Summary and Analysis
Book 2: Chapter XIII
On her way home, Lily takes a seat in Bryant Park. She encounters Nettie Crane Struther, the young woman from the Girls' Club who had been the beneficiary of Lily's charity. Nettie is married to a motor-man, and is the mother of an infant daughter whom she has named in honor of Lily.
Lily retires to her boardinghouse, and goes through the remainder of her possessions. A maid brings her a letter, which contains the $10,000 legacy check. She considers how to spend the money to pay her bills, and realizes the loneliness of her solitude. She writes a check for repayment in full to Trenor as well as a bank deposit slip for the check.
She remembers the chemist's advice about using too much of the chloral prescription but does not heed it. She carelessly overdoses and drifts off into her final sleep.
Wharton again has Lily realize the ironies pervading her life when Lily meets Nettie, a young woman whom Lily rescued from consumption with the money she had received from Trenor. Nettie represents the good that can come from helping the poor, and also represents the happiness that can exist in a life devoid of wealth. Nettie's naming of her baby after a character portrayed by an actress resembling Lily is both touching and representative of an individual's ability for rebirth — an ability that Lily is unable to recognize. Nettie tells Lily that she has missed Lily's name in the newspaper society pages, and declares that she hopes her daughter grows up to be like Lily, a comment from which Lily demurs: "Oh, she must not do that — I should be afraid to come and see her too often!"
Lily considers Nettie's story about marrying her husband, George Struther. She remembers Nettie telling her that "I knew he knew about me," referring to her presumed status as a "fallen woman." Lily realizes that Struther's faith in Nettie enabled him to love her enough to marry her, and that such faith was necessary for love and enduring happiness to exist. It was such faith that Lily exploited when turning down Selden's proclamations of love.
Whether Lily's chloral overdose is intentional or not is subject to debate. While she has seemingly exhausted all her opportunities, she has also received her legacy check early, enabling her to settle her debt with Trenor. Wharton writes that Lily is only interested in a deep sleep, and her tolerance of the drug must have certainly increased, requiring an extra dosage for the desired effect. The depiction of Lily's character throughout the novel, however, has been one of abject carelessness. It is most likely this character defect that ultimately results in her death — not suicide.