Free Study Guide The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton|
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Lily holds her arms out for the child. "The childís confidence in its safety thrilled her with a sense of warmth and returning life." She feels after a while as if the weight of the child sinks into her and the child enters her and becomes part of herself. Nettie exclaims upon seeing her like this that she wishes her daughter could grow up to become like Lily. Lily says she must not ever do that and that she would be afraid to come to see her too often for fear of that eventuality. Finally, she gets up and leaves. When she reaches her own street she realizes she feels stronger and happier, but at her door, she feels the weight of loneliness return to her. She decides she must go down to dinner even though she finds it repugnant. She has been skipping dinner too often lately.
Back in her room, she suddenly feels the need to get her things in order. She goes through her drawers and her closet and pulls out all her dresses and examines them and puts them in order. Just as she finishes, the house maid brings her a letter. It is a check from the lawyers of Mrs. Penistonís estate for ten thousand dollars. She sits down and stares at it. She tries to figure out her finances. She feels great fear that she will succumb to the desire to use the money for herself instead of paying it back to Gus Trenor. She knows that she has never had any training in moral rectitude "There was no center 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." She had gotten her first glimpse of a life of continuity and solidarity that evening with Nettie Struther. Nettie had found the strength to live when she had gotten a family. George had married her despite her past. Lily thinks of Selden. He had twice tried to give her his love and she had refused. Now that she had wanted him, he had not been able to accept her love.
As she had sat holding Nettieís baby, she had felt the urge to live return to her. She wanted to find happiness. She realizes sitting there now that "one by one she had detached herself from the baser possibilities, and she saw that nothing now remained to her but the emptiness of renunciation." It is now late and she feels horribly tired. She fears again for her inability to go through with giving all the money to Trenor. Suddenly she reaches for the check, puts it in an envelope addressed to her bank and then begins to write checks to all those she owes. When she is finished it is quite late. She feels that "she alone is left sentient in a lifeless universe." She goes to bed but despite her exhaustion cannot sleep. She has gotten no sleep for the past two days. She has worried about taking any more of the drug because of the chemistís warning, but lately it has not been working as well as it used to. She reaches for the vial and adds the extra drops, then blows out the candle and lies down.
She lies still waiting for the wonderful effect of the drug on her senses.
The drug works more slowly than usual, but finally it begins to make her
sleepy. As she lies there, she thinks about the next day, realizing that
it wonít be so bad tomorrow after all. When she stirs, she suddenly feels
as if Nettie Strutherís child is lying in her arms. She settles herself
around the baby and holds her breath steady so she wonít disturb the baby.
She realizes there is something she should tell Selden the next day, one
word, but she canít think of what it is. The world finally fades slowly
and just before sleep, she starts up thinking she has lost her hold on
the child. She realizes she is wrong. The child is still with her, and
she sinks down and sleeps.
Does Lily commit suicide? Aside from her conscious thoughts, all her actions indicate that she does. She says good-bye to Lawrence Selden, burns the papers that would hurt his reputation, arranges all her clothes, pays all her bills, and takes more drops than is safe even while remembering the chemistís warning that more drops will send one to sleep forever. Her conscious thoughts are much more confused than would allow anyone to say decidedly that she has committed suicide. Part of the confusion comes from having become addicted to the drug, part of it comes from having eaten so little and slept so little, and part of it comes from living outside the boundaries of any life she has been raised to know.
Wharton writes Lilyís death with complete pathos. The irony which so saturates the earlier descriptions of Lily and her world is completely absent. It is replaced with the language of sentimentality. That sentimentality rests in two elements of popular attachment to pathos the romanticism of star-crossed lovers and the ideology of motherhood. Lily encounters both discourses in the last chapter of her life. At Lawrence Seldenís apartment, she realizes that he has offered to love her twice and both times she has refused. Now that she realizes how much she loves him, he is unable to love her back in the same way. At Nettie Strutherís apartment, Lily sits in Nettieís kitchen as Nettie praises the life of motherhood and wifehood and she holds Nettieís baby. When she drifts off to sleep, she hallucinates that she has the baby back in her arms.
The critique of the novel has rested on a realistic portrayal of what a young
woman has to go through to find economic security and how tenuous that
security is if one has a streak of morality running through her. The novel
closes in the language of sentimental fiction. The protagonist has turned
from a rather deeply flawed but good-hearted person who makes a series
of active decisions in an attempt to manage her life, to a figure of tragedy,
beautiful and fragile, childlike and mother-like at the same time. The
shift from realism to sentimentality in style also shifts the manner of
the critique. The woman returns to her position in society as one in need
of the protection of a good man.
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