Summary and Analysis
The following morning, Selden decides to visit Lily. He has found the one word that he wishes to say to her. He arrives at her boardinghouse to find Gerty, who tells him that Lily is dead. Cognizant of Selden's true feelings for Lily, Gerty leaves him alone with Lily's body. He finds the check written to Trenor, which confuses him. Selden also finds the letter he had written her expressing his desire to see her two years earlier. He recognizes his subsequent inability to maintain his love for Lily as an act of cowardice. He knows that he once loved Lily and that she once loved him, but that her background and his negative judgments of her lifestyle had conspired to keep them apart. He kneels by her bed in penance and to feel one last loving moment between them.
The one word that Selden wants to tell Lily is, presumably, the word "love." It is the one word that is conspicuous by its absence throughout the novel — and remains unspoken until the book's final paragraphs. Selden realizes that he still loves Lily, and that their respective differences "had never been more than a little impalpable barrier between them."
Whereas Selden previously would have judged Lily negatively for having a financial transaction with Trenor, Wharton writes that, upon her death, "he felt only a taint of such a transaction." Wharton holds up Selden's cowardice as equally responsible for Lily's downfall and demise as her own actions. Because he feared social reprisal and personal rejection, he abandoned his love for Lily.