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Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Lily and Selden have a perfect afternoon together. Lily has claimed to be feeling poorly and has sent Percy Gryce off on a motoring tour with the other guests. They are to be gone for four hours, so Lily feels a rare sense of freedom. She and Selden have taken a long walk and now are sitting on a hill resting. Lily wonders at her feelings. She remembers when first came out into society and had developed a crush on a young man named Herbert Melson. While Selden is nothing like Herbert Meson, her feelings are the same. She feels light and glowing. She thinks of how Selden is regarded in society. He is usually regarded as a bit too deep by the men and too sarcastic by the young women. Lily, who carried a copy of Omar Khayyam in her traveling bag, felt that she could handle his depth.

She tells him she has broken two engagements for him that day. He says he doesn’t believe it wasn’t out of some larger design, intended to further secure her hold on the object of her wishes. He tells her he came to the country just to see her, since she is such an interesting spectacle. He also calls her an artist at the game of finding a husband. They get on the subject of success. Lily says success is getting as much out of life as is possible. Selden says success is freedom, freedom from social constraints and from material constraints. He wants to "keep a kind of republic of the spirit." Lily feels strongly that it is this kind of freedom she has been feeling all day with him. She thinks he questions her life’s work--her goal of winning a rich husband--but he only responds with irony. He is surprised, though, at her line of thought. It makes him think differently of her. When he had come upon her earlier, he had seen her un-composed and thought "This is how she looks when she is alone." He wonders how he figures in her life and thinks he must not be part of her usual scheming.

They continue to talk about this idea of the republic of the spirit. Lily thinks there must not be many married people in it. He adds that there are also very few rich people in it. Lily objects to this exclusion. She thinks that having money will give her freedom. Selden says that having money and being in society become ends in themselves and people stop seeing anything but these goals. He thinks there is nothing terribly wrong with the social circle of the old rich, but that too much energy is spent in maintaining it. This talk makes Lily feel depressed about her future. She finally asks him in despair why he makes her chosen life seem so hateful when he is not willing to offer her anything better. He agrees that he has nothing to give her, but that if he did, he would give it. Lily weeps for a moment, but when she looks up, Selden thinks she is being artful. Lily recognizes that Selden is actually as much of a coward as she is about living life as one wants to. She knows he wouldn’t have been so forward with her if he had not been sure that she would reject him.

When he is surprised, she asks him if he wants to marry her. He laughs and says no, but that maybe he would if she wanted to. Lily feels sad about this and draws away from him. She realizes how much of a risk it would be to fall in love with him and marry him. He tells her it is she who is the coward. She smiles and thinks of her life with him wearing dowdy clothes and trimming her own hats. Suddenly she hears a motorcar and starts to see how late it is. He is surprised at her and tells her the car isn’t their car but is going the other way. She says she knows, but she will still be found out in a lie since she said she was sick and will not get back until they do. He refuses to rush away and stays to light a cigarette. He offers her one and she takes it. She smiles and asks if he was serious. He says, "Why not? You see I took no risks in being so." Then they go down to the house.


Wharton provides here a rare moment outside the constraints of the social setting for her protagonist to play at the idea of what it would be like to step outside the role she has always played. Selden remains a spectator even here. It seems clear that although he doesn’t have the same amount to lose that she does, he finds protection in his aloof irony. He doesn’t commit his heart and when he comes close to it, he draws back quickly. In this setting, Lily’s situation seems more poignant. She is closer to freedom, to a sense of who she could be if she were not forced to follow the path her mother set her on. The two of them entertain the thought of what they could be to each other, but only for a brief moment, and with bitterness when the moment passes.

In this chapter, Selden brings out his idea of a republic of the spirit to which few people belong. This idea seems to go along with what Wharton developed in the previous chapter on the other side of it--the social automatons like the Wetheralls who follow all the rules and never think for themselves. The republic of the spirit seems to be a land occupied by people who have enough money that they are not in dire need and by men who can earn the money they need. Lily might wish to be part of it, but it seems highly unlikely that she will be able to be.

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