The House of Mirth Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The House of Mirth: Book Two – Chapter 13,14

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Summary – Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen

Lily walks out and sits in the park to rest. The thought of her chloral is the only bright spot, but she is troubled that it is losing its power. She dreads a sleepless night, though, and so lingers in the hope that her tiredness will reinforce the ‘waning power’ of the drug.


It is dark and she sits still. Some people pass occasionally and one stops. She introduces herself to Lily as one of the girls from Miss Farish’s club. Lily had helped her go to the country when she had lung trouble and her name is Nettie Struther. Lily remembers and thinks of the irony that she had used Trenor’s money to assist her. Nettie realizes how weak Lily is and helps her up. She then takes her home.


Lily sits by the fire as Nettie feeds her baby and tells of how she used to read about her in the papers. She has not seen her name for a long time and had wondered if she was sick. She thanks Lily again and says she only wishes there was something she could do for her. Lily smiles and hold out her arms; Nettie understands and passes her the baby. Nettie says it would be ‘too lovely’ if her daughter grew up to be like Lily and Lily says ‘Oh, she must not do that – I should be afraid to come and see her too often’.


As she leaves, she promises to come back soon. Out on the street, she feels stronger and it is not until she enters her own door that she experiences ‘a deeper loneliness’. She gets ready for dinner, but is glad that it is almost over by the time she goes downstairs. When she comes back to her room, she is seized ‘with a sudden fever of activity’ and goes through her clothes. She is startled to find the atmosphere of the old life envelop her, but this is, after all, what she was made for: ‘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.’


She then receives a letter from the executors of her aunt’s will. It is a $10,000 check and they explain they had less delay than expected. 10 months ago this amount represented the ‘depths of penury’, but her standard of value has changed since then. She works out that when she has paid her bills, she would have barely enough to live on for the next three or four months and sees she is going the way of Miss Silverton. It is no longer just poverty that she shrinks from but the ‘clutch of solitude at her heart’. She feels rootless and as she looks back she sees she has always been like this, and her parents had been too. She had her first glimpse of the continuity of life in Nettie’s kitchen; all the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other.


She thinks of Selden and how he had twice been ready to stake his faith in Lily. As she told him, she will remember his faith in her, but she is too young to live on memories. When she held Nettie’s baby, she felt youth run warm in her veins and wanted her share of personal happiness.


She starts to feel weary and thinks that when she awakes she will put off paying her debt to Trenor. The thought of this terrifies her and dreads falling ‘from the height of her last moment with Lawrence Selden’. She thinks if only life could end now, ‘on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities...’ With this, she suddenly reaches out, draws the check form her desk and puts it in an envelop addressed to the bank. She writes a check for Trenor and puts it in another envelop addressed to him (with no letter inside).


She leaves the letters on her desk and wants to fall asleep as she has been awake for two nights. However, as soon as she lies down every nerve starts into ‘separate wakefulness’. She wants to shut these thoughts out for a few hours and must take a ‘brief bath of oblivion’. She has been raising the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she wants to increase it. She knows this is taking a risk, given the chemist’s warning, but thinks this is one chance in a hundred.


As she falls asleep, she cannot remember what she was worried about and does not feel alone. She can feel Nettie’s child lying in her arms and also thinks there is something she has to tell Selden – a word that would make life clearer between them. The thought of the word fades and she falls asleep.


In the final chapter, the next morning is bright with the promise of summer in the air and Selden feels a ‘youthful sense of adventure’. He has cut loose from habit and ‘launched himself on uncharted seas of emotion’. For the moment, this leads him to Lily’s boarding house. It is only 9 am but he knows he must see her at once as he has found the ‘word’ he meant to say to her and could not wait to tell her. He runs eagerly up the steps and pulls the bell, and is surprised when Gerty answers.


She asks how he got here so quickly and lays a trembling hand on him. He and Gerty go up the three flights and enter Lily’s room. He sees the semblance of her lying on the bed and Gerty explains that she has been taking chloral and must have overdosed by mistake.


Selden drops to his knees, but Gerty rouses him and says the doctor has promised there will be no trouble (but the formalities must be gone through). He has given them time to go through Lily’s possessions.


Gerty leaves saying Lily would have wished for Selden to do this. As she speaks, a light breaks through his ‘stony misery’ and he sees ‘deep into the hidden things of love’. He spots the two letters and is staggered by the temptation to see what she has written to Trenor. He looks through her letters and sees that she has saved the note he wrote her after the Brys’ entertainment and keeps it. He then looks through her checkbook and notices that she has received her legacy but also paid it out and Trenor is included here. He understands that she has had money from him, but the obligation had been intolerable to her. This is all he can hope to unravel from the story. The novel ends with him kneeling by the bed and bending over her ‘and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.’


Analysis – Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen

In these final chapters, Lily chooses to live (and die) by the decision she makes in Selden’s rooms as she writes the check for Trenor. She pays off the debt rather than succumb to the temptation of putting the thought of it to the back of her mind and trying to forget about it. It is ambiguous as to whether she truly means to commit suicide as her thoughts flicker between the desire for sleep and the need to pay off her debts. She knowingly raises the dose of chloral and gambles (once more) that this will not be as dangerous as the chemist warned her. It is also apparent, however, that she has no hope for the future and sleep seems to be her only means of escape.


She falls asleep thinking of the word she wants to tell Selden and he comes to see her the next morning with the desire to tell her the word he meant to say to her. Although not stated, the readers can be in no doubt that the word is love, and the novel ends on a form of silent communion between Selden and Lily as the love passes between them. This is, of course, a poignant ending that is heightened by the earlier barriers between the two. Lily dies before he is able to speak to her and this adds weight to the wastefulness of her death.


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