In the meantime, Lily does feel that she is following a fated course, making decisions without ever knowing if they are wise or if they are potential mistakes. Despite her financial worries, Lily feels that her relationship with Bertha has softened, and that the two have renewed their friendliness. Although she knows that rumors are now speculating about her relationship with George Dorset, Lily is more worried about Gus Trenor, whose moods are unpredictable, in part because of financial troubles, and who shows increasing impatience about his relationship with Lily.
The fragile situation that Lily is in is financial as much as social. Although she feels more confident about her relationship with Bertha, Bertha remains a potential threat, because it is impossible to know what her true motives are. In parallel, Gus’s attitude is increasingly worrying, since he seems to expect more than mere friendship from Lily. These parallel developments will prove the greatest threats to Lily’s well-being and reputation.
Lily, who has not received any more invitations from Judy to join them at Bellomont, wonders if Judy might have learned of the rumors concerning Lily and Gus. After the New Year, Lily thus resolves to go to Bellomont to see where her friendship with Judy stands. However, at Bellomont, the young girl feels that Judy is colder towards her, and she remains annoyed by some of people’s criticism, as they disparage Lily’s acquaintance with Rosedale and Wellington and Louisa Bry.
Judy’s coldness is a bad sign for Lily, revealing that what Lily had thought was a strong friendship might break from one day to the next—with the consequence of excluding her from an entire section of social life, such as Judy’s gatherings at Bellomont. People’s comments about Lily’s acquaintances reveal the hostilities and rivalries that exist between different social groups, according to who is more or less prominent.
Back in New York, Lily attends a party that makes her forget about these troubles at least temporarily. Under Carry Fisher’s guidance, Wellington Bry and Louisa Bry want to organize a party that will be so lavish as to attract all the important members of high society. Under the guidance of Paul Morpeth, a prominent artist, they organize a series of tableaux vivants.
The Wellington Brys’ attempt to become part of high society reveals that money alone is insufficient in guaranteeing one’s elevated position in the upper class. Rather, one must learn to combine money with shrewd social skills and an interesting personality.
Intrigued by such a program, most of society attends the party. Interested in the artistic nature of the event, Lawrence Selden also decides to attend the party and sits next to Gerty Farish, who is delighted that Lily has sent her an invitation. Commenting on this generous act, Gerty concludes that Lily is caring and compassionate, invoking in addition Lily’s politeness toward Mr. Rosedale and her two visits to Gerty’s charity as evidence of Lily’s natural generosity.
Although this event signals the possibility for the upper class to use their money for good causes, such as creating art, the Wellington Brys’ hidden motive is social-climbing—thus confirming Selden’s cynical view of high society as a narrowly self-interested group. Gerty’s inability of attributing base motives to others, such as a desire for power, makes her one of the few people capable of believing in Lily’s goodness.
The tableaux vivants then begin, showing various scenes and characters, which Selden particularly enjoys because he is capable of immersing himself entirely in the visual scenes depicted, whereas Gerty simply comments on the beauty of the actors. When the curtain opens on Lily Bart, meant to be impersonating Reynold’s portrait “Mrs. Lloyd,” the audience emits a gasp of surprise. Lily has chosen a painting that seems like a pure celebration of her own self, since she is the only character on stage, resplendent in all of her beauty.
Selden’s appreciation of the purely artistic elements of this party reveals his lack of interest in the aspects of this event that relate to social competition and power. However, Lily’s single-person portrait cannot be seen as a purely disinterested choice, since her goal, in appearing alone on stage, is not only to add to the beauty of the party, but to impress the audience and present an image of power and self-control.
Selden feels that this tableau vivant shows him “the real Lily Bart,” without her social artifices. However, when Selden hears Ned Van Alstyne comment inelegantly on Lily’s beauty, he feels indignant, as he believes that the tone and nature of this comment reflect the low standards by which Lily is judged in her own society. Before the curtain falls, Selden feels that Lily is calling out to him to save her from the tragic way in which her beauty is trivialized in her social sphere. Gerty then interrupts Selden’s reverie, commenting excitedly that this is “the real Lily,” and the two of them agree. Gerty is happy to realize that Selden likes Lily, noting that Lily always says he is mean to her.
Paradoxically, Selden ignores the statement of social power involved in Lily’s decision to appear alone on stage, instead focusing exclusively on her beauty, which he separates from its vulgar, competitive context. Selden’s desire to imagine Lily outside of her social sphere reflects his personal wish for Lily to care less about the material world, which he believes she should and can do—for her own sake as well as for their relationship’s. Lily’s comment that Selden is usually mean to her does not express actual harm (though Gerty interprets it that way) but, rather, the difficulty of overcoming the differences between their two conceptions of the world.
After the performance, Selden looks for Lily, who is surrounded by a group of admirers and is reveling in her success. She knows that she has awed everyone present but, when she sees Selden approach, she feels for a moment that it is only for him that she wants to impress with her beauty. When the group of admirers disperses to go to dinner, Lily and Selden walk off on their own, feeling that they are in the middle of a dream.
Lily’s intentions are both collective and personal. She wants to assert social dominance, but also conquer Selden’s heart. Her feeling that this latter goal might matter more than the former highlights the intensity of her emotions, and her intuition that cultivating deep personal relationships is more valuable than achieving social prominence.
Lily and Selden sit down by a fountain, and Lily criticizes Selden for never speaking to her and saying disparaging things about her life to her, but Selden replies that he certainly thinks about her a lot. When Lily asks why Selden does not help her by being her friend, he replies that he can only help her by loving her. Moved by their feelings and these words, the two of them kiss. Lily, overcome by emotion, suddenly stands up, poignantly telling Selden that he should love her but never tell her so, and she walks away. Knowing that such moments of intimacy are extremely short-lived, Selden does not follow her. Instead, he walks inside and listens as Gus Trenor and Ned Van Alstyne crudely discuss Lily’s figure.
Lily’s criticism of Selden’s attitude is disingenuous. She wants him to admire and appreciate her, but does not want him to express what they both know they feel: love. Lily’s inability to handle such an intense emotion reveals that she feels more comfortable in a social world in which she follows fixed rules of convention and civility, instead of in a world where she might be free to follow her emotions instead of social rules. The consequence of staying in a debased social world is that people do not treat each other with care and affection but, rather, are not afraid to discuss other people in self-interested, even sinister ways.