The circle of people at the tea table in the last few paragraphs of Chapter Four provides a good example of Wharton's symbolism. The literal circle formed by the women at the tea table figuratively represents the social circle Lily is so eager to join. She does not sit with the ladies (although she believes she could), thinking instead about her impending marriage to Gryce, which she believes is inevitable. She believes that after marrying Gryce, she will secure income and social status, her two most desired commodities. Ironically, she delays joining the circle of tea drinkers, thinking she will have many other chances to do so. When her hopes are shattered at the end of Chapter Eight with the announcement of Gryce's engagement to Evie Van Osburgh, Wharton suggests that the New York social world is so exclusive and demanding that one can never be assured a place in its circle.
Indeed, one of the themes in the novel is that the social situation of an unmarried woman in New York at this time is very fragile and variable. In the course of three days at the Bellomont, Lily goes from a fear of her social and economical insecurity to an arrogance that comes with the false assumption that she can marry Gryce. This changes entirely the way she views her prospects: "Life was not the mockery she had thought it three days ago"; it is almost absurd that someone's outlook on life could change so drastically and suddenly, and so we must question the merit of Lily's emphasis on the importance of fitting in. We see that Lily's perception of herself is based on her social status, which is why she is so committed to becoming accepted even if it means marrying someone she does not love. The narrator even suggests that Lily "was inwardly as malleable as wax." The premise is that as long as Lily remains unmarried, her social position will fluctuate wildly, depending on her current financial status.
Overall, this section emphasizes Lily's indecisive nature. At dinner, Lily's comparison between Gryce and Selden reveals that she really loves Selden more than Gryce. She also sees the Selden is detached from the elite social world; he is described as an "outside observer" looking on. We begin to understand that Lily cannot and will not marry Selden, even though he is the better man, because he does not have enough money or connections. The great irony of the novel is that Selden is the only man whom Lily really loves and respects. At the end of Chapter Six, Lily and Selden come very close to confessing to one another their feelings, which are clear by this point. When they hear a car engine—a symbol of the society they have left—Lily is pulled away from confessing her true feelings because she is so determined to be an established member of society.
One should notice in this section Wharton's use of nature to convey the emotions felt by her characters. In Chapters Five and Six, the weather is described as "perfect," and Lily is even able to sense an appropriate connection between the nice weather and the pleasant walk she is to have with Selden. Wharton makes use of this throughout the novel; it will come up again in several scenes to give the reader a clue to the nature of the events which will follow. For instance, at the end of the novel, as Lily sets out to find Selden, the gray sky and pouring rain reflects her downtrodden, hopeless mood. The next day, the beautiful sunshine and warm air reflect Selden's joy as he sets out to propose to Lily.