Lawrence Selden enjoys watching Lily Bart put a new plan into operation. She is a very beautiful and clever young lady, and no matter how impromptu any action of hers appears, Selden knows that she never makes an unplanned move. Lily has almost no money of her own; her beauty and her good family background are her only assets. Her father died soon after a reversal of his financial affairs, and her mother drilled into her the idea that a wealthy marriage is her only salvation. After her mother’s death, Lily is taken in by her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, who supplies her with a good home. However, Lily needs jewels, gowns, and cash to play bridge if she is to move in a social circle of wealthy and eligible men.
Simon Rosedale, a Jewish financier, would gladly have married Lily and provided her with a huge fortune, for he wants to be accepted into the society in which Lily moves. Lily, however, thinks that she still has better prospects, the most likely one being Percy Gryce, who lives with his watchful widowed mother.
Lily uses her knowledge of his quiet life to her advantage. Selden, Lily, and Gryce are all houseguests at the home of Gus and Judy Trenor, an ideal opportunity for Lily, who assumed the part of a shy, demure young girl. However, when Gryce is ready to propose, she lets the chance slip away, for Lily abhors the kind of scheming, manipulative person she has become. Even more important, perhaps, she is attracted to Selden, who truly understands her, even though he is poor and can offer her no escape from her own poverty.
Gus Trenor offers to invest some of Lily’s small income, and over a period of time, he gives her more than eight thousand dollars, which he assures her is profit on the transaction. With that amount, she is able to pay most of her creditors and reopen her charge accounts. Gus seems to think, however, that his wise investment on her account should make them better friends than Lily feels is desirable.
Lily unexpectedly comes into possession of letters that Bertha Dorset wrote to Selden, whom she once loved. She preferred to marry George Dorset’s fortune, but she continues to write to Selden after her marriage.
When Gus begins to get more insistent in his demands for Lily’s companionship, she becomes worried. She knows that people are talking about her and that her position in society is precarious. She turns to Selden for advice. He tells her that he loves her for what she can be, but that he can give her nothing now. He has no money, and he will not even offer her his love because he cannot love her as the scheming, ruthless fortune hunter she is.
One night, Lily receives a message that Judy Trenor wants her to call. When she arrives at the Trenor home, Lily finds Gus...
(The entire section is 1132 words.)