognize something special in Selden that sets him apart from other men.
When the sun comes out, Lily complains about the heat again but feels grateful for the trees planted on the street where they are walking. Selden then reveals that this is the street where he lives, and when Lily asks him if it is cooler in his apartment, he makes the bold move of asking her to come and see for herself. Lily blushes but accepts his offer, which she knows is a risk. To himself, Selden admires her for her spontaneity and feels deeply pleased to know that she accepted his offer without premeditation.
Lily’s hesitation does not indicate that she believes Selden is making romantic advances toward her but, rather, that she knows other people might interpret her decision to follow him as a romantic signal. Lily’s willingness to overlook such social codes and follow her own whims signals that she is not as calculative as Selden might think.
Once in the apartment, Lily finds it wonderful that Selden has the entire space for himself, and she criticizes the fact that women are not allowed the same luxury. When Selden replies that Gerty Farish has her own apartment, Lily considers the example irrelevant, since Gerty is not “marriageable” and has an unpleasant apartment. Suddenly remembering that Gerty is Selden’s cousin, Lily apologizes for her harsh words but concludes that, while Gerty is both free and “good,” Lily is not. Observing Lily, Selden feels that her bracelets make her seem trapped, a victim of her own society, forced to follow a fixed fate.
Lily’s conversation with Selden reveals that she is not an unthinking, superficial member of society but, rather, that she thoughtfully reflects on issues of gender inequality and justice. She criticizes the trade-off that exists between women’s independence and marriageable or financial status, arguing that the only free women are those who cannot marry. Lily’s own attraction to money keeps her from being an objective critic, or from actually wishing another life for herself.
When Lily and Selden discuss the topic of personal apartments, Lily seizes this opportunity to ask him why he does not visit her more often at her aunt Mrs. Peniston’s house, despite the fact that they get along so well. Lily says that she truly does not know why Selden does not come more, noting that the only men who come are people who think she wants to marry them, but that that cannot possibly be Selden’s belief. Completely charmed and intrigued by Lily’s attitude, Selden then takes the risk of telling her that that might in fact be part of the reason he doesn’t visit more, but Lily laughs off his answer, saying it is stupid of him to try to seduce her.
Lily’s assumption that Selden knows she would never want to marry him highlights, in a playful yet brutal way, how little she can imagine marrying someone who would not propel her to the top ranks of society. Lily’s focus on money thus keeps her from taking seriously Selden’s shy admission that he might in fact be interested in her romantically. At the same time, her frustration with the superficiality of her social circle makes her sincerely desperate for friendship, highlighting her loneliness and her feeling that she has no one to truly depend on.
Lily then confesses that she wants a true friend, someone who does not try to please her but will say the honest truth to her when she needs it. Everyone around her, she argues, only tries to use her for their own benefit, and does not actually care about her. When Lily complains that people are saying she should marry, Selden bluntly asks her why she doesn’t, invoking the fact that women like Lily are brought up for that very purpose. Lily sighs, making a cynical comment about the fact that she has nothing else to look forward to, and discusses the rich men she could have married earlier if she had seized the opportunity. As they mention one of her past suitors, Selden lightly comments that she can do better.
Throughout the novel, Lily will show that she is not afraid of confronting truth. Her desire to have a reliable person by her side to help her in that task reveals her aversion to dishonesty and hypocrisy, which are so prevalent in her social group. Selden’s blunt suggestion that the only objective for women is to marry reveals a central contradiction in Lily’s character: her embrace of the materialistic values her upbringing gave her, and her simultaneous opposition to its most effective means, marriage.
When Selden hands Lily a cigarette box, Lily grabs a cigarette. She lights her cigarette to his and Selden is moved by how smooth her face is. Lily then stands up to examine the room, appreciating the bookshelves with a pleasure less intellectual than sensuous. She interrogates Selden about his literary collections, asking him about Americana, but Selden says that Americana are only interesting as historical artifacts, not as actual reading material. They discuss the rarity and extraordinary price of Americana, as well as the famous Jefferson Gryce collection.
Lily’s sensory-based interest in Selden’s books reveals her passion for the beautiful, luxurious items that money can buy. However ingenuous her questions about these books may seem, they serve as the foundation for a plan she has already formed in her mind: to use her knowledge about Americana to make Percy Gryce interested in her. This behavior confirms that she does indeed use social calculation, sometimes when it is least expected.
Despite the pleasure that Selden draws from being in Lily’s company, he cannot help but wonder what her hidden motives might be. When Lily turns to him with a smile that is both intimate and challenging, Lily asks him if he is disappointed not to be richer and to have to work for a living. Selden answers that he enjoys his job as a lawyer, although he admits he does sometimes wish he could travel more. Lily then provocatively asks if he would be ready to marry to do so, but Selden rejects this idea as preposterous.
Lily’s alternation of genuineness and social calculation make her difficult to decipher. However, this interrogation of Selden on marriage, which seems cryptic, reflects Lily’s desire to evaluate life deeply and critically; her question to Selden about marriage is actually a criticism of gender roles, as she will soon reveal.
Lily explains that this is the problem: men are free to choose whether or not they want to marry, whereas women are forced to. She describes the double standards affecting men and women’s behavior, as women must always be elegant and wear expensive clothing to be part of upper-class social circles, whereas men’s appearances do not matter as much. If women cannot afford this life on their own, they are forced to marry.
Lily uses her anticipation of Selden’s response (which she knew would be opposed to marrying for money) to discuss gender roles. Lily’s comments are not only a denunciation of society’s injustice, but also a form of self-justification, since they describe her own life choices (the plan to marry a rich man) in terms of constraint and injustice.
Amused by Lily’s arguments, Selden does not take her very seriously, and notes that she might find a husband at the Trenors’. Lily then mentions that many people will be there whom Selden knows, including the Dorsets, and she glances quickly at Selden to gauge his reaction. Unfazed, Selden replies that big parties bore him, and Lily admits that they also bore her. When Selden asks her why she goes to them, Lily argues that it is her duty, adding that she would be alone with her aunt otherwise. As the two of them laugh at how terrible that sounds, they share a surprising moment of intimacy.
Selden’s failure to understand Lily’s words as a sincere outcry against gender-based injustice reveals that he believes Lily might not despise society’s focus on wealth and appearances as much as she claims. Lily’s mention of the Dorsets is meant to provoke Selden, since he had an affair with Bertha Dorset in the past. Lily’s comment can be seen as mere provocation or, perhaps, as an indication of her nascent romantic interest toward Selden, as she tries to figure out if he still has feelings for Bertha.
Lily then notices it is getting late and leaves to catch her train. She makes Selden say goodbye to her at the door instead of taking her back to the station, since she knows that going up to his apartment alone was already very imprudent on her part. On her way out, she crosses an unpleasant cleaning lady and wonders if the woman’s stare reflects her belief that Lily might be someone with whom Selden is having an affair. This causes Lily to blush suddenly, ashamed, and hurry off.
Lily’s insistence that Selden say goodbye to her inside the building reveals her fear that she might be seen alone with a single man, which would be a dangerous blow to her reputation as an unmarried woman. The fact that Lily has to think about this reveals the fact that the burden for maintaining a reputation of chastity lies on the woman’s shoulders, not the man’s.
Once in the street, Lily runs into Simon Rosedale, an acquaintance she would have preferred to avoid. Mr. Rosedale takes pleasure in Lily’s embarrassment and, when he implies that Lily has just been up to Selden’s apartment, Lily invents an excuse about having been to her dress-maker’s. However, when Mr. Rosedale reveals that he is the owner of the Benedick, where Selden lives, Lily feels even more embarrassed and quickly hails a hansom instead of letting Mr. Rosedale take her back to the train station.
Lily’s fear of being judged for spending time alone with a man proves well founded when Rosedale teases her about it. Rosedale’s attitude is cruel and tactless, since he knows that in Lily’s social world, reputations are people’s most valuable assets. The power he has over her, through the potential rumors he could spread about what he has just seen, makes him behave in a callous way.