The House of Mirth


Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 2: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

In Selden’s apartment, Lily is assailed by her memories, while Selden watches her with silent surprise. Lily begins the conversation by apologizing for her attitude when he came to warn her about Mrs. Hatch. Noting that Lily looks tired, Selden makes her sit down and Lily, unwilling to take part in her usual inventive word-play, begins to share her feelings earnestly, as tears fall from her eyes.
Lily’s sudden honesty reveals that her distance from Selden has been artificial, maintained by pride and an adherence to social codes of detachment. Now that she is engaged in a sincere reflection about the elements of her life that truly matter, though, she realizes that she no longer has to appear strong or superior, but reveal her vulnerability.
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Worried about how tired Lily looks, Selden tries to insist that she have some tea, but Lily explains that she has to go soon. Despite noticing that Selden seems unwilling to reciprocate her outburst of feeling, Lily tells him that she has never forgotten what he told her at Bellomont. She explains that, despite Selden’s efforts to help her escape her social circle, she was never ready to accept them, although the only thing that kept her hopeful in her life has been her knowledge of his belief in her.
For once, Lily agrees to use honesty as the first step in their conversation, instead of waiting for Selden to confront her elaborate conversational skills with blunt honesty. Lily thus sets her public persona aside, allowing her true feelings to come to light for the first time in the novel, without worrying about what Selden’s reaction might be.
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Lily pauses to cry, and then tries to justify herself, in mysterious terms, for trying to escape the low life she has been thrown into. Selden does not understand what she is trying to say and wonders if she has decided to marry. However, Lily does not yet answer, preferring instead to say that she has kept “the Lily Bart you knew” with her throughout her life, but that she must now say goodbye to her and entreat her to him. Finally, she tells him that the knowledge of his love has always helped her, but that she let the moment slip away and must now keep on living. She touches his hand and the two of them feel strangely serious, as though they were close to death.
Before taking Bertha’s letters to her, which Lily knows to be a morally reprehensible act, she wants to prove to Selden that she has remained morally pure until this moment, and does not take pleasure in behaving immorally. She suggests that her true self has always remained private and hidden, but that she knows she will not be able to keep on loving and respecting herself after taking part in such an immoral action. In returning to high society, Lily thus plans to take part in total self-sacrifice, eliminating the most noble aspects of her personality.
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Although Lily does feel that she has killed Selden’s love, she also knows that the love he has inspired in her lives on, and she suddenly realizes that she cannot let go of it—that her old self must remain with her, not with him. She makes a mysterious allusion to some catastrophe that might be about to happen but then asks Selden to kindle the fire so that she can warm up before heading out. Selden observes Lily as she kneels by the fireside and believes he sees her drop something into the fire, although he feels too entranced by Lily’s sight that he does not pay attention to it. Lily then says goodbye and gently kisses him on the forehead.
It is only the notion of Lily’s shared love with Selden that brings her a moral illumination: the understanding that she cannot be a full human being without engaging with this love and honesty. However, Lily’s choice to burn Bertha’s letters in Selden’s fire—the mysterious action Selden does not fully perceive—is accompanied by an effort at reconciling herself with Selden. Paradoxically, then, Lily accepts that she has destroyed her chances at being with Selden but that she will still take pleasure in the love she feels for him.
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