Book II, Chapter 11
Lily stands on Fifth Avenue and watches the carriages drive past with the wealthy people that she formerly spent time with. She has lost her job at the hat shop as a result of an annual staff reduction. When she arrives back at her boarding house she finds Rosedale present. He has been so shaken by her situation that he offers to loan her the money to pay off Gus Trenor as part of a pure business transaction. Lily rejects his offer again.
That night she tries to sleep, but lies awake all night, unable to sleep. The next morning she heads outside for a walk and makes a decision to go to Mrs. Dorset. She returns to her room and pulls out the packet of the letters. As she is walking towards the Dorset's house, she passes Selden's apartment. In a sudden moment of inspiration, she enters his house.
The House of Mirth is a very well structured novel that has numerous parallels built into it. One of these parallels occurs here in dramatic form, that of Lily walking down the streets and approaching Mrs. Dorset's house on the same street that Selden lives on. She enters his apartment as well, thereby mimicking the first chapter. However, a difference exists in the fact that she is alone at this point. For Lily, being alone is the same as death, in some ways worse, because her entire life has been built on being observed and interpreted. The fact that she is willing to enter Selden's house alone means that her position in society is so low as to be unnoticeable. Recall her earlier "indiscretion" of entering his house accompanied by him. Since doing so alone is infinitely worse, she is in reality already dead and therefore able to break the rules with impunity.
Book II, Chapter 12
Lily's visit with Selden turns into her first truly sentimental moment in the novel. In a moment of emotion, she breaks down a starts crying, telling Selden that his faith in her that she was different from all the others is what has sustained her thus far. She realizes that his former love for her was now gone, but that instead her love for him remained. She makes him build up the fire and before she leaves she drops the letters that she has from Bertha Dorset into the flames.
The sentimentalism expressed by Lily here is one of the most unrealistic scenes of the novel. It breaks with everything we know about Lily Bart, and if we are really to believe her sentimentality then it ruins the entire image of her we have had before, dealing with each situation with her stoicism and refined aloofness. In the Wall Street world of boom and bust cycles that Lily is a part of, this scene should not be taking place, and Wharton apparently misses the incongruity it has with the rest of the novel.
Book II, Chapter 13
Lily, worn out from walking, goes and sits down on a bench in one of the parks. A passerby stops and recognizes her. The woman, named Nettie Struther, was one of the working girls she donated money to while spending time with Gerty earlier in the novel. The woman realizes that Lily is sick and takes her back to her place to warm up. She tells Lily that thanks to the money she was able to recover and get married, and even has a baby.
Lily leaves Nettie feeling much more energized than before. She returns home and lays out all of her dresses, including the Reynolds' dress that she wore at the Bry's party. She then puts them all away again. The maid hands her a letter, and it turns out to be the check for ten thousand dollars that Lily has been waiting to inherit. She takes the money and puts it in an envelope addressed to her bank and writes a check for the same amount to Gus Trenor. Feeling extremely tired, she decides to take her chloral sleeping drug. However, desperate for sleep, she measures out more than the maximum dosage and drinks it. Soon her thoughts start to become subdued and she eventually drifts off into a pleasant sleep.
The ending is permanently ambiguous concerning the nature of her death: accident or suicide? One of the reasons for the ambiguity is that Wharton has shown us two versions of Lily's life throughout the novel. We have seen Selden's interpretation and also Lily's. We realize at the point of her death that Lily would never need to commit suicide because her morals are so strongly intact; yet according to societies interpretation of her suicide is really the only form of escape.
Lily's moment of death is strongly foreshadowed by her laying out the dresses. They represent her memories, much the same as the last flash of a person's life that is supposed to occur before dying. This is a highly symbolic moment because Lily locks her memories in her trunk, thereby shutting them out of her life forever.
Wharton interestingly raises the specter of salvation at the end in the form of a single word. "As she lay there, she said to herself that there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found should make life clear between them" (335). However, Lily dies before being able to recall what the word is.
Book II, Chapter 14
Selden goes for a walk that takes him straight to Lily's boarding house where he is excited to see her. He has found a word that he needs to say to her, a way to clear everything up between them. As he enters the boarding house he unexpectedly meets Gerty Farish, who wonders that he should have arrived so soon. With a sense of bad premonition, Selden enters the room and sees Lily lying there dead. Gerty explains that she clearly died from an overdoes of the chloral.
Selden remains in the room alone and looks around, knowing it is his last half hour to be with Lily. He finds the letters that she wrote, but when he sees Gus Trenor's name on the one envelope he recoils from it. Judging incorrectly that she must have some reason for writing Gus so soon after meeting with him, all of his feelings for her dissipate and Selden goes about his remaining search of the room with cold detachment. He finds the note that he wrote her many months earlier, and some of his feelings for her return. Selden also finds her checkbook and reads through it, astonished to discover that Lily was repaying Gus Trenor several thousand dollars. Selden is not sure whether this revelation heightens the mystery or deepens it, but he finally concludes that life has conspired against them both.
Selden now parallels Lily in having found a word to solve their mutual problems. "He had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said" (337). We can only assume that Selden is now willing to marry her, but that he is too late. The nature of the word is never revealed, it remains lost the same way his love for Lily is extinguished at the end.
Although Selden is the one person most like the reader, he still judges incorrectly even after Lily's death. He is an observer, a narrator for the reader, but a poor one who jumps to conclusions far to quickly. Thus when he sees the letter to Gus Trenor he assumes more than he should. After reading her checkbook and seeing what her connection with Gus really is, he is still unable to be sure of the facts presented.
Selden's world is one where he cannot except the personal blame for a failure, even an emotional failure such as he has had with Lily. "He saw that all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart" (342). Knowing so much more about Lily that Selden does, we know that this is simply not true. Selden's pat excuse to hide his own cowardice and his failure to live up to Lily's expectations represents his further cowardice at confronting the fact that he has lost someone he really loved. It instead maintains the excuse for his life as a bachelor.