The House of Mirth By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapter VI

Summary

The chapter begins with Lily and Selden venturing out-of-doors for a prolonged conversation. The exhilaration she feels is compared to the only time Lily felt that she had been in love, with Herbert Melson. A man possessing good looks but little income, Melson eventually married an older sister of Gwen. Lily tempers her nostalgia by acknowledging that the handsome young man aged, put on weight, and became a man who incessantly related anecdotes about his children.

Wharton describes Selden as an intellectual of dark features and impressive height. Lily admires him because he possesses a sense of superiority over the mannerisms of the wealthy. He tells Lily that he has come to the Trenors' party specifically to see her.

Lily intends to use Selden's presence as a prop for her intentions for Gryce. She supposes that spending time with Selden will either relate to Gryce that she is not desperate for his proposal, or it will incite Gryce to jealousy. Earlier that day, Lily had feigned a debilitating headache as a reason to miss an afternoon automobile drive to the Van Osburghs' estate. The headache was intended to elicit Gryce's sympathy, a ploy that Selden observed with much amusement.

The conversation between Lily and Selden revolves around their respective definitions of success. For Lily, it is "to get as much as one can out of life." For Selden, it is personal freedom. The couple discusses money. Selden states that, for the rich, money is like air; removed from the comfort of their surroundings, the wealthy gasp like fish out of water. Lily responds that, as an individual adverse to the ways of the rich, he spends much time socializing with them.

Selden responds that he considers Lily too worthy for many men of the upper class. Lily answers that perhaps she might perform great acts with the wealth she could receive from a rich husband. Selden tells her that she is pursuing wealth that ultimately will not make her happy, and asks her if she has considered that result. She confesses that she has, but considers his assessment much darker than her own.

The conversation puts Lily in a darker mood, and she challenges Selden to explain why he should draw the limitations of her aspirations to her attention when he has nothing to offer her as an alternative. He confesses that if he possessed an alternative, he would give it readily. This admission causes Lily to weep, although Selden is unsure if she is putting on an act. He attempts to better the situation by stating that it is natural for him "to belittle all the things" he is unable to offer Lily.

Lily responds that, in belittling the things Lily desires, Selden is belittling her. Their conversation leads to Lily's asking Selden if he wishes to marry her. "I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes; but I can trim my own hats," she tells him. Before the conversation can conclude, the pair observes a passing automobile. When Selden notes that the car is traveling in the wrong direction and cannot be the Trenor party, as they initially assumed, they both seize the opportunity to end the seriousness of their conversation. In answer to Lily's question, "Are you serious?" Selden responds that he was under no risk by being serious, implying that Lily would never consider a proposal from him.

Analysis

The conversation between Lily and Selden takes place in a natural setting in contrast to the opulent interior settings of previous chapters. A possible interpretation is that the relationship between Lily and Selden is consistent with the natural course a loving relationship should take rather than the artificial restraints placed upon courtships by the upper class. In the outdoors, away from the constrictions of society, Lily could draw "deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration."

The conversation between Lily and Selden indicates that both individuals are cowards. Selden allows his lack of wealth and disdain for the customs of the wealthy — a form of vanity — to prevent him from actively pursuing his love for Lily. Lily's desire for the fineries of society causes her to give Selden the impression that she could never be happy married to him.

Glossary

Omar Khayyám Persian poet and mathematician; author of the The Rubáiyát.

jeune fille à marier a young woman ready for marriage.

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