Study Guide

The House of Mirth Book 2, Chapter 13

By Edith Wharton

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Book 2, Chapter 13

  • Lily, more weary than ever, begins her walk home. She has nothing to look forward to but the bottle of chloral (the medication that helps her sleep) by her bedside. She knows that lately it hasn't been as effective as it used to. (She's building a tolerance.)
  • Someone recognizes Lily and stops her. It turns out to be a young woman named Nettie Struther, who used to belong to Gerty Farish's Girls Club. (Remember that Gerty is a philanthropist, and that Lily used to make donations to help out.)
  • Nettie recalls that it was Lily's donation that once saved her life. Nettie had been ill and was able to go to the country for rest and rehabilitation with the money Lily gave.
  • Lily realizes that, ironically, it was Gus's money that enabled her to make such a donation.
  • Nettie is shocked to see Lily in such a weary state. She says that whenever she was ill she used to imagine the beautiful and kind Lily Bart living a life of luxury and happiness, and it cheered her to think there was such justice in the world. She offers to take Lily back to her place to rest by the fire. Lily agrees.
  • Once at Nettie's place, Lily realizes how clean and lovely and quaint it is, even though it's small and clearly inexpensive. Nettie is married, but her husband works the night-shift and isn't there. They have a baby, which Nettie now tends to while entertaining her guest.
  • As she feeds her infant its milk, Nettie tells Lily that, originally, she was dating a rather wealthy man whom she thought she was going to marry. But, it soon became clear that he wasn't going to wed a girl from the working class. He took off, and then that's when she came down with her illness and needed the trip to the country. When she came back, George – now her husband – asked her to marry him.
  • Lily offers to hold the baby, and Nettie places her in Lily's arms. Lily feels as though the child becomes a part of her as she sits with it.
  • Nettie hopes aloud that her child grows up to be just like Lily.
  • Lily doesn't.
  • Lily resumes her walk home, feeling much stronger than she did before she ran into Nettie. She had never before seen the affect of her generosities, and she feels less alone having made a human connection. Once home, however, she again sinks into a "deeper loneliness."
  • Lily goes through her remaining possessions, taking out what fancy dresses she has left and spreading them on her bed, trying to re-live the glamour of her former days.
  • Last she comes to the dress she wore at the Brys' party as a living portrait.
  • Lily puts the dresses away just as the apartment building's maid brings by a letter to her from her aunt's lawyers.
  • The letter turns out to be Lily's check – her ten thousand dollar inheritance from Mrs. Peniston. Lily muses that ten months ago, when she first heard the news of the will, ten grand seemed like poverty. Now, it represents incredible wealth to her.
  • Lily sits down to do some book-keeping. She realizes that after paying off her debts she'll barely have enough to live on for three months.
  • Lily finds it miserable to be poor, but she finds it more miserable to be alone. She feels insignificant and rootless, and concludes that "there ha[s] never been a time when she ha[s] had any real relation to life."
  • She feels as though all the men and women she knew in high society were similarly rootless, "like atoms whirling away from each other." The first example she has seen of "the continuity of life" was just now, with Nettie Struther.
  • Lily realizes that Nettie's world is built by her and her husband, that a woman can do wonders if she has the love of a man. She realizes that Selden twice offered this love to her, but is now incapable of doing so again.
  • Lily remembers the feeling of holding Nettie's child; she felt "possessed" by her old "life-hunger." She wants happiness, but all that is left for her now is "the emptiness of renunciation."
  • It's getting late and Lily is tired. She worries that she'll wake up tomorrow and fail to send Gus Trenor the money she owes him, and that she'll continue to put it off, day after day, until the legacy is gone and she slips into tolerating the debt forever. She wishes that life could end now – while she has just come from Selden's and still has her moral resolve.
  • At her desk, Lily writes a check out to Trenor for the nine thousand. She puts it in an envelope with his name on it. Then, she places the check from Mrs. Peniston's estate in an envelope addressed to her own bank (for a deposit) and places the two envelopes side by side on her dresser.
  • Having not slept fully in two days, Lily lays down in bed expecting to doze off. But, she can't. She turns to the bottle of chloral by her bed. She knows she's raised it to the maximum dosage lately, but she feels that it couldn't hurt to add just a bit more tonight.
  • Lily knows this is taking a risk – the pharmacist warned her of the chance of overdosing – but she feels it's only a one-in-a-hundred shot. Wharton writes that Lily "did not, in truth, consider this question very closely."
  • After taking the chloral, Lily feels much better. As she lies on the bed, she doesn't feel alone anymore – she feels as though Nettie Struther's child is in her arms.
  • Lily tries to repeat "the word" that she knows she must tell Selden, but she can't grasp what it is. Lily sleeps.

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