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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”