Set in New York City in the first decade of the twentieth century, the novel begins at Grand Central Station on a Monday afternoon in early September. At the train station, Lawrence Selden is approached by a casual acquaintance, Lily Bart. Lily has two hours to spend before her train arrives, and recruits Selden to entertain her. The pair leaves the station and travels to Selden's apartment building, The Benedick.
Over tea in Selden's apartment, Lily reveals her desire to have rooms of her own. She acknowledges that Selden's cousin, Gerty Farish, lives in an apartment, but shares the opinion of most society women — that only governesses, widows, or unmarriageable women live in apartments.
The pair's conversation turns to reasons why Selden seldom visits Lily at her residence in her aunt's — Mrs. Peniston's — house. Selden acknowledges that he is not a suitable suitor for Lily, or, at any rate, that he does not visit often because he is aware that Lily is not interested in him romantically. Lily rebukes Selden for presumptuously attempting to initiate a romantic engagement with her, and reveals that she has long considered Selden a confidante. She also reveals that she knows her female peers regard her as tiresome, and are beginning to become more obvious regarding their opinion that she should marry.
The two smoke cigarettes, which Lily lights from the end of Selden's, giving him cause to admire her beauty. They discuss the merits of collecting rare and first-edition books. Lily asks Selden if he minds not having enough money to purchase the books he wishes to own. He confesses that he is not a "saint on a pillar," indicating that he wishes to have more money than he earns. The conversation turns to what a man may choose to do in contrast to what a woman is forced to do regarding marriage as an economic arrangement.
Lily and Selden discuss the impending weekend party at the Trenor's country estate at Bellomont, and discuss the necessity of her attending society parties in order to meet eligible men, despite the fact that she and Selden agree that the functions are boring. She refuses Selden's offer to escort her back to the train station, and leaves his apartment alone. As she leaves, she sees a cleaning woman on the stairs. She perceives that the cleaning woman is staring at her, perhaps wondering what Lily's business was in Selden's apartment. She dismisses her thoughts concerning the cleaning woman's opinions.
As she leaves the apartment building, she is greeted by Simon Rosedale, whom Wharton describes as "a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type." Rosedale questions Lily as to her business at the Benedick, and she lies that she is there to visit her dressmaker. Rosedale reveals that he owns the Benedick and knows of no tenants who make dresses. He offers her a ride to the train station, but she opts to take a passing hansom instead.
Lily is twenty-nine years old, which is considered old for a single woman of the era. While admiring Lily's physical attractiveness, Selden wonders if she has colored her hair while he appreciates that "everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine."
Wharton reveals that Selden is as interested in Lily's "discretions . . . almost as much as her imprudences." Lily's beauty is remarked upon from Selden's perspective. He compares her appearance to the comparative plainness of female passersby. Wharton goes on to describe the women as exemplars of the "dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood" in order to differentiate Lily's beauty from the remainder of humanity. Wharton describes Selden's thoughts on Lily's attractiveness as an indicator that "a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her." Later, Selden admires the "streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality."
Wharton indicates that Lily is still subject to the whims of her culture, however, when she has Selden notice Lily's blushing when he invites her to visit his rooms: "Her colour deepened — she still had the art of blushing at the right time." The remark reveals that Lily, while a maverick in some ways, will yield to the restrictions of her social class out of either habit or nature. Wharton furthers this perception by having Lily negatively remark on Gerty Farish as an unmarriageable woman who lives in "a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap."
While Lily apologizes to Selden for the insult on his cousin, she confesses that Gerty "is free and I am not." Selden reinforces this perception when he envisions the links of Lily's sapphire bracelet as "manacles chaining her to her fate," which he believes makes her "the victim of the civilization which had produced her."
The different opportunities and lifestyle choices between men and women is furthered when Lily and Selden discuss marriage. Lily states that no one would mind if Selden attended a dinner in a worn coat, but that a woman is expected to be well-groomed and pretty, and that "if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership."
She visits the Benedick, the apartment building that is the dwelling place of Selden and that is owned by Rosedale. The name of the building, as Rosedale states, refers to bachelorhood. (Benedick is the bachelor in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.) Rosedale's acknowledgement that he knows the meaning of the building's name only because he owns it can be interpreted to mean that Rosedale can only know culture by buying it. This interpretation of the exchange between Rosedale and Lily underscores the previous conversation between Lily and Selden concerning the possession and collecting of rare and antique books. Likewise, a woman of culture such as Lily may also be possessed or owned by a person with the requisite income.
The refined appearance and carefree lifestyle of Lily is contrasted with the cleaning woman she sees on the stairs outside Selden's apartment. Their encounter also foreshadows Lily's eventual downfall.
book-muslin with gigot sleeves a light cotton fabric, once used to cover books, that was fashioned into sleeves that ballooned from below the shoulder to the forearm.
hansom a two-wheeled covered carriage for two passengers.
La Bruyère Jean de la Bruyère (1645–96), a French essayist and moralist.
bezique a card game resembling pinochle, but using a double deck of sixty-four cards comprised of two of each card above the six.