The House of Mirth

by

Edith Wharton

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The House of Mirth can help.

The House of Mirth: Book 1: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
That afternoon, Lily accepts Selden’s proposal and goes on a walk with him in the woods. She appreciates the peaceful atmosphere of the natural scene, although she enjoys nature only insofar as it reflects her own emotions. When the two of them sit down, they remain quiet. Selden feels extremely calm and relaxed, feeling free and appreciating the pleasant sensations that nature brings him. Lily, on the other hand, behind an appearance of equal calm, feels alternately fearful and overjoyed, although the latter emotion soon dominates.
The contrast between Lily and Selden’s attitudes and emotions indicates different responses to a similar situation. Although Lily soon becomes overwhelmed by her emotions, Selden seems more relaxed, perhaps because he has already learned to accept what he feels for her. Either way, the peaceful setting of this scene creates the perfect backdrop for an intimate, honest conversation.
Themes
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Lily wonders if this might be love, or merely the combination of pleasant sensations. Having no prior experience from which to judge her current state, she cannot be sure what she is feeling. She remembers falling in love only once with another person (although she has fallen in love with money or power many times), but what she felt at the time could not compare to this. This time, she feels unusually light and free, and she admires Selden’s various qualities, such as his cultivation and his sense of irony, which keeps him separate from trivial matters of society.
Lily’s inability to identify love suggests how little she has been able to engage with her emotional life until now. Unlike many of Lily’s other feelings in life, which revolve around material acquisitions and other superficial pursuits, this new series of sensations allows her to take pleasure in intellectual life, since it is precisely Selden’s anti-materialism that appeals to her.
Themes
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
When Lily begins saying that she has broken two engagements to spend time with him, Selden replies that he has broken none, since he came to Bellomont to see her, because she fascinates him. At the same time, he adds that he knows that the time Lily is spending with him has not distracted her from her prior course, and Lily is forced to admit to herself that he is right, because she has used Selden’s presence as a way to make Percy Gryce only more interested in her. This afternoon, when she invented the excuse of a headache to avoid going on an excursion with the rest of the group, her vulnerable, sick attitude made her seem only more attractive to Gryce.
Lily’s attempt to indicate to Selden that she is making special concessions for him can be seen as the beginning of an expression of romantic interest, but is soon overpowered by Selden’s more straightforward confession, in which he declares his fascination for her, thus proving that he is more emotionally open than her. Selden also proves that, while Lily claims to be sacrificing something for him, she is doing nothing of the sort, since Selden is not an obstacle to her greater plans of marriage.
Themes
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Since the rest of the group will be gone for four hours, Lily feels happy about having some time to enjoy her thoughts freely for once. Replying to Selden’s previous comment, Lily complains about him always accusing her of premeditation, but Selden explains that he admires her for it. When Lily despondently replies that it has not brought her success, Selden argues that his vision of success is different from hers: he sees it as a “republic of the spirit,” apart from any material concerns.
Lily’s conception of success involves constant calculation and ambition—as it is based on the desire to become rich and powerful, oriented toward an end goal—whereas Selden’s conception of success is not a projection into the future or a tangible end. Rather, he argues that anyone can be successful as long as they learn to separate themselves from the trivial aspects of life and focus on their spirit.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Get the entire The House of Mirth LitChart as a printable PDF.
The House of Mirth PDF
Lily and Selden argue about the possibility of reaching such a non-materialistic world. Lily notes that, despite Selden’s critique of high society, he seems willing enough to take part in it. However, Selden argues that he knows how to separate himself from society. He adds that anyone who thinks that being part of society is an end in itself, instead of a means for diversion or entertainment, will be condemned to an artificial relationship to people and to life.
Selden’s freedom here differs from Lily’s not because, as a man, he has less pressure to marry, but because he has accepted that high society can offer him nothing that he inherently needs to be happy, nor does it allow for the elevation of the spirit. Selden’s comments serve as a prophetic description of Lily’s life, in which she will later realize that she has cultivated a superficial relationship with herself and the world.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Gender, Class, and Freedom Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Selden prophesies that Lily, too, will one day find that she is disappointed in her materialistic goals. Lily finds this prospect terribly depressing, although Selden makes her admit that she has thought about such a possibility before. Frustrated, Lily tells Selden that he should stop belittling her world if he has nothing to offer her in exchange. Selden replies that, despite having nothing to give her, he would be willing to give her all he has. Lily then begins to cry, and the two of them argue over whether Lily truly only cares about material things. They do not reach a consensus, and Selden concludes that she does not even know for herself whether she does.
A paradox emerges about Lily’s character: she is intelligent and lucid enough to know that material goals will probably not bring her happiness, yet she does not seem able to deviate from her materialism-driven path. When Selden tells her he would give her everything, he is indirectly declaring his love to her and suggesting that she could start a new kind of life with him, but Lily’s indecision about her own desires and needs does not allow for this moment to illuminate Lily’s life.
Themes
Money and Happiness Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Lily then directly asks Selden if he wants to marry her and Selden, laughing, says he doesn’t, but adds that he would if she did. He then says that he would be willing to take the risk of marrying her, but both of them playfully call each other cowards. Selden takes Lily’s hands, and Lily makes an amused comment about the fact that she would look ugly in unfashionable clothes, which she would have to wear since Selden is not rich.
Selden’s noncommittal answer about marriage and Lily’s jokes about wearing ugly clothes reveal the two characters’ efforts at making light of their love, as they seem incapable of committing to it (or rejecting it) enough to influence the other person’s outlook. Humor and playfulness thus prove to be the only means through which they can address their fear-inducing romance.
Themes
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
Lily and Selden smile at each other, lost in their daydream of getting married and living together. However, they suddenly hear the sound of a car and Lily, annoyed, fears that the group will see them together. The two of them have a cigarette and, when Lily asks if Selden was serious about marrying her, he implies that he was. However, the two of them then walk back to the house, where they plan to resume their ordinary lives.
Since Lily and Selden have not found a way to make their love fit within the narrow world of high society, they are forced to ignore the intense, emotional moment that they have just shared. Lily, in particular, demonstrates ambiguous feelings—the desire to know whether Selden is serious about his love, combined with a feeling of obligation toward the rest of the group at Bellomont.
Themes
Gender, Class, and Freedom Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon