After leaving Selden’s apartment, Lily begins to walk aimlessly, dreading having to return to her room for yet another sleepless night. After sitting down in the park, she is approached by someone who worries about her state, wondering if she is feeling sick. That person is startled to recognize her as Lily Bart. When Lily looks up, the woman says that her name is Nettie Struther, and that she knows Lily from Gerty Farish’s charity. Lily then remembers the young girl, who was ill at the time and to whom she had given money to heal.
The contrast between Lily and Nettie’s current situations reveals how easily fortune can affect people’s lives. It also highlights the importance of creating social networks of compassion, as Lily once did with Nettie and as Nettie is now doing with her. These kinds of relationships differ enormously from the cut-throat world of high society, in which people are more interested in competing with each other than helping each other.
When Nettie sees how weak Lily looks, she takes her to her apartment and the two of them sit in the warm kitchen. Nettie recounts her life, describing how she found the strength and energy to overcome illness as well as poverty. She describes having found happiness through her husband and their young daughter, a baby for whom Nettie cares fondly. Surprised that Lily, whom Nettie had thought above all possible trouble, is now herself in a difficult situation, Nettie wishes she could help her. As Lily gets up to leave, Nettie enthusiastically invites Lily to come back and get to know her family.
Nettie’s generosity is reminiscent of Gerty’s simple, yet deeply compassionate behavior. Both women, who care more about personal happiness than social prestige, show sincere concern for Lily, thus revealing that personal ties between individuals are stronger and more reliable when they are detached from relationships of power and self-interest. The contrast between Nettie’s family life and Lily’s near-complete isolation underscores this point.
After this chance encounter, Lily feels surprisingly better, having taken comfort in the evidence of her own good actions. However, as she walks back to her boarding-house, she feels lonely and lost. Back in her room, though, she suddenly decides to organize all her possessions. When she comes across the dress she had worn for Wellington and Louisa Bry’s tableau vivant, she recalls rejecting the possibility of sharing a life with Selden, but also retains a sense of the pleasure and glamor of the party.
Unlike when Lily first gave Gerty money for her charity, when she had merely reveled in her sense of power, this time Lily feels sincere joy in helping another human being. Having given up both on the possibility of blackmailing Bertha and of sharing her life with Selden, Lily’s reorganization of her belongings can be seen as an effort to come to terms with her past identity, perhaps to create space for building a new one.
A servant then knocks on the door to bring her a letter. When Lily opens it, she discovers a check of ten thousand dollars, with an explanation that the delay had been shorter than expected for her to receive her aunt’s legacy. Unable to believe that she is finally in possession of this check, she calculates all of her expenses and realizes that, after paying these and her debt, she would only have enough to live for three or four additional months. However, after seeing how happy Nettie looked, she no longer fears poverty itself. Rather, she realizes that solitude is more painful. She feels dangerously unattached to life, as though she had never benefited from a fixed, entrenched home.
The moment when Lily receives her aunt’s check allows her to realize that she no longer values money as much as human connections—which she has, unfortunately, failed to cultivate in her life. This moment redefines Lily’s moral and socio-economic values, as she no longer associates poverty with moral degradation or unhappiness. She feels at once free and constrained, realizing that she is free to rebuild a new life but has never been taught how to do this in a way that prioritizes her happiness.
In contrast to Nettie, Lily realizes that everyone she knows is disconnected from other beings and floats about life with no apparent aim or network of strong bonds. Nettie, however, has built a safe, stable life for herself with her husband, based on the depth of a bond in which both members are fully committed to each other and know the details of the others’ fears and vulnerabilities. Lily concludes that a man’s love can bring fulfillment and happiness, as it encourages the woman to become the admirable person she has the potential to be. She also realizes that, despite her bleak circumstances, she still strives for happiness, but that all she is faced with now is renunciation.
When Lily begins to place more importance on relationships than purely selfish goals, she realizes that life has no meaning without the love and care that a community provides—and that her upper-class community has promoted the very opposite values, such as narcissism and rivalry. Lily concludes that one does not need to sacrifice their personality to achieve happiness, as she thought she would have to do by marrying a rich man. Rather, marriage should involve complete respect and understanding, instead of mere self-interest or convenience.
Afraid that in the morning she might change her mind about paying Gus back, Lily decides to write a check to him immediately, so that she will not give in to base impulses. She continues to sort her papers until late at night. By the time she is done, the silence around her seems to foreshadow a future of emptiness for herself.
Lily’s moral values overcome even her own weaknesses, since she is honest enough with herself to realize that she is not morally flawless—and, therefore, that she must invest even more energy in her moral intuition. Her organization of her belongings serves as a prelude to the emptiness that her death will create.
Desperate for sleep, Lily quickly undresses and, in great nervous excitement, does not know how she will be able to bear the difficult circumstances of her life in the days to come. Desiring only a moment of total forgetfulness and peace, Lily pours herself a few more drops of her sleeping drugs than usual, failing to reflect on the possible consequences of this act, simply believing that the usual dose would not be sufficient to quell her overly excited thoughts.
This scene establishes Lily’s death as semi-intentional and semi-accidental. It is intentional in that Lily desperately wants sleep, silence, and oblivion, but accidental in that she never mentions she wants to die, and later proves hopeful about her future (which suggests that she does not expect her life to end). Whether or not Lily actually harbored suicidal thoughts remains a mystery.
In bed, Lily looks forward to the gradual effects of the drug, which cause her to lose perception and consciousness. She suddenly feels that the next day will not be as unbearable as she thought it might be but that, rather, she will surely find the strength and hope to overcome whatever challenges she must face. No longer feeling sad and lonely, she realizes that she must tell Selden a word, to clarify their entire relationship, although she fears she might not remember that word when she wakes up. She knows, though, that saying it to him would make everything well. She then gives in to the power of drowsiness and falls asleep.
Lily’s mental anticipation of the next day intensifies the tragedy of her death, since her positive attitude suggests that she still has hope and could therefore have kept on living a potentially happy life. Lily’s desire to reveal a mysterious word to Selden—seemingly indicative of love and hope—suggests that she may have finally accepted that her relationship with him is more important than being part of high society. This attitude, however, will never be put to test, since death cuts short her opportunity to start a new life.