The House of Mirth ~ Book II, Chapter IX – end

The House of Mirth Read-Along

Chapter IX

As Lily takes up her duties with Mrs. Hatch, a divorcee (was this fact the cause of Selden’s peculiar wrath in the last chapter?), she is once again ensconced in luxury and ease to her immediate pleasure.  She has been engaged to help Mrs. Hatch rise in society, however she finds her employer somewhat odd:

“The daily details of Mrs. Hatch’s existence were as strange to Lily as its general tenor.  The lady’s habits were marked by an Oriental indolence and disorder peculiarly trying to her companion.  Mrs. Hatch and her friends seemed to float together outside the bounds of time and space ….”

Lily is surprised to discover some of her old acquaintances on the fringes of Mrs. Hatch’s society, people like Ned Silverton and Freddy Van Osburgh, and she is amused to discover this society is one of their “previous engagements” that they would often offer as an excuse to hostesses of Lily’s old upper class set.

Although Mrs. Hatch wants Lily’s guidance and experience, their habits are so incongruous with each other that it is hard to find a meeting point.

“Mrs. Hatch swam in a haze of indeterminate enthusiasms, of aspirations culled from the stage, the newspapers, the fashion-journals, and a gaudy world of sport still more completely beyond her companion’s ken.”

In addition to these hurdles, while Mrs. Hatch makes more errors in “taste rather than conduct,” Lily has an uneasiness about the behaviour of some of her set with regards to Mrs. Hatch, and the reflection it may have on Lily.  While their antics on one hand bring an ironical amusement to her, on the other, her connection to them causes a persistent sense of impropriety.

Unexpectedly, Lily receives a visit from Selden.  She is hurt by his long absence, and Selden is reserved.  Both experiencing wounded pride, they verbally spar with each other:

“The situation between them was one which could have been cleared up only by a sudden explosion of feeling; and their whole training and habit of mind were against the chances of such an explosion.”

Selden urges her to leave Mrs. Hatch and return to Gertie’s, but Lily reveals her inheritance is owed to others and she will have little to live on; therefore she needs to make her own way.  Selden’s cold tone hardens her.

“The very apprehensions he aroused in her hardened her against him: she had been on the alert for the note of personal sympathy, for any sign of recovered power over him; and his attitude of sober impartiality, the absence of all response to her appeal, turned her hurt pride to blind resentment of his interference …. she would rather persist in darkness than owe her enlightenment to Selden.”


View of Broadway and Fifth Avenue Childe Hassam

View of Broadway and Fifth Avenue (pre-1935) Childe Hassam
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter X

Lily parts from Mrs. Hatch, spurred by a comment that she’d be paid for her loyalty.  Carrie Fisher attempts to set Lily up with a hat-trimming shop but none of her old friends will back her as they now have suspicions that she was part of the plan for Freddy Van Osburgh to marry Mrs. Hatch.

“Once again, Lily had withdrawn from an ambiguous situation in time to save her self-respect, but too late for public vindication.”

Finally the only position suitable for Lily is at Mme. Regina’s millinery establishment, where Lily refuses to be a model as requested and is finally reluctantly taken on as a worker.  Unfortunately she is not adept at her work, to the displeasure of the forewoman.

Furthermore, the other working girls keep aloof from her, continuing their incessant, meaningless chatter.  After a particularly bad day at work, Lily runs into Rosedale who is shocked by her appearance.  He buys her tea and walks her home but Lily refuses his veiled offeres of help, however she does reveal to him the situation between her and Gus Trenor to unburden herself.  Later, we learn Lily has been taking a sleeping draught to escape her nighttime thoughts although she is cautioned by the chemist not to exceed the recommended dosage.

“What little there was must at any rate be husbanded to the utmost; she could not trust herself again to the perils of a sleepless night.  Through the long hours of silence the dark spirit of fatigue and loneliness couched upon her breast, leaving her so drained of bodily strength that her morning thoughts swam in a haze of weakness.  The only hope of renewal lay in the little bottle at her bed-side; and how much longer that hope would last she dared not conjecture.”


Fifth Avenue New York Colin Campbell Cooper

Fifth Avenue, New York (1906) Colin Campbell Cooper
~ source Wikimedia Commons


Chapter XI

The end of April finds Lily dismissed from her job, as the season in town has ended and Lily’s performance and tardiness had made it easy for Mme. Regina to let her go.  She wakes early and wanders throughout the day, loath to return home, but that day she meets Rosedale on her doorstep.  He is flush with emotion at her situation, terming it intolerable, and offers to lend her money so she can escape her obligations to Trenor.  It is pure a business deal, however Lily states she has heard those words before from Trenor and she cannot accept his generous offer. She instinctively knows he would marry her if she reconciled with Bertha Dorset and she is tempted because she is beginning to like Rosedale more than previously.  Rosedale noticeably respects Lily for her standards even while wishing to assist her and claims that if she would let him, he would put her “where (she) could wipe (her) feet on ’em!”

Lily does not sleep that night, tossing around the idea of Rosedale’s.  On one hand it would be easy to change her fortunes, yet “material necessities” fought against “moral scruples”.  The next day she goes to tea, then returns home with a concrete decision on what she will do about her situation.  Grabbing the letters, she heads to the Dorset’s but on the way, comes upon Selden’s abode.  Thoughts of the past rush upon her, leaving her with a sudden longing to see him and she enters the building.

Madison Avenue between 69th & 70th

Madison Avenue between 69th & 70th Streets
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter XII

Selden admits her to his apartment and although they are both uncomfortable with each other, there is a softening with both.  Yet even with a change in manner, Lily’s effort to be understood and cared about, is met with a lack of warm feeling from Selden.  Lily express to him something that is important to the meaning of this book:  “I have never forgotten the things you said to me at Bellomont and that sometimes — sometimes when I seemed farthest from remembering them — they have helped me, and kept me from making mistakes; kept me from really becoming what many people have thought me.”  She wants him to understand that “she had saved herself whole from the seeming ruin of her life.”

They have a deep discussion about the past but Lily claims the chance for love is past, feeling that she killed his love, however they both seem to believe that they connect on a deeper spiritual level.  Before Lily leaves, she requests Selden to build the fire and he does not see the packet of letters that she drops into it.  Lily has made her final decision.

New York Street Scene Childe Hassam

New York Street Scene (1890) Childe Hassam
~ source Wikiart

Chapter XIII

Leaving Selden’s apartment, Lily sinks onto a park bench in Bryant Park, too worn out to continue her walk.  Suddenly a voice rings out, claiming that the speaker is one of the girls Lily helped through Gertie’s foundation, and that Lily’s help to send her to a sanatorium made her well.  Nettie Struther sees Lily’s distress and brings her home with her.  Nettie tells her life story, first about her admiration for Lily and how she’d followed her progress in the newspapers, but eventually she shares that she’d been engaged before but the man decided not to marry her and when she became sick, she thought her life would end, but instead she became well, married and had a baby and is now as happy as a clam (I wonder if this story will buoy Lily’s spirits; if it will teach her that you can be knocked down hard but life may still have happiness waiting for you around the corner?)

Cheered by her meeting with Nettie, Lily returns home happier and more content. She decides that instead of avoid dinner because the boarding house depresses her, she will learn to eat there like the others and descends to the dining room. Afterwards, she receives a letter from the solicitor saying that her aunt’s estate is settled earlier than expected and she encloses the cheque in an envelope addressed to her bank and then writes a cheque to Gus Trenor, putting that in an envelope as well.  She then starts musing on her life and her thoughts return to Selden.  Nettie’s happy home life has stirred her, but she sees that it was built by two people and that Nettie’s husband had a faith in her than Lily herself seems to need.  However, Selden, by nature of training of the society he is in, is incapable of the love that would allow her to rise.  There are both hampered by their societal standards.  After visiting Nettie, she desires happiness more than ever but instead is confronted by “the emptiness of renunciation.”  She craves sleep more than anything and takes a little more of the sedative that was prescribed her.  Finally, the feelings of loneliness and helplessness leave, and she is certain that she can face tomorrow with courage.  She feels the pressure of Nettie’s baby resting in her arms and finally gives herself up to a drowsy sleep.

Sleeping Woman

Sleeping Woman (1935) Tamara de Lempicka
~ source Wikiart

Chapter IV

The next morning at 9 am, Selden arrives at Lily’s boarding house, eager to meet with her, as he can now speak the words he meant to say to her when they met before but couldn’t find them.  His jubilation is jarred as he meets with Gertie at the door and is taken upstairs to find that Lily has taken an overdose of the sleeping sedative and is dead.  Gertie leaves him to be alone with Lily for a time and he goes over the effects of her room, finding the letter to Gus Trenor, whereupon he becomes all irritable at the possibility of a relationship between them, his thoughts being fuelled by the previous rumours.  He suddenly sees clearly how life has kept them apart while somehow allowing them to connect spiritually, but while that moment passed, “it was saved whole out of the ruin of their lives.”

The book ends with these cryptic words: “He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.”

Mankind's Eternal Dilemma

Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma – the choice between Virtue and Vice (1633) Frans Fracken the Younger
~ source Wikiart


Those of you who are reading this book for the first time (or can remember back to the first time you read it), did the scene with Lily buying the sleeping draught at the chemist ring any warning bells as to what the end of the book might be?  Did this foreshadowing strike you at the time or was it later that you began to realize Lily’s fate?

Lily says that “she had saved herself whole from the seeming ruin of her life.”  How is this possible.  She is living in poverty, has no employment and is lonely beyond measure.  Yet with this sentence she is claiming to be “whole” and life among the upper class is seen as a “ruin” in contrast to her life now.  How can this be?



Lily is making much better choices now.  It appears that she used to make choices based on society’s standard or her ability to move up in it; now she seems to be making choices based on moral conviction.  There is no longer talk of regaining her standing; she is now trying to do the best she can.  And her choices appear to be coming from a internal, moral place instead of what she can gain materially.

What a comment on women!  “She had fallen, she had ‘gone under,’ and true to the ideal of their race (women), they were awed only by success ___ by the gross tangible image of material achievement.”

Hmmm …. in Lily’s interchanges with Rosedale, it seems that she is still desiring to have a type of power over men.  I’m sure it’s what she’s been taught but I’m not sure how practical it would be to start a relationship on such a basis.

“Whatever perplexity he felt as to the inexorableness of her course — however little he penetrated its motive — she saw that it unmistakably tended to strengthen her hold over him.  It was a though the sense in her of unexplained scruples and resistance had the same attraction as the delicacy of feature, fastidiousness of manner, which gave her an external rarity, an air of being impossible to match.  As he advance in social eperience this uniqueness had acquired a greater value for him, as though he were a collector who had earned to distinguish minor differences of design and quality in some long-coveted object.” Lily’s shallow materialism in character is changing and the contrast is startling.  Not only does Rosedale respect her more, he is more attracted to her AND by her scruples, she has risen above him on a spiritual level.

Isn’t it interesting that while Lily was often stressed and on edge with regard to her situation when she was climbing the social ladder, although her thoughts haunt her now as to her situation, she does seem to be more at peace with her choices and speaks to Rosedale with a quiet conviction.

Lily’s decision to burn the letters is more evidence of her changed character.  And when she speaks with people now, she seems to be in charge rather than those around her determining her actions.  Despite her situation, it’s rather exciting to see.

It’s rather sad that even though Selden suddenly discovers his love for Lily, he immediately assumes the worst after seeing the letter addressed to Gus Trenor.

Oh heavens, does anyone know what the last sentence means? “He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.”  What word and how did it make it all clear?  I’m puzzled.


Final Thoughts:

I know some of you finished early and perhaps were surprised (or even piqued) by the ending.  When I first read this book, my sense of Wharton’s development of Lily was this:  at the beginning of the book, Lily’s is striving to be accepted by a society that lacks morals, responsibility and a productive self-examination.  While her actions reflect these standards, there is always something inside Lily that fights against those standards.  So we almost see her fighting against herself, which is exemplified by her clock-like swinging back and forth in her actions and choices. However, as the book progresses, we see a change in her character.  This change also vacillates, as is common in Lily’s character but gradually, in spite of the roller coaster, it grows.  By the end of the book, by some of the wording Wharton uses, I feel that while Lily has sunken into poverty, her character, or soul, if you will, actually grows bigger until it surpasses all the society people she has known. That’s why Rosedale, who is usually brash and outspoken, is cowed in her presence and bows to her will.  Her means may be small but her soul is growing larger.  Yet while it grows, she is still a very human Lily.

I’m well aware my interpretation goes against many analyses, but given that Wharton has such a complex structure for other novels, I can’t see this as simply a downwards spiral of a character at the mercy of the society it inhabits.  If it is only seen as a downward spiral, that interpretation discards all of Lily’s behaviour and choices which is obviously emphasized in the book and therefore very important.  Wharton is taking us somewhere and we need to dig a little to find out where we are going.  It’s common agreement that the ending is one of the most ambiguous endings in literature and I do believe there’s more to it than what might appear on the surface.

I’d be interested to hear what you all think on this point.  It’s one of the reasons I’m so blown away by Wharton’s crafting of Lily’s character.  She gives glimpses of the expanse of it from the beginning, presents reasons that impedes its development, but gradually it is revealed in all its glory yet crowned with human weakness.  It’s pretty awesome and one of the reasons why this book is one of my top favourites.



“Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency.”

“Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock.  She had been fashioned to delight …. And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature?  That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?”

“She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.”

“And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life ….. She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others.  In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not bult with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties — it had the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it my mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving”


⇐ The House of Mirth ~ Book II, Chapters IV – VIII



21 thoughts on “The House of Mirth ~ Book II, Chapter IX – end

  1. I barely know where to begin. This novel just kills me with all the unspoken emotions and feelings on the part of Lily and Selden. The last sentence with Selden’s thoughts are even more mysterious to me when I read the paragraph before. Are we, the readers, expected to feel better about him or like him more because suddenly he is able to speak his love to Lily after all this time? Is this admission on her literal deathbed really part of the story or a theatrical ploy (Wharton wrote plays and liked the theater)? I can’t figure it out, and because of that for me, this is one of the most disappointing endings in literature I’ve read so far!

    When she meets Mrs. Struther on the street and goes to her home, that exchange is also a bit of a mystery to me. I am not sure what that is about, except to let Lily know she made a difference, a tangible difference in someone’s life and for that her life wasn’t in vain? Her holding of the baby is especially poignant.

    As to your last point regarding Lily’s personal development, I think she grew immensely in the moral aspect of her character as her physical fortunes declined. I am so disappointed that Wharton allowed her to die, which is just a personal reaction. But I think Lily’s whole trajectory in this novel is about her growth of morals and principles against the superficiality and triviality of the society with which she is involved. Selden sees the superficiality, but is still able to move in and out of the group, because as a man, as Lily has so often says, he is not held to the same standards of behavior as a woman.

    Wharton gives Lily almost a sociologist’s keen awareness of her class and how to move in it and what the pitfalls are. She is always at odds with convention, because she sees right through it. And yet, her whole life, even with this awareness, is the desire to be part of it. But in the end her morality guides her in honesty and truth, which ironically is her downfall. I think from this perspective it is fair to say she is too good for this bunch!

    This was a great readalong, Cleo. You are a fantastic guide. Thanks for all your hard work. And thanks to all who participated.

    • I wasn’t that invested in Lily and Selden but only because of his behaviour. If he made decisions about her based on hearsay, without even speaking with her, then what would their interactions in their marriage be like? I thought the ending was very creative in that it doesn’t give a concrete answer. There was also the question of whether Lily committed suicide or not which I didn’t stress in my post because I thought it was obvious she didn’t, but others have thought it obvious that she did. What do you think?

      I thought her meeting with Mrs. Struther was to show that someone could go through hard trials and still find happiness. I was hoping that Lily would take comfort in that and find strength to carry on. I think she would have if she didn’t overdose.

      When I first read the novel, I thought Lily’s death very poignant, as if she’d risen above everyone else with her scruples and convictions and was good enough to be with the angels. This time, that effect wasn’t so obvious for me. When we see the complete aimlessness of high society and the lack of morals and care it exhibits, when juxtaposed against Lily, its meaninglessness is highlighted and emphasized. Her death contributes to that effect. So I now think her death was multi-layered and probably both, or there might be even more reasons.

      I so agree that she’s too good for those around her at the level she wanted to be accepted. Too bad she didn’t have time to explore other levels of society in safety. It would have given her a different perspective.

      You are so welcome, Laurie. It was fun! I’ve been talked into doing a read-along of The Iliad in January so if you want to go to war, you are welcome to join in! 😁

  2. reading reviews and comments for the last couple of years, i’ve become more attached to the idea that each reader reads his own book… meaning that no two interpretations are the same… or can be the same, because each reader reads through his/her own lens, as it were… in that sense, the reader in part IS the book and their understanding is represented in the comments they make… so there is no “wrong” or “right” interpretation to a given novel… opinions on lit give clues to the reviewer as well as to the book.
    I really like your final post even though i disagree with it… i think Wharton was mad at the unreal society she saw wasting people’s time and money, and she wanted to point out the pointlessness of it all. Lily’s pov i thought was pretty much the same through the various episodes: that she valued herself as a person and struggled to fit in with a society that she knew had false values, because she didn’t have a choice. it was fit in or die, which she eventually did… she’d been raised in a certain environment and that was all she knew, and she did her best, that’s all… interesting book, though; i’m glad i read it in spite of not liking it at first… finally, where do you get all the marvelous pictures; it must be a lot of work looking for them and transferring to the blog… the mind boggles a bit… i haven’t figured out how to do that yet, except the author images i just drag and drop… i hope you and yours have a very merry Xmas!!

    • I agree on one level but generally I think we need to do the work to try to find out what the author was trying to say and not put our own perspective on it until we’ve done that work. That said, Wharton is being very creative with this novel and leaves lots of room for speculation.

      I agree with you that Wharton wanted to expose what was rotten and wrong with high society, however, in The Age of Innocence, she shows the pitfalls of society but also shows some of the benefits that have come out of it; the characters opt for a change in tradition, but she shows what is lost by that move. Perhaps she’s only acting on one level in The House of Mirth, but I really think that there’s something else to it. Did you not think Lily changed at the end? I thought there were so many examples of that change. I think if Lily really DID want to fit into that society, she could only fit in or die, but she only had to show those letters to Bertha to fit back in, yet she acts on moral certitude and burns them. However, while Lily’s actions to me, exemplify a change, there are still comments by Wharton at how difficult it is to escape from life-long training. I think it’s on purpose that she leaves us to wonder.

      I’m so glad you read along with us, Mudpuddle. Your insights and comments have been invaluable. And the photos on my posts are normally from Wikiart of Wikimedia Commons. I like how they break up my endless writing and comments, ha ha! 😜

      I hope you and your family have a very, very Merry Christmas as well! 🎄

  3. “her character, or soul, if you will, actually grows bigger until it surpasses all the society people she has known”

    I felt that too, especially with the burning of the letters. I was sure things could have turned around for her at the end, if she had tried to detach a little from her past goals and ideas of what life would be like. But at the first mention of sleeping draught, I knew where she was headed…only I didn’t think Wharton would take it that far… I half-expected Selden to come swooping in at the last moment and save her from it all. (That would have been less realistic, though.)

    It was definitely one of the biggest page-turners this year, and I’m so grateful you put this readalong together so we could discuss it! 🙂 I’m actually more interested now to read The Age of Innocence, which has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and hope to pick it up around New Year to pair with Fitzgerald.

    Also, I’m curious if anyone has watched the movie adaptation, and if so, is it any good?

    • I thought Lily’s death made what Wharton was trying to communicate much more effective. I wish Lily had been able to fit in somewhere more healthy but then the effect of the whole novel would have been diminished.

      Oh my, I do hope you get to read The Age of Innocence. I can’t wait to hear what you’d say about it. It was awesome too and although I enjoyed The House of Mirth a little less this time around, it’s still my Wharton favourite.

      I haven’t seen a movie adaptation of The House of Mirth, but I have see The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. It was awesome and I highly recommend it!! I think it adds to the book!

  4. First: thanks for hosting the read-along. It’s been amazing fun reading your long & wonderful posts & then reading everybody’s comments.

    As for your two questions. Though this is the first time I’ve read it, I did know it was supposed to end badly, though I didn’t know exactly how. But I was pretty sure 😉 Selden was not going to rescue her. And the moment when she gets the choral hydrate & then especially when the apothecary warns her not to take too much, I knew how it was going to end.

    I remain uncertain on the suicide question. If she didn’t intend it (and she might not have) she certainly was engaged in a behavior for which she knew the risks. She was playing with fire & knew it.

    “She had saved herself whole from the seeming ruin of her life.” I’m not as certain as you that I think that Lily has changed that much, but at the same time I do think that sentence is very meaningful. There were always two sides to Lily’s character from the start I think: the more shallow, fun-loving, social butterfly half–at which she was very good–but then also her moral core. She had no time for the mere appearance of morality, and I thought she was sometimes almost impossibly naive about what her decisions really meant (NO! Don’t take money from Trenor!) but inside she really did have a moral core. And when push came to shove that was the most important thing. She makes those final decisions–to pay back Trenor, and to burn Bertha’s letters and not use them for blackmail–even though she knows these two decisions will basically ruin her. It’s precisely that that makes it such a tragedy. This is always who she was–and she has to do this–to be herself. ‘To save herself whole’ at the cost of everything.

    That last sentence! I don’t know what it means either…

    • You’re so welcome, Reese! It was fascinating to get so many excellent observations through the comments. It really does make the read much richer!

      As for the suicide/not suicide, I keep thinking back to Lily’s plans she was making for the following day and the future (less obviously and more generally). I think she just wanted to sleep and didn’t use good judgement, a pattern for Lily throughout the novel.

      At the end of the novel, I thought there were huge moral questions with which (finally) she made the right decision and stuck to it, which was not her normal pattern; those decisions (as you noted above) were evidence for me of a big change. However, Wharton didn’t make it completely obvious; Lily was very human in her journey in that it wasn’t a straight line. I think Lily was always having to choose between society (decadence) and morality and she finally made the right choice(s).

      Karen’s comment gives a good guess as to what the last sentence means. I think that was the most likely meaning.

      Thanks for participating in the read-along. I hope we can do more in 2020!

  5. My impression as I read this for the first time was that Wharton was giving a scathing indictment on the way high society could be at that time, especially for women. I kept picturing some of the scenes in the Titanic movie as I read….especially the dinner scene when the Kate Winslet character invites the Dicaprio character and there’s the whole interchange of dialogue before and during dinner. Both that movie and Wharton’s book give descriptions as to the strong dividing line between social classes at that time. I felt that Wharton gave the reader an up-close look at what it must’ve been like for a woman trying to navigate that high society social level as well as being a women struggling to make it when she found her means declining.

    Lily was an interesting character. I felt that from the beginning she didn’t like the confines her social standing restricted her to and had her moments where she wanted to break from those restricting boundaries put upon her. Hence, going to Selden’s apartment at the beginning. I felt that these quotes really helped the reader see her thoughts on the matter:

    “‘You asked me just now if I could understand why Ned Silverton spent so much money. Of course I understand – he spends it on living with the rich. You think we live on the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense – but it’s a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars – yes, but there’s a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries. The man pays it by big tips to the servants, by playing cards beyond his means, by flowers and presents – and – and – lots of other things that cost…..’” (p. 281-282)

    “It doesn’t sound very amusing, does it? And it isn’t – I’m sick to death of it! And yet the thought of giving it all up nearly kills me – it’s what keeps me awake at night…” (p. 282)

    Regarding the end, I made the mistake of starting to read the introduction in my book before starting the novel and it made a reference to Lily dying. I shut the introduction right away when I read that and cringed because it gave away something that was going to happen in the novel. Aargh! I learned my lesson there…..DON’T read the introduction material before reading the novel if you don’t want to know what happens! Goodness! So needless to say, I went into reading the novel knowing that somewhere along the way Lily was going to die.

    When I got to the end, I didn’t feel like she was trying to commit suicide. The impression I got was that she decided to take a little more than she was supposed to, yes, but that she really did think it wouldn’t be an issue and she would be just fine. It seemed she was thinking that she just wanted to be able to sleep and rest and that once she had rested, she would feel much better the next day. So that made me think she really wasn’t trying to end her life but rather was just willing to take a chance that a little bit more of the draught would be what would help her rest and would not hurt her.

    And the ending statement: “He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.”
    The impression I got was that the “word” it is referring to was “love”. That Selden finally realized his feelings for her but it was too late. And as he knelt by her bed, “love” was what passed between them. I don’t know if that really makes sense…but that’s the impression I got as to what Wharton might have been alluding to.

    There was obviously a lot more to glean from this novel that I didn’t pick up on but was able to see by reading your blog posts and the discussion in the comments. That’s one of the reasons why I love discussing books! It’s been a great read-along and I really enjoyed participating!

    • Your story emphasizes to me why I never read introductions before reading the book, except in special cases where I might be totally lost without it (like Plato, Homer, etc.)

      Wharton is certainly scathing in her indictment of society and while there were lines, I think they could be blurred at times, like with Selden and his ability to live within or without it, and, of course, Rosedale who was probably new money and was trying to get into it. Lily really shouldn’t have been in it unless she married, which was why her situation was so precarious.

      Lily didn’t like certain confines because, I think, she had the sense that they were either morally wrong, or would not bring happiness. I thought that was very insightful of her, a characteristic she probably picked up from her father; certainly not her mother.

      I totally agree with your reasoning of why she wasn’t trying to commit suicide. I felt that same way.

      A great thought on what the last sentence means. It’s the most likely supposition, at least that I can see. I didn’t think of it because (after reading so many books on love lately), I didn’t think Selden’s love for Lily was very grounded. So I guess I sort of dismissed it. Bad me … 🙄

      Thanks for all your comments during this read-along, Karen. They’ve been very insightful and most appreciated!

  6. I agree with you. I think that Lily’s refusal to compromise to find a solution to her dilemma comes from a place of rebellion. She almost embraces her doom toward the end (I suppose that sounds rather dramatic, but that’s how I see it) because it’s the only choice that she can make and still be true to something intrinsic to her. I don’t know if I’d call it “morals” or “values”. Neither word seems right somehow. But I think I mentioned in the last portion that Lily’s refusal to commit to a course of action (Dorset, Rosedale, etc) felt like it was a passive “choice.” The end definitely strengthen that impression. In the beginning I had a rather low opinion of Lily’s character: she’s blatantly out to marry for money and gain the acceptance of a shallow, judgmental group of people. However, her refusal to make the decisions that would cement her position within the group and her occasionally self-sabotaging behavior was an indicator that something about it didn’t feel right to her. She wasn’t able to actively make the decision to reject it, but she sort of did that passively.

    • Do you see it as a rebellion? I see her actions as more a naiveté. She does not like the behaviours of the upper class but she realizes the benefits being part of them brings. Her natural sense of “right” causes her to strain against those behaviours but her naiveté does not seem to lead her to the consequences of her going against them. In fact, sometimes I don’t even see it as a “going against” them, she is simply (now) doing what is right.

      I agree with Lily’s passivity before this last section but now I see an activeness to her behaviour. She stands up to both Rosedale and Selden quite adeptly. She burns Bertha’s letters and she even actively pursues a career with hope, before she realizes that she’s not fit for it. I did see an active rejection of society when she wasn’t part of it. It’s as if she has a clarity and conviction to her actions, which she lacked before.

      Did you think her death was a suicide?

      Boy, I loved this read. Wharton is certainly one of my favourite authors!

      • I suppose that I see it as a passive rebellion. She’s not directly taking any action against anyone but her refusal to do what would be necessary to regain her standing is her way of asserting herself and what she believes. At several points over the course of the novel she could have done something that would have either put her in a firm position within society or allowed her to regain her old position on better footing. For one reason or another, those actions weren’t acceptable to her. Her refusal to make those compromises that everyone else in her social circle would make is, in its own way a rebellion.

        I agree that Lily became more clearly active in the last portion of the novel. I suppose that I see her previous refusal to compromise as active in itself own way though, even if it wasn’t on a conscious level.

        I think her death was sort of a passive suicide, in the same way that I see her actions throughout the novel as a passive rebellion. She is aware of the risks of raising the dose of the drug. She puts her financial affairs in order. She thinks about the warning the pharmacist gave as she pours out her dosage and she still chooses to exceed the recommended dosage. While she might not have clearly consciously chosen to commit suicide, I can’t quite believe that it was an unintentional accident.

  7. I also love Wharton. If you haven’t read The Custom of the Country, you should definitely read it to round out your Wharton “old New York” experience.

    Also, I think that Wharton’s final book, Glimpses of the Moon, is pretty wonderful for one of the “lesser” Whartons (if such a thing exists) – and is sort of the culmination of the stories that Wharton tells about women and the way that society limits them (to their peril).

    I always like to read Wharton and Cather in tandem. Cather was only a decade younger than Wharton, but her books are so different. Wharton does the interior, repression thing, while Cather’s books are bursting with expansiveness, both in the landscape and in the characters. It’s astonishing to me that two such incredibly accomplished, but entirely different, women writers were writing at the same time (One of Ours won the Pulitzer in 1922, The Age of Innocence in 1920).

    • Yay, Christine, you’re back! You took a blog-break for awhile!

      I know! I was going to join Reese for The Custom of the Country but I was drowning in read-alongs and just couldn’t manage it. But it IS high up on my TBR (along with many others, ha, ha!)

      I’ve read only one Cather but I find them so different. I didn’t know that they were writing at the same time. Life in the city vs. the life in the country must be like different worlds. Thanks for reminding me of Cather. I do have to get back to reading some of her works.

  8. I’m not conclusive on the meaning of anything in this work, but as I came to the final decision’s Lily made leading up to her end, I was content to understand that Lily didn’t owe anyone or society in general anything. She could not belong to anyone or any society. She seemed passive, but she was beyond passive. She transcended society and its regulations and restrictions and requirements for love and work and life. She had bigger character than someone who sought revenge. I think Rosedale admired that about her and why he knew he was beneath her. They all were.

    But that final remark from Selden – what was the word that passed between them? I have no answer.

    P.S. I don’t remember if I caught it in my first reading, but this second time I recalled that she would use a sleep aid to commit suicide — to escape her “misery.”

    • I so agree that she transcended society with its small minded pettiness. And the way Wharton made her so human, yet chronicled her rise above many of her contemporaries was an amazing feat of creativity and insight.

      I think it was Karen who thought the word was “love” but if it was, it might have taken away the overall effect of the novel. I wonder if Wharton even knew herself?

      • I was going to say that! I wonder if Wharton even knew herself or left it open to reader interpretation, which is not a bad idea at all!

  9. I finally finished House of Mirth (just before the New Year) AND I posted about it! (The first book post since…April…oops.) Thanks so much for hosting this, Cleo, even if I’ve been a silent participant, your readalong definitely inspired me to read House of Mirth and the posts and comments have provided a lot of food for thought.

    Since I’m a first-time reader (my first Wharton, in fact), I’ll answer your question: I felt early on in the book that Lily would either end in a very unhappy marriage or dead. When she bought the sleeping draught I was certain that would be her end (intentional or otherwise; like you I read it as accidental). I think I’m more inclined to see it as a condemnation of society that you are, but that could be because, on this first reading at least, I have sympathy for Lily as a character. Even though I can see her making mistakes, I can understand her mistakes, and I can understand how difficult it would be for her (meaning someone of her personality + upbringing + environment) to do otherwise.

    • Oh I can’t wait to pop over and read it. I will as soon as I finish some of my Iliad prep! Sadly, I broke my computer today and I’m on another one that doesn’t have all my easy links so I’m a little handicapped until I get it fixed.

      I’m so glad the read-along was helpful to you. Wharton is such a great writer so you have some good books to read through. The Age of Innocence was wonderful; some like it better than The House of Mirth but The House of Mirth is still my favourite!!

      It’s interesting to hear your first observations. I agree with Ruth in that I felt Wharton had Lily transcend society in the end. But it was subtly done, so it’s not totally obvious. Strangely, it reminds me how Milton treats Satan in Paradise Lost except in reverse. Or perhaps Ruth in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name. However it’s up for debate. In any case, I hope you’re able to continue on your Wharton journey!

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