The House of Mirth


Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth: Book 2: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

The next morning, on a sunny day, Selden walks toward Lily’s boarding-house, convinced that he must see her immediately and share with her a word that absolutely has to be said. However, as he enters the house, he is surprised to run into Gerty Farish, who is herself surprised that he has arrived so fast. With a sense of foreboding, increased by the presence of other people in the boarding-house at this early hour, Selden enters Lily’s room with Gerty, who tells him that Lily has died of an overdose of sleeping drugs.
Gerty’s comment about seeing Selden so soon suggests that she has tried to contact him to inform him of a tragedy. Selden’s high hopes—which, like Lily’s final thoughts, reveal that he has decided to commit to her, for once and for all—underlines the tragedy of Lily’s death, since it puts a brutal end to their relationship and destroys the future that they could have lived together.
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When Selden sees Lily lying on her bed, he feels that he is seeing “the real Lily,” but that she is inaccessible. Seeing Selden’s sorrow and shock, Gerty tries to remind him of the urgency of the situation, as the doctor has left temporarily so that they can go through Lily’s belongings. Gerty then leaves Selden alone in the room, saying that this is what Lily would have wanted.
Paradoxically, the fact that Selden is convinced to see the “real Lily” even though she is dead suggests that Lily’s very life, with all of its social attributes, was an obstacle to her goodness and sincerity. It remains ambiguous why Selden must sort Lily’s belongings, but seems related to protecting her reputation.
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Alone in Lily’s room, Selden simply wants to fall on his knees by her side, but he knows that he only has a short amount of time to organize Lily’s possessions. He looks away from the sleeping drug by the side of the bed and discovers, on the desk, a letter addressed to Gus Trenor that initially rouses anger and jealousy in him. However, he also discovers that Lily has kept the letter he wrote to her after the tableaux vivants evening at Wellington and Louisa Bry’s—a promise to go visit her that he realizes he had been too cowardly to fulfill.
The letter to Gus Trenor is reminiscent of the moment when Selden saw Lily exit the Trenors’ house and immediately jumped to conclusions about Lily’s affair with Gus. When Selden sees his letter, though, he begins to realize that Lily only truly cared about him—and that, despite his professed love for her, he was unable to act with complete honesty toward her and ask her about what happened with Gus.
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Looking through Lily’s bills, Selden is then surprised to see that all her expenses are paid for. When he realizes that she received her aunt’s legacy the night before and addressed a large check to Gus Trenor, he finally understands that Lily had indeed received money from Gus, but could not bear the idea of staying in his debt, even though repaying it condemned her to poverty.
Selden finally understands that Lily’s life was more complicated than it might have appeared, but that she was not as superficially greedy for material goods as people might have thought, since she always made it a point to repay her debts. This act elevates Lily on a moral level, proving that she cared more about morality than social renown.
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Selden then reflects that their entire lives were meant to keep them apart, because of the different external influences that affected them. However, he finds comfort in the knowledge that he did love Lily, and that he had been willing only a few minutes ago to start a new future with her. Despite the impossibility of making this possibility come to life, Selden knows that it exists in a safe place, separate from the dreary reality of their lives. He knows, too, that it is their love for each other that kept them alive and stronger than their circumstances and, as he kneels by Lily’s side, he feels the word pass between them that makes everything well.
Selden defines the love that exists between Lily and him as something inherently hidden, kept pure and uncorrupted from any aspect of social and material life. This allows him to conclude that their love can overcome death itself, since it continues to exist in the silence of their hearts. Selden’s final moment of communion with Lily thus overcomes any barriers that might have existed while she was alive. The mysterious word they both wanted to share remains as strong as ever, thanks to their shared intention to communicate it.
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