The Edith Wharton Society Home Page

The Ending of The House of Mirth: What was the word?

This question generated so many responses that they have all been placed on this page. Go to the bottom of the page for the most recent responses.

What are your thoughts on "the word"? Add a comment to this page.

Update: See also the new evidence on this subject.


Personally I think the word is vanity and that is what kept them apart.  Seldens vanity was of feeling superior to the society of "irresponsible pleasure seekers", Lilys vanity was the need to be a part of that society.There is one phrase that I like " No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity"

Meg White 4/24/09

From: "Alice Kinman" <>
Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2000 10:02:40 GMT+1
Subject: Re: House of Mirth ending

I have written about the House of Mirth as a story about reading, in
many ways reflecting Wharton's anxiety about finding "creative
readers" for her work once she entered the literary mass market.  I
think that the fact that the "word" is left unspoken at the end of
the novel is part of Lily Bart's tragedy -- that she never finds a
good "reader" who can engage in the genuine "interchange" that
Wharton believed was necessary for good reading.  And I agree with
Barbara Hochman that Wharton, by leaving the word unspoken/unwritten,
makes a "leap of faith" that creative readers will engage creatively
with the book, supplying possible endings from their own imaginations
and experiences.
Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000 07:40:16 -0800 (PST)
From: Donna Campbell <>
Subject: House of Mirth ending

Thanks to Julie Olin-Ammentorp for that reference to Shari Benstock's
piece."'The word which made all clear': The Silent Close of _The House
of Mirth_."

 It's in _Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender & Narrative
Closure_, ed. Alison Booth (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,
1993),  pages 230-258.

Here's a little of what Benstock has to say:

We never learn the word she seeks, nor do we know until the following
morning--when Selden arrives to tell her his own word ("he had found the
word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait another moment to be
said")--that hers is now the sleep of death. . . . Selden has the last
"word," but an attentive reader of the novel, a reader who has listened
carefully to Lily's unspoken thoughts, recognizes Selden's self-serving
egotism as he detaches hmself once again from her (237)

In front of this tableau mort, one asks: What was the secret word?  Was it
the same word that "lingered vague and luminous at the far edge" of Lily's
thoughts a few hours earlier?  Was it "love"?  "faith"? (238)


I've also heard other suggestions, including "beyond," since that word
on Lily's seal ("Beyond!") and am interested to hear what others think.

Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000 09:27:48 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Olin-Ammentorp, Juli" <>
Subject: Re: House of Mirth ending

Shari Benstock also wrote an essay on this topic several years back
(perhaps in 1993?) which was included in a book on "endings" in
literature.   I know it's on the MLA on-line bibliography--if you have
access to that, you could find the details rapidly.

One thought: I've never been sure that "the word which made all clear" is
a single word, or whether it means a *phrase* (as in "may I have a word
with you?).  Also, many readers see Selden as sentimentalizing the dead
Lily Bart--and question whether any "word," any communication, does pass
between them, or whether he only thinks it does (to make himself feel
better, no doubt, and so he can memorialize--somewhat falsely--his memory
of her).  Food for thought, in any case.  Julie Olin-Ammentorp
From: "S_shaloo" <>
Subject: Re: House of Mirth ending
Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2000 18:23:53 -0500

James Gargano wrote an essay on this very subject some time back.  I
remember reading it and having long discussions with other readers of HOUSE about whether Gargano's "word" was the word each of us would have supplied. As I recall, 15 of us had at least 15 ideas about it....
Date: Tue, 23 May 2000 09:49:37 CST
From: jane lee <>
THe word might be "self-respect".  Lily proves her moral superiority by
burning Bertha's letters without Selden's knowledge.  SHe says the word in
action whereas Selden is never fully able to understand the word.  He wants
to say "love", but it is based on appearances.  Think about his jumping to
conclusion at the sight of the envelope addressed to Gus Trenor that his
previous judgement of Lily as a bad girl seems to be correct.

6 June 2002

I believe if Selden and Lily are sharing a word, the word is compromise. I think both have come to accept what they see as drawbacks in each other's personality. I don't think that Selden is as self-serving as some here suggest but do agree that Wharton paints him less kind than Lily. What disturbs me in the ending is that I feel Edith could have provided some greater sense of redemption without being overly sentimental. Perhaps overt tragedy was the genre - consider Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' - still it seems to me the human spirit is more adaptable and adaptation is met with happiness not tragedy more often. It struck me that Wharton was going for the throat to cave into audience reaction whereas reality would in fact have yielded a less dramatic conclusion - one in which Lily becomes a modestly successful "social arranger". With all her incredible psycho-social insightfulness I still found myself wishing Nora Roberts had written this story.

Gene Pizzo


Return to main page.

Please send comments and suggestions to D. Campbell.