Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Newland Archer, a handsome and eligible young attorney engaged to lovely May Welland, learns that the engagement will be announced at a party to welcome his fiancé’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. This reception for Ellen constitutes a heroic sacrifice on the part of the many Welland connections, for her marriage to a ne’er-do-well Polish count did not improve her position so far as rigorous and straitlaced New York society is concerned. The fact that she contemplates a divorce action also makes her suspect, and, to cap it all, her rather bohemian way of living does not conform to what her family expects of a woman who made an unsuccessful marriage.
Archer’s engagement to May is announced. At the same party, Archer is greatly attracted to Ellen. Before long, with the excuse that he is making the cousin of his betrothed feel at home, he sends her flowers and calls on her. To him she seems a woman who offers sensitivity, beauty, and the promise of a life quite different from the one that he expects after his marriage to May. He finds himself defending Ellen when the rest of society is attacking her contemplated divorce action. He does not, however, consider breaking his engagement to May but constantly seeks reasons to justify what is to the rest of his group an excellent union. With Ellen often in his thoughts, May’s cool beauty and correct but unexciting personality begin to suffer in Archer’s estimation.
Although the clan defends...
(The entire section is 1058 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Set in the last decades of the nineteenth century, The Age of Innocence narrates the love story of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. When the novel opens, Archer is engaged to May Welland, a young woman from one of New York’s oldest society families, and Ellen Olenska is married to a Polish count, who has abused her in unspoken ways. Ellen, May’s cousin, returns to New York from Europe because she wants to obtain a divorce in the United States. Her family welcomes her back into the fold, but they want to make it clear that divorce is not accepted in their world.
As a respected attorney who is soon to be a family member, Newland is elected to broach this topic with Ellen. Attempting to discourage the divorce, he explains that the customs of their New York society are based on loyalty to one’s actual family and to one’s social “family.” Over the course of several meetings, during which Ellen and Newland are compelled to discuss matters of deep and delicate feeling, they fall in love. Each grows to admire the other’s rarity and virtuous sincerity.
Realizing that their union would socially ostracize them and hurt others, Ellen and Newland decide to give up each other and walk away from the most genuine love evident in all of Edith Wharton’s writing. In doing so, they adhere to social conventions that may be destructive of the most precious aspect of self—the capacity to love. Wharton makes the reader see, however, that...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Age of Innocence, often considered Wharton’s masterpiece, takes a nostalgic look at the New York society of her childhood, which had undergone enormous changes by 1920. In a mood tempered from that expressed in the 1905 House of Mirth, Wharton criticizes many aspects of this society, especially its hypocrisy and tendency to stifle creativity and genuine emotion. In this retrospective she also finds value in its stability and traditions. At the height of her powers in this novel, Wharton brilliantly uses plot, character, dialogue, point of view, and irony to express her themes, including the needs of the individual versus the claims of the society and the tenuous balance between the values of innocence and experience and between tradition and change.
The novel’s plot revolves around the choice the protagonist, Newland Archer, must make between two women—his fiancé, May Welland, a flower of New York society, and her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, recently separated from her abusive husband and settled in New York. The Welland family enlists Newland to talk the countess out of seeking a divorce in order to avoid scandal and pain to her family. Newland soon falls in love with Ellen and, reversing his position, asks her to divorce her husband to marry him. Ironically, Ellen refuses, persuaded too well by Newland’s arguments against divorce, and Newland marries May. Ellen eventually returns to Europe, May announces her pregnancy,...
(The entire section is 917 words.)
Book 1 Summary
Book 1: Chapters 1-9
The book opens as members of old New York society gather at the opera. Although they have not come to the opera together, Newland Archer rests his gaze on his fiancée, May Welland. He considers her innocence and how he will educate and enlighten her, so that she can become his ideal woman. A stir is created when May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives in the Wellands' box. She married a Polish Count and lived in Europe until she left her husband, reportedly with his secretary. By inviting her to their opera box, the Wellands knowingly risk becoming the subject of gossip.
Newland thinks about the Welland family matriarch, Catherine Mingott, who is a powerful figure in New York society. Catherine is an enormous woman, whose weight prevents her from leaving her house. Still, she is a respected and animated member of her community.
During intermission, Newland visits May in her family's box, as a show of support in light of the scandalous appearance of Ellen. He suggests that they announce their engagement right away to restore dignity to the Welland family. After a brief conversation with Ellen, Newland is intrigued by her lack of regard for the rules and conventions of New York.
Regina and Julius Beaufort host a ball after the opera, where Newland and May announce their engagement. The newly engaged couple visits Catherine to seek her blessing, and as they are leaving her house,...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
Book 2 Summary
Book 2: Chapters 19-26
May and Newland marry and go to an estate near Skuytercliff for their wedding night. While in London on their honeymoon, Newland meets a French tutor, Monsieur Rivière, who inquires about opportunities in New York. Newland sadly realizes that there is nothing for an intellectual like Rivière in New York.
After returning home, Newland hears that Ellen has gone to Boston, so he lies about a business trip in order to see her. She is surprised to see him and explains that she has just met with her husband's emissary. Although he offered a great deal of money for her to return, she rejected it. Newland and Ellen go to lunch, where he bemoans the fact that he married May because Ellen told him to do so. She agrees to stay close as long as they never do anything that would hurt May.
Back in New York, Newland runs into Rivière, who reveals that he was the emissary sent by the Count to speak to Ellen. After a very tense discussion, the men realize that neither of them thinks it is in her best interest to return to Poland. Newland secretly wonders if Rivière is the secretary with whom Ellen was reported to have run away.
At Thanksgiving, everyone discusses rumors of Julius' financial problems. Next, they gossip about Ellen, who has gone to Washington. When Sillerton Jackson suggests that Ellen is being "kept" by Julius, and therefore will be in dire straits should he lose his money, Newland...
(The entire section is 791 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
The Age of Innocence (1920) was Edith Wharton’s twelfth novel and was honored with the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. In this book, Wharton explores the customs of high society of New York City during the 1870s. Critics have proclaimed that Wharton’s depiction of the rigid social codes of New York’s moneyed class at that time is a very accurate portrayal. The focus of The Age of Innocence is on the main male character, Newland Archer, who becomes fascinated with the socially liberal Countess Ellen Olenska. As the plot unfolds, readers become involved in Archer’s struggle to make a choice between staying within the social codes, which encourage him to marry his proper and betrothed May Welland, and straying by following his passion rather than his intellect and pursuing the exotic Countess Olenska.
The novel opens with a scene at the opera. The audience, made up of New York City’s most elegant and elite social figures, appears to be enjoying what is occurring on the stage almost as much as what is happening in the exclusive opera boxes that surround the stage. Newland Archer is no exception to this active examination of his fellow members of the audience. At first he is engaged in looking at his fiancé, May Welland, who is sitting across the room with her mother. May is a beautiful young woman; Newland regards her as an innocent. For example, at one point in the opera while the male opera star is wooing his female costar on stage, Archer looks over at May and concludes that she has no idea of the passionate undertones being exchanged between the two characters. He resolves to educate May in the ways of the world when he is her husband. Archer appreciates May’s lack of experience and holds a “reverence for her abysmal purity.” He expects to help May develop a good wit, which would allow her to hold her own with the other married women of her age.
While Archer is contemplating his role in his future wife’s life, he hears an exclamation from his friend, Lawrence Lefferts, who is sitting next to him. When Archer looks across to where May is sitting, he sees another women enter the family box. The woman is unusually late for the performance and is causing a stir in the audience because she is wearing a very provocative yellow dress. Archer waits for his other friend, Sillerton Jackson, to identify the woman. Jackson knows the histories of all the most prominent New York families and is the retainer of...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Newland Archer feels a strange embarrassment upon the arrival of the woman in the yellow dress. Everyone was staring at the woman who sits in the same box as his betrothed, May. The woman’s dress is astonishing and is causing most of the commotion. Her shoulders are exposed and the neckline plunges low, exposing too much of her bosom. Archer does not like the influence this woman’s attire might have on his fiancé’s character.
As Archer listens to the murmuring around him, he learns that the woman is May’s cousin. The woman has suddenly arrived from Europe, having left her husband. For the past couple of days, she has been staying with Mrs. Mingott, May’s grandmother. Although Archer approves of family solidarity, at least in private settings, he thinks it distasteful to do so publicly, especially in a place like an opera, where everyone can see whatever was happening. There are many stories about Ellen Olenska that do not fit in well with the New York society. According to the stories, she has fled her husband with the help of her husband’s male secretary: her character and morals are compromised.
Archer has always secretly admired the boldness of Mrs. Mingott, May’s grandmother, who had come from the lower ranks of society before she married. Her husband died when she was only twenty-eight, but she managed his estate successfully afterward and has provided well for her family. After her daughters left, she built a house away from what was then considered the proper section of the city for people who held positions in the high society. Her house was surrounded by woods rather than by other stately homes. The house was also constructed of a beige stone, whereas everyone else in the upper echelons of society lived in brownstone homes, as was the fashion. However, Archer agrees with his friend that this time Mrs. Mingott might have gone too far in encouraging such a public display, sending her niece to the opera without properly introducing her to society while wearing an inappropriate gown.
When Archer looks over at the box where his betrothed sits, he notices that May’s mother, Mrs. Welland, holds an expression on her face as if she is unaware of the social stir caused by the woman in the yellow dress. Mrs. Welland surely must know that everyone is staring at them—at least, all the men are staring at the woman. Only May looks somewhat affected; her cheeks display a blush that, Archer concludes,...
(The entire section is 608 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The ball following the opera is to be held at the Beaufort’s home, the most extravagant house in New York. The ballroom is a large room decorated with gilded chairs and crystal chandeliers. It remains closed during every other day of the year, and only on this one night does it come to life. As if to demonstrate the efficiency of their servants, the Beauforts always hold their annual ball on the night after the opera. They leave the opera only thirty minutes before the ball is to begin, in confidence that everything will be ready. Everyone knows they have a well-managed and very reliable staff.
There is speculation, however, as to the source of the Beauforts’s money. Mrs. Beaufort had been penniless when she married. Mr. Beaufort was a foreigner, having come from England, so his history is somewhat difficult to ascertain. Rumor has it, though, that Mr. Beaufort had been forced to leave his country by the banking establishment for which he had worked. That is a far as the rumors have gone. Those in New York do not know the reasons behind Mr. Beaufort’s disgrace.
Mrs. Beaufort is not a beauty and many people question her intelligence. They tell stories about how Mr. Beaufort makes all the daily arrangements, including those necessary to put on the ball. Mr. Beaufort plans the dinner, orders the flower arrangements, and even teaches the cook some of the more delectable entrées.
After the opera, Newland Archer takes his time and arrives at the ball late. He purposefully lingers at his club because he feels reluctant to rejoin the crowd of people at the Beaufort’s home, who are likely still roused by all the gossip. Archer has learned the woman’s name. She is Madame Ellen Olenska. Although Archer had known her when they were children, he hopes she would not dare to show her face at the Beauforts’s home. When he finally arrives, he is visibly nervous. If Ellen is here, he will believe that the Mingott family has gone too far. The men at his club had loudly declared that if Madame Olenska appeared at the ball it would have been a grave, societal mistake.
Upon entering the Beaufort house, Newland Archer finds May and her mother standing near the door. May is surrounded by a group of young friends. From the excitement that shines on their faces, Archer feels certain that May has finally made public the news of their engagement. Although Archer had told May earlier that he wanted her to make this...
(The entire section is 616 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
On the day after the ball, Archer, May, and May’s mother go to visit Mrs. Mingott. Archer always enjoys Mrs. Mingott’s company. She is a large woman in her old age, so big in size that she finds it difficult to move. She is stationed in the living room of her home on a wide sofa, as if she were sitting on a throne. Because she is unable to climb the stairs, her bedroom is set up in a downstairs room, which is visible to her guests. The arrangement is unusual and so is the topic of much gossip.
In her younger days, Mrs. Mingott had been a plump but active woman. However, the immense amount of flesh she carries now has turned her into something people refer to as a “natural phenomenon.” The positive result of all the extra layers of weight is that Mrs. Mingott’s countenance is made up of unwrinkled “firm pink and white flesh.”
Upon arriving at Mrs. Mingott’s house, Archer feels relieved to discover the absence of the Countess Olenska. Mrs. Mingott tells him that Ellen has gone out. Archer wonders why a woman of society would dare to go out on a day with such a bright sun. Most other societal women would have avoided any chance of marring their complexions. However, Archer is glad Countess Olenska is not there. He and May have come to tell May’s grandmother about their engagement. Archer had feared that, had the countess been present, her soiled reputation would cast a shadow over the announcement of his and May’s future.
After hearing the news of her granddaughter’s betrothal, Mrs. Mingott becomes quite animated. She is very pleased with the couple. The news, however, does not come as a complete surprise. The family council has kept their eyes on Newland and May, approved of their interest in one another, and encouraged the engagement. Although May’s mother complains about the engagement ring, a large sapphire in a solitary setting, saying it looks a little too modern, Mrs. Mingott disagrees. She claims to love the novelty of the setting, proving to Archer that she is definitely a champion of the unusual.
The next thing to be settled is the date of the wedding. Newland tells Mrs. Mingott that, if she supports him, he would prefer it to be as soon as possible. Mrs. Mingott agrees and says she wants to give the couple a wedding breakfast. If they wait too long, she might be dead before they marry. May and her mother, on the other hand, think it more proper to wait a year. The...
(The entire section is 569 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Newland's mother invites Sillerton Jackson to dinner. Jackson is an expert on the histories of New York's societal families. Through the efforts of his sister who lives with him, Jackson also collects the most gossip and because of this, Newland's mother asks him to dinner. She is curious about what is happening in society and especially in reference to Countess Olenska. Jackson does not appreciate Mrs. Archer's food, but he accepts the invitation any way. He is always anxious to spread the stories he gathers.
Newland's family consists of his mother, who is a widow, and his sister, Janey, who is considered past the marrying age. Both his mother and his sister adore Newland, and in return he appreciates the adoration. It was good for a man to be able to wield authority in his own household.
That night, prior to their guest's arrival, Newland senses that his mother and sister would have preferred him to dine out. However, Newland ignores their silent desires; he is too curious about the conversation that might ensue at the dinner table. He also senses that Jackson is excited to have an opportunity to spread the most recent gossip about Ellen Olenska and that his mother and sister are even more interested in hearing it. So Newland decides to share supper with them.
As with most conversations that are held among the upper-class New Yorkers, topics are always approached obliquely - no one dares to say exactly what they really mean, so every subject is approached by a side path. Thus, Mrs. Archer starts the conversation that night by asking about Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, a woman who was not fully included in New York society but whom everyone knew. Mrs. Struthers is a close friend of Julius Beaufort, the British banker who had given the ball following the opera. Mrs. Archer had heard that Julius Beaufort invited Mrs. Struthers to the ball, and judging from her tone of voice, Mrs. Archer definitely disapproves of it. Mrs. Archer also adds her condemnation of Mr. Beaufort, calling him a "vulgar" man.
Upon receiving an answer, Mrs. Archer begins to needle Jackson about Mrs. Lemuel Struthers and if Countess Olenska had been at the ball. Archer believes that his mother's concern stems from her son's engagement announcement being associated with Ellen Olenska's sudden appearance. Mrs. Archer does not want her son mixed up in the gossip that surrounds the countess.
Newland is very proud of his mother,...
(The entire section is 611 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
After Mr. Jackson leaves the Archer home, Newland retires to his study to think. On the hearth is a picture of May, which causes Archer to reflect on the young girl's merit. He ponders about how little she knows of him. The code of ethics demands that May be kept in the dark about many matters, such as his background and his affairs with other women.
Next Archer thinks about the prospects of marrying May. He wonders about the married couples he knows: would his and May's marriage be similar to theirs? None of his friends, even the happily wedded ones, have relationships that show any resemblance to what he wants to have with May. He wonders what would happen if, after he marries May, he should ever grow tired of her or she of him. Then he questions whether May could ever be the type of woman he envisions, one who is experienced, versatile, and has the freedom to make judgments on her own. With a shudder, Archer sees the strong possibilities that his marriage is doomed to become exactly like his friends', which is nothing like what he desired. The more he ponders his friends' marriages, the more he uncovers an overall dullness. Most relationships between men and women in his society are thwarted by ignorance on the woman's side and hypocrisy on the man's.
The one friend who stands out, as Archer continues his evaluation, was Lawrence Lefferts. He is considered the ideal that all marriages should emulate. Lefferts has a wife that he had molded to his own convenience. While he enjoyed numerous affairs with other married women, his wife pretends not to see what her husband is doing. Though Archer concludes that he would never stoop as low as Lefferts, and May would never be such a "simpleton" as Lefferts' wife, he finds that most married couples play the same game. They live their lives in a world in which the truth was never touched and rarely considered. Archer could see how May would fit into this scheme. Though she appears to be extremely frank, she could do so in all sincerity because she has nothing to conceal. She is a blank. She has no imagination. Archer loves May earnestly, but his love is mostly for her looks, her health, her horsemanship, and her grace: that which exists on the surface.
A few days later, another scandal erupts. The Mingotts had planned a dinner party to introduce Ellen Olenska to their friends; the invitations went out and the responses returned. Only two of their friends accepted the...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Newland and his mother pay a visit to Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden, the latter of whom greets them. Newland compares Mrs. van der Luyden to some of his aunts: whenever his aunts were approached with requests, they often refused before they even considered the consequences. Mrs. van der Luyden, on the other hand, typically replies that she will consult with her husband before any decision could be made. This was what he expected to hear after his mother makes her plea. However, Mrs. van der Luyden's reply is unexpected; she asks Newland and his mother to wait as she feels her husband would be very interested in what they have to say. She then asks their butler to summon her husband as soon as her husband is finished reading the morning paper.
Mrs. van der Luyden is a silent woman, one who exudes kindness. Neither she nor her husband are very active socially, as they prefer their solitude. If there was a strain of royalty in any of the upper-class New York families, it was certain to be found in the van der Luyden line. They owned a huge home on Madison Avenue in which they seldom stayed. When they were in town, if they socialized, it was with small groups of only their most intimate friends. To be invited to one of these events was considered a very special honor.
When Mr. van der Luyden enters the room, his wife asks Archer's mother to repeat the story about how the Mingotts had been snubbed by many of the couples in their social class. After retelling the dinner party story, Mrs. Archer includes her thoughts about how Lawrence Lefferts was behind this. Lefferts had a way of causing a stir to divert attention from him and his indiscretions. In this case, he appeared to be out to punish Countess Olenska. To avoid an investigation into one of his recent affairs with a postmaster's wife, Lefferts claimed that it was rude of the Mingotts to invite his innocent wife to a dinner, where she would have to meet Countess Olenska, a woman with a reputation.
Though Mr. van der Luyden does not want to get involved in the gossip, he says that he is against the principle of the whole affair. In order to maintain a proper society, the families involved need to stick together. So if a family was willing to stand by another person, as Mrs. Mingott was doing with Ellen Olenska, then all the other friends in the social circle should support the effort. For Lefferts to refuse to do so was unthinkable, van der Luyden says. He then...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Now, a brief history of Ellen Olenska's life is offered. Olenska had been considered a pretty child, born to parents who had been dubbed "continental wanderers." They had died while Ellen was still a baby. Afterward, Ellen was taken in by her aunt, Medora Manson, who was also a wanderer.
Medora was a woman cursed in marriage. She was widowed at least three times and after each, became poorer. Most people felt sorry for little Ellen when they learned that Medora was her sponsor. Medora was very eccentric and disliked to participate in any of the acceptable social practices. For instance, she wore the wrong clothes while in mourning and dressed Ellen in bright colors. Ellen was thus considered a peculiar child, but people were most often willing to forgive her indiscretions as she was not at fault; she just had not been properly raised. People considered Ellen a precocious child and were shocked when they learned that she had studied dance and had been schooled in drawing, using live models.
When Medora's next husband died, Medora took Ellen to Europe. The people in New York later heard that Ellen had married a Polish nobleman of legendary fame, both for his womanizing and his money. Later when news came that Medora had lost yet another husband and was even more impoverished, people were surprised that Ellen did not come to her former benefactor's assistance. It was then when gossip began about Ellen's own marriage and the shocking notion that she had left her husband.
Archer thinks about Olenska's background as he watches her at the van der Luyden's dinner party. Ellen Olenska arrives later than was socially fashionable. Though people had talked about Countess Olenska's fading beauty, Archer could not agree. She had a grave mouth but her eyes looked as if they were always smiling. She was thin and looked a little older than her thirty years, but she maintained a special kind of beauty. It was contained in the way she carried herself, in her simple manner and her quiet voice.
After dinner, the countess sits talking first with the Duke of St. Austreym and after him, Mr. Urban Dagonet, a very distinguished man. However, after twenty minutes or so, Countess Olenska rises, crosses the room, and sits on the sofa next to Archer. Though she does not know it, the countess has rebuked the accepted mode of conduct: no woman should leave a conversation with a man. Rather it was the man's duty to end the...
(The entire section is 550 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Newland Asher arrives at Madame Olenska’s house after five as she had suggested, but she is not there. Her maid, who does not speak English, greets him. He decides to wait, though he would have been mortified if May had happened to stop by. His being there in Ellen Olenska’s parlor, waiting for her, suggests a certain degree of familiarity that might be embarrassing. He had not told May that he was going to visit Madame Olenska. He does not know why he had not mentioned it. The countess is May’s cousin, and May had suggested that he look in on her, which lessens his guilt about not explaining their meeting.
Newland had spent most of the day with May, visiting her relatives, as is the custom after an engagement is announced. It was tiresome, though. Looking down the road at how long their planned engagement is extending makes Newland feel exhausted. He does not know if he can manage to go through with all the boring visitations. He tried to push the wedding date to an earlier month, but May would not hear of it. May’s mother added that there were just too many things to be done. The couple must find a house in which to live, for example. They had looked at a house in a rather fashionable location. However, the house was constructed of a greenish stone, the favorite of young architects who had grown weary of all the traditional brownstone. When Asher saw it, he wondered if he could spend the rest of his life climbing up the green stone steps that would lead to his front door.
When Asher hears horses’ hooves on the cobblestone street in front of the countess’s house, he goes to the window and looks out. He sees a carriage pull up to the house. Out of it steps Madame Olenska, who turns and waves good-bye to none other than Mr. Beaufort. When the countess comes into the house and sees Asher, she shows no sense of guilt for having made him wait. Her first question is whether he likes her house. It is a relatively small house in a neighborhood peopled with artist types. Ellen Olenska tells Asher that her family will not allow her to stay there because the neighborhood is not fashionable enough. Mr. Beaufort thus took her out to look at other places where she might live.
Later in their conversation, Asher feels slightly offended when Ellen Olenska appears to slough off the significance of her having been honored by the invitation she received from the van der Luydens. In a tone of voice that sounds pompous,...
(The entire section is 654 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The next day, Newland Archer takes May for a walk so they can talk. It is a Sunday, and the Episcopalian tradition in New York would have usually dictated that May attend church all day with her parents. However, earlier, May had agreed with her mother to maintain the extended date of the wedding so as to might finish all the work that was necessary for her trousseau. For her agreement with her mother, May is excused from church and is allowed to be with Newland.
The first thing May says to Newland is to thank him for the flowers he sent her. Newland apologizes that the flowers came later than usual, but May says the irregularity of their arrival made them all the more special. Newland then confesses that he also sent flowers to the countess. He then asks, “Was that right?” Of course, May finds Newland’s action the perfect thing to have done. However, May adds that she thinks it odd that her cousin had not mentioned the flowers Newland had sent. She had talked about the flowers she had received from Mr. Beaufort as well as the ones Mr. van der Luyden had sent.
Somewhat forgetting himself, Newland remarks rather irritably that there is no wonder that his flowers should have been overshadowed by those sent by Beaufort. Newland is about to add that he visited May’s cousin, but he stops himself. If Ellen Olenska had not mentioned the flowers, she more than likely had not said anything about his having been to see her. This puts Newland in an uncomfortable position. If he does not say anything to May about his visit, it might seem as if he were sneaking to see Ellen.
As their conversation continues, Newland begins noticing how affected everything is that they say to one another. Every word seems to spring from some preplanned social convention. He says all the things young men are supposed to say. She responds just as every other fiancé might respond. To startle themselves out of the conventions, Newland suggests that they elope. May is definitely surprised and quickly dismisses the idea by telling Newland that she thinks eloping is too vulgar.
The next day, while Newland is in his study, his sister comes and insists that Newland talk to their mother, who is disturbed by some recent event. Madame Olenska is again the topic of gossip. The duke, the guest of Mr. van der Luyden, took Ellen Olenska to a disreputable place, the home of Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, where common music was played and everyone...
(The entire section is 601 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Newland Archer is feeling more himself. He has pushed his thoughts of Madame Olenska into the distance, where they belong, and has reestablished May Welland at the center of his world, a position she well deserves as his betrothed. However, as he sits at his desk at work, he is called into Mr. Letterblair’s office. The senior partner has a request to ask of Archer. Mrs. Mingott has asked that the law office take on the case of Madame Ellen Olenska, who is seeking to file a suit for divorce against her husband. After considering a suitable lawyer to handle this affair, the family members all decided on Newland Archer.
Archer balks at this. He feels reluctant to get involved with Madame Olenska again. He has not seen her except for two very brief encounters and is glad not to be so absorbed in her affairs. He has a tendency to feel he must protect her against the harsh realities of New York society and their strict rules of conduct. However, if Madame Olenska insists on throwing herself at unscrupulous male advisors, such as Julius Beaufort, Archer can do no more do to take care of her. Besides this, Archer does not like the concept of divorce any more than any other member of his social class. Divorce is distasteful and always causes scandal. However, it is just for this reason that Mr. Letterblair and the others suggested Archer for the case. If any lawyer was to deal with the suit, they think it best to be someone in the family. Although technically Archer is not a member of the family yet, he soon will be upon marrying May.
The true reason the family is seeking a lawyer is not to help Ellen Olenska win a divorce but rather to talk her out of pursuing such a suit. They think Archer is the best man to do this. After all, Ellen has told the family herself that she is not seeking money from the suit. Her husband has allotted her enough to comfortably live on. Neither does she want to remarry, or so said. Rumors, though, state something differently entirely. That is why the family hopes to steer clear of drawing the suit into the court, opening up the issue to the public. The family does not want the gossip to spread that Ellen Olenska is secretly planning to marry the man who helped her escape, her husband’s male secretary.
Mr. Letterblair echoes what he had heard from Ellen’s family and says that if Madame Olenska truly does not need the money and does not desire to remarry, there seems no reason for a...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Newland Archer enters Madame Olenska’s house and notices the hat and coat hanging in the hallway; they could belong to no one but Julius Beaufort. This annoys him so much that he almost writes a note on his card and leaves without seeing anyone other than the maid. Then he remembers that when he made the appointment with Madame Olenska the previous day, he had not mentioned that he wanted to see her in private, so he cannot insist that she refuse other guests. He decides to make his presence known and outstay Beaufort, no matter how long it takes.
When Archer walks into the room, Beaufort is standing next to the fireplace. Madame Olenska is seated on the couch, dressed in an outfit that Archer finds somewhat provocative. Her red gown is similar to one he had seen in a modern painting in Paris. Ellen’s dress is collared in fur, and her arms are bare. Archer thinks the combination of fur and bare arms is rather perverse, though he must admit to himself that the “effect [is] undeniably pleasing.”
Beaufort is discussing Madame Olenska’s plans to go away for the weekend. She has accepted an invitation to stay at Skuytercliff, the country estate of Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden. Beaufort feels disappointed. He had planned a dinner for Ellen that weekend and implores her to stay. Ellen, however, appears determined to turn down Beaufort’s request. She tells him she will think about it, but she cannot give him an answer right then because she must meet with Archer on a business matter. At this, Beaufort leaves.
Archer had not told Ellen why he needed to meet with her, so when he announces that he will be handling her legal affairs for Mr. Letterblair, Ellen is pleased. She thinks it will be much easier to conduct her business with Archer. He then begins to questions her as to why she wants a divorce. Ellen responds that she wants to be free of her past. When she asks if Archer will help her do that, he says he needs to know more about her case. He confides that he read the papers in her file, which expose the cruelties of her marriage. Once Archer says this, Ellen wonders why he should need additional information. Archer feels reluctant to approach this topic, so he tries to do so obliquely.
In his mind, Archer reflects on one letter in Ellen’s file in which her husband made some harsh accusations against her. The details of that letter are not conveyed to the reader, but Archer’s reflections...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Although it has been more than a week since his last encounter with her, Newland Archer thinks about Madame Olenska during the last scene of the play he is watching. The drama is The Shaughraun, in which, at the end, a romantic couple bids a silent good-bye. The actress has turned her back to the audience. Her lover almost leaves the stage but then returns to silently kiss a ribbon trailing from behind her neck. He departs without either of them saying a word. The subtlety of this gesture impresses Archer such that it brings a tear.
Archer does not understand the connection of this play to himself and Ellen Olenska. There is no physical resemblance in the actors to either him or Ellen. Yet the scene makes him think of Ellen. When he stands to leave the playhouse, he looks up and sees Ellen sitting on the other side of the audience. She is with the Beauforts. Ellen’s eyes meet his. He does not want to speak to her, but Mrs. Beaufort motions to Archer to join them, and he cannot refuse.
Archer can still feel the pain of his last meeting with Ellen. He hates the role he had been forced to play in making her understand the consequences of her filing for divorce. He thinks that her quiet admittance of her disgraced past made him pity her and made her feel humbled and yet obliged to him. He is glad, though, that if she had to confess her secret to anyone, it had been him and not Mr. Letterblair or any member of her family.
When Archer reaches the Beaufort’s box, he acknowledges Mrs. Beaufort and then sits down behind Ellen. When he does so, Ellen turns to him and asks in a quiet voice if he thinks the man in the play would send the woman a dozen yellow roses the next morning. Archer is surprised by this comment. Twice he has sent Ellen yellow roses after meeting with her, and twice he has not included a note with the blossoms. Never before has Ellen ever mentioned the gifts. Now her acknowledgment of the flowers, associating Archer’s gift with the final, touching scene of the play, causes Archer to feel an “agitated pleasure.” He admits to Ellen that the scene had raised a similar thought for him.
After this exchange, Ellen asks Archer what he does with his time when May is out of town. This question slightly annoys him. He tells her that he works. May goes away every winter; her father’s health demands it. The family vacations in Florida for a few months. Archer wishes that he could...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Archer looks all over town the next day for a bunch of yellow roses. The search makes him late for work, but no one will notice. He wonders why he even bothers to go to work. He should have gone to Florida. He really is not needed on his job. In those times, at old-fashioned legal firms like the one for which he works, young professional men from wealthy families are not expected to make money. That is a disdainful act. They only have to show up for a few hours each day and look as if they are busy. The real work of the firm is to manage large estates and investments for their conservative clients, which evidently either does not take much work or it is left to the senior partners to supervise of these matters. The younger men, according to custom, are not expected even to advance in their professions. Instead, they sit at their desks and allow “the green mould of the perfunctory” grow over them. Archer feels concerned that the same mould is beginning to seep into his life.
From his desk, Archer sends a telegram to Madame Olenska, asking if he might stop by her house that evening. It bothers him that Ellen takes three days to send him a reply. Madame Olenska finally writes that she had “run away” the day after she saw him at the play. She is at Skuytercliff, the van der Luydens’s country estate. She adds that she wishes he were there too.
Archer re-reads the note several times. He wonders why Ellen felt she needed to run away. From whom was she running? What did she fear? Then he wonders if Ellen would always be a victim. Did she crave the dramatic role and, therefore, always found herself in the middle of some disaster?
Archer also wonders about the role the van der Luydens play in Ellen’s life. The van der Luydens’s house is seldom the scene of visitors. They are a very private couple. Few people have ever been invited to their home. Archer concludes that the van der Luydens might feel they had rescued Ellen before, when they invited her to join them for supper in honor of the duke. Maybe now they believe they must continue rescuing her.
At first Archer feels disappointed that Ellen is not in town. Then he remembers that he had earlier been asked to stay for the weekend with the Reggie Chiverses on the Hudson River, which coincidentally is not far from Skuytercliff. So he goes home, packs a bag, and sends a note to the Chiverses, explaining that he had a change of plans and would...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Archer spends Friday and Saturday at the home of the Chiverses, having fun on an ice boat and on a long tour of Reggie’s farm. On Sunday he goes to Skuytercliff, only to find that Ellen is not there. He discovers that she went to church with Mrs. van der Luyden, and he goes out looking for them. He is walking down the lane when he sees a woman in a red coat and eventually identifies her as Ellen.
Upon greeting her, he tells her that he came to see what made her run away. Ellen shrugs off his question, telling him that she was cold and wanted to run to warm up. Confused, Archer follows her to a small guesthouse on the van der Luyden estate. The door is unlocked; a small fire has been built inside. Mr. van der Luyden’s servant had prepared the small house because Ellen wanted to be alone. She complains to Archer that it is difficult to ever find time for herself. In the rich homes she visits, servants are always barging in with food or tea or questions.
Archer again questions Ellen. He asks if she is unhappy. Ellen responds that she is happy now that he is there. Archer feels frustrated that he cannot get a straight answer from her. He tells her that if she truly wanted him to help her, he will have to know what is wrong. Again he asks her what she was running away from. When Ellen becomes silent, Archer turns away from her because he does not want to stare. He walks to a nearby window and looks out at the wintery scene. Then in the distance he sees a male figure walking toward the guesthouse. He exclaims that he finally understands why Ellen is there. Archer has identified the figure as that of Julius Beaufort. Ellen says she did not know Beaufort was coming, but Archer does not want to hear any more. He storms out of the cottage. When he passes Beaufort, he points out the way, telling the man that Ellen is waiting for him.
On his way home, Archer reflects Beaufort could have been there for no other reason than to see Ellen. Beaufort is not that friendly with the van der Luydens, so he could not use the excuse that they had asked him to their estate. Archer imagines that at best, Beaufort might be served dinner. Then the van der Luydens would insinuate that it was time for him to leave.
Ellen must be drawn to Beaufort, Archer concludes. Beaufort understands the European culture because he is from England. Ellen had once told Archer that he did not speak the same language as she did; therefore, she...
(The entire section is 596 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
When May first sees Archer, she worries that something bad has happened. He is not supposed to be in Florida. He quickly assures her that everything is all right. Then he kisses her. It is such an intense gesture that May pulls back as if his kiss embarrassed her. It was the only time he had kissed her on the lips, and it has shaken her. To ease the tension, Archer asks her to tell him what she does all day in Florida. May rattles off all her daily activities, such as tennis, swimming, and sailing. The discussion of these chatty subjects calms her nerves.
Later in the day, when May’s mother has Archer to herself, she profusely thanks him for convincing Ellen not to go through with a divorce. Mrs. Welland feels convinced that the idea of the divorce was making her husband ill. She then confides in Archer that she believes Ellen thinks quite differently from the rest of the family. In Mrs. Welland’s mind, Ellen is completely “Europeanised.” Archer feels he must come to Ellen’s defense. He counters Mrs. Welland by saying that Europeans are not in favor of divorce. Then he adds that Ellen is trying to conform to American ideas, in that people gaining freedom is an American ideal. It does not help him that he blushes at the mention of Ellen’s name. However, Mrs. Welland seems not to notice. She merely uses Archer’s comment to confirm her initial statement. She says that what Ellen is doing is exactly what all Europeans do: They invent myths about Americans, giving them qualities that are not valid.
As Mrs. Welland continues to comment about Ellen, Archer continues to contradict her, though he says them only silently to himself. He wants to tell May’s mother that if she and the rest of the family do not stop pressure Ellen to live according to their beliefs instead of her own, Ellen might well end up as Beaufort’s mistress. Archer wonders what Mrs. Welland would think if he were to actually vocalize his thoughts. He imagines that Mrs. Welland’s fixed glaze of innocence that she had manufactured on her countenance over the years might actually crack. He hopes that May will not one day have that same, fixed glaze. This is the last thing he would want for his future wife. He prefers that May cultivate an open mind. He wants her imagination to bloom and her heart to gain as much real experience as possible.
Later in the day, May catches an expression on Archer’s face or in some other way senses that...
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
The day after Newland Archer returns from Florida, his sister, Janey, and his mother tell him that Madame Olenska came to visit them while he was gone. Archer asks if his mother liked her. Mrs. Archer replies that Madame Olenska was pleasant enough but her personal model of a young woman favors someone more like May. Archer responds by stating the obvious: Madame Olenska and May are two very different types of woman.
Later that day, Archer goes to see May’s grandmother, Mrs. Mingott. He tells her of his visit to Florida. Mrs. Mingott teases Archer about his “French” vacation, an allusion to his having snuck away from work in the middle of winter, but Archer defends his break by telling her that he went to Florida to convince May they should not wait another year to marry. Mrs. Mingott tells Archer that he is a romantic but impatient man. She prefers his style, however, over that of most of her Mingott relatives. She then adds that she is glad she was born with a rebellious spirit. Unfortunately, to her mind, she and Ellen are the only ones in the family who have done so. Everyone else is stuck in an old-fashioned, conservative rut. Then Mrs. Mingott stops and looks at Archer; she wonders out loud why he did not marry her granddaughter Ellen. Archer replies that he might have but she had not been around.
At this moment, Ellen comes into the house. She is obviously happy to see Archer and tells him that she had gone to visit his mother and sister after he had not answered her letter. She had been worried that he was ill. Mrs. Mingott interjects that Archer went to Florida to persuade May to move their wedding to an earlier date. Archer notices a change in Ellen’s attitude toward him. She tries very hard to emulate a disinterested tone. If Ellen had once needed him, Archer thinks, she certainly is not showing it at that moment. Ellen says to her grandmother that if Archer wants to get married so much earlier, then surely she and her grandmother could join efforts and convince the Wellands to allow it.
When it is time for Archer to leave, Ellen walks him to the door. Archer tells her that he wants to see her. She tells him the following evening is open, but he must come early because she will be going out. Tomorrow is Sunday. The only place Ellen could go would be to Mrs. Struthers’s home, a gathering place where she would be sure to run into Beaufort. Archer decides against going to Ellen’s early, as...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
When Ellen appears in her parlor, dressed to go out, her aunt Medora points out the bouquet of flowers that had been sent to Ellen from her estranged husband. Immediately, Ellen gives the flowers to her maid, telling her to take them next door to a friend who is ill. Ellen does not want the bouquet to remain in her house. Then she questions her aunt, asking if she and Archer had time to become acquainted with one another. Without giving her aunt time to reply, Ellen tells her aunt that if she does not leave right then, she will be late for her engagement. So Archer assists the woman to a carriage waiting outside and returns to Ellen, who is now alone.
Archer asks Ellen if it is true that her husband wants to reconcile their marriage. When Ellen does not react to this question, Archer understands that the idea had not come as a surprise to her. Ellen tells him that her aunt had hinted at such an idea. She adds that she had expected her husband to make such a move. Archer says that he sensed that Medora believed Ellen would reunite with her husband. Ellen sharply replies that many people believe mean things about her. Then she changes the topic of conversation, turning to the troubles Archer is going through.
Ellen says she understands Archer’s desire to shorten his engagement with May. In Europe, people think the American concept of long engagements is strange, she tells him. She also says that she is surprised May does not agree with him. Ellen thinks May is too intelligent to believe in some strange superstition about short engagements. Archer says May sensed that he was distracted, even to the point of possibly being in love with another woman. May wanted to use the extended engagement to help him make up his mind about which woman he truly wanted to be his wife. Upon learning this, Ellen asks if May is giving Archer time to give her up for the other woman, to which Archer responds, “If I want to.”
Ellen wants to know if there is someone else, but Archer avoids answering. He says May’s concession was “ridiculous” because he has no intention of marrying anyone else. However, Archer confesses that May was right; he is distracted by another woman. When Archer grabs Ellen’s hand, however, she rebuffs him, telling him not to make love to her because too many men have already done that. Archer answers that he has never made love to her and never will, but she is the woman he would have married if it...
(The entire section is 720 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
The story jumps forward to Archer and May’s wedding. It is a lively spring day, and much of New York’s high society is in attendance. Newland is standing in front of the altar, as nervous as many of the other grooms he has seen on previous occasions. Several times, just as he had seen other grooms do, he checks his pocket to make sure he has the wedding ring. As he stands there, he mentally checks to make sure he has fulfilled all his duties. The bridesmaids’ bouquets of lilacs and lilies are ready. The gifts for the ushers and the best man have been bought. The night before, he wrote notes of thanks for all the presents he received. His luggage is packed and waiting for him at Mrs. Mingott’s house, where the wedding breakfast will be served after the ceremony.
As he scans the pews in the church, Archer has the sensation that he is attending the first night of the opera. All the same faces are present, and everyone is dressed in their finest outfits. Then the back doors open, and everyone turns to watch the procession that begins with the members of the bride’s and groom’s families. Mrs. Welland is first in line. While the people are ushered in, Archer’s mind wanders again. There had been rumors that Mrs. Mingott was contemplating coming to the church for the wedding. Her large size would have to be accommodated through special reconstruction of the entrance of the church as well as of several pews. The elder woman eagerly pressed this idea until the family complained that she would become a spectacle that reporters would not be able to ignore. Pictures would appear in all the city papers, mocking the family. In the end, Mrs. Mingott relented under the pressure.
Archer is drawn back to the church when he notices the audible stir in the crowd as Medora Manson enters and walks down the aisle. She and Ellen Olenska had suddenly disappeared as the wedding date had approached. Rumors had spread that Ellen had removed her aunt to Washington so as to put distance between Medora and Dr. Agathon Carver, an eloquent old man who had almost enlisted Medora in his mysterious project called the Valley of Love. When Archer sees Medora, he immediately strains to see who is walking behind her. However, Medora is the last person to enter the church, other than the bride and her bridesmaids.
Finally the ceremony begins. Before he fully realizes what is happening, Archer is walking down the aisle with his wife on his...
(The entire section is 588 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
Archer and May are in London on the last leg of their European honeymoon. May bought a completely new wardrobe in Paris but is having trouble deciding what to wear to a dinner party. She and Archer have been asked to dine with Mrs. Carfry, a British acquaintance of Janey’s and Mrs. Asher’s. May feels reluctant to go. She claimed she is shy around strangers.
The newlyweds have been in Europe for three months, and May is anxious to go home. She does not like traveling—even less than Archer had expected. May enjoys the shopping and the new places to walk and swim, but that is the extent of her interest in Europe.
In the three months they have been married, Newman Archer has relinquished all his former thoughts about women as wives. He finds it is easier to conform to the traditional role of husband and treat his wife as his male friends treat theirs. He finds there is no use attempting to free a woman who does not realize that she is not already liberated. As for May, her main focus appears to be to make Archer happy. Archer knows that no matter what happens, May will always be loyal, unresentful, and courteous. He will try to be the same. These qualities in May will make her a pleasant companion, Archer concludes. For his part, Archer will not be oppressed by May’s simplicity. Instead, May’s uncomplicated vision of marriage allows Archer to continue his life much as he had lived in his bachelor days.
The dinner party at Mrs. Carfry’s is small, as Archer had expected. The guests include Mrs. Carfry’s sister, a vicar and his wife, Mrs. Carfry’s sickly nephew, and the nephew’s French tutor, Mr. Riviere. May had worried about making conversation during the dinner; Archer notes that this fear has been realized. Although those around her try to engage May, she has a way of turning all attempts down a dull road. Archer feels relieved when the women leave the table and go to the drawing room. This allows Archer to speak in depth to Mr. Riviere, the French tutor.
Mr. Riviere’s father had been a diplomat, and his son was expected to follow in his footsteps. However, Mr. Riviere had been more interested in pursuing a literary career. When he proved unsuccessful in that endeavor, Mr. Riviere turned to tutoring English students in Switzerland. Before that he had lived in Paris much of his life and enjoyed the company of many intellectuals. Mr. Riviere finds nothing so gratifying as a stimulating...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
Newland and May have now been back in the States for over a year. Although Newland had attempted to persuade May to spend their summer vacation on an island off the coast of Maine, she had refused. Her family has always spent their summers in Rhode Island. So they are staying with May’s parents at their summer retreat in Newport. Newland gave in because May seems at her most comfortable in familiar settings. Currently, May is involved in an archery competition, a sport in which she often succeeds.
Upon reflecting on his choice of a bride, Newland cannot say he is disappointed. He had thought she would bring peace, stability, and friendship into his life, and she has. May is one of the prettiest and most popular young wives in New York. She is also sweet-tempered and reasonable. Newland reflects that just before marrying May, he had fallen into some kind of madness. He cannot now imagine how he ever considered marrying Countess Olenska. If she remains in his thoughts now, it is merely as a ghost from his past. His mind has felt a bit empty since then, but he is content.
As Archer stands in the distance, watching May compete, Medora Manson, Ellen’s aunt, walks over to him. Her appearance causes Archer’s thoughts to come to a standstill. Medora informs Archer that she is staying nearby in the countryside. Ellen is with her. She also tells Archer that the life Ellen is leading is morbid. Her niece refuses to become involved in society but prefers to stay in solitude.
May appears at this time, bow and arrow in hand. Archer finds her presence almost goddess-like. She is tall and moves with a beautiful grace. Her competition did not distract her in the least. She was focused and had no trouble hitting her target. Unfortunately, Archer heard one of the gentlemen in the group comment that the bull’s eye was the only target she would ever hit. Archer understands it as a reference to how overly nice May is. This leads him to wonder if May’s niceness veils an emptiness inside of her.
On their way back to the summer home, May suggests that she and Newland stop to see her grandmother, Mrs. Mingott, who is also staying in Newport. When Mrs. Mingott sees May, she teases her about having children. This embarrasses May, who can do nothing but blush. Then Mrs. Mingott mentions that Medora is coming to pick up Ellen. Archer goes into shock. Ellen is there. After calling out for Ellen and not receiving a...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
Mr. and Mrs. Welland receive an invitation from Mrs. Emerson Sillerton to a party for the Blenkers. Both of May’s parents are astonished that the Sillertons would throw a party for a family that was not considered part of their inner circle. Mr. Blenker is an archaeologist, a lowly working man. Although Mrs. Blenker came from a monied family, she has been known to travel with her husband to very strange places to assist him in his research rather than spend her summers in Europe or Rhode Island, as the Wellands and other respectable people do. However, etiquette demands that one or two members of the Welland family attend the party. No one asks Archer to do the honors.
On the day of the party, assuming that the Blenkers would be at the Sillertons’ home, Newland Archer invents an excuse to drive his buggy to the island on which the Blenkers live. He is not sure that he is doing this to see Ellen, who is living there for the summer, but he admits to himself that he wants to see where she has been staying. He thinks seeing the place where she places her feet would satisfy his urge to be near her.
Archer’s excuse is that he is looking for a horse for May, and a horse ranch happens to be near the Blenkers’ home. Upon seeing the horse, however, Newland knows it is not the right kind of animal for May, so he ends his appointment and heads straight for the Blenkers’. As he had suspected, no one is there. He wanders around the gardens, though, trying to imagine where Ellen might go if she went outside. While he is sitting there, a young girl appears. She is one of the Blenkers’ daughters. She is thrilled when she comes upon Archer—her luck has changed. She had not been allowed to go to the Sillerton party because she had a sore throat. That dismayed her until she finds that in staying home, she has the pleasure of speaking to Newland Archer.
Archer asks the young girl several questions, which eventually gains him information about Ellen. The girl tells him that Ellen received a telegram that called her away on business, so she is in Boston for a couple of days. The girl does not know the nature of Ellen’s business Ellen, but she does know the name of the hotel. Ellen is staying at the Parker House.
(The entire section is 413 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
The next morning, Archer takes a train to Boston. As luck would have it, a letter from his office had arrived for him in Newport, providing a cover for his sudden need to travel. He does not tell his family that he is going to Boston, only that he needs to be in New York. Although he does not convey all the details of his travel, he will make a point to stop in New York on his way back to the summer home.
When he reaches Boston, Archer takes breakfast before sending a note to the Parker House. When the messenger returns, telling Archer that Madame Olenska was out, Newland feels angry at himself for not having written to her as soon as he arrived. After he finishes his meal, he decides to walk over to the hotel to confirm the accuracy of the messenger’s information. On his way, he sees Ellen sitting on a park bench. She appears to be deep in thought. When he comes near, she looks up. It is the first time Archer has ever seen Ellen surprised.
As soon as he is close enough to talk to her, Archer blurts out that he is in Boston on business. Ellen says she is, too. She adds that she has just turned down a large sum of money. Archer immediately feels disturbed. He senses that Ellen’s husband is still attempting to bribe her to take him back. Archer wants to know if her husband is there in Boston. Ellen tells him that her husband only sent an emissary with the offer. She has a few hours in which to make her final decision.
Archer suggests that they take a steamboat out into the bay, where the weather might be cooler. He insinuates that since they are together, they might as well enjoy themselves. He thinks they deserve this little pleasure because they sacrificed their love for one another by his marrying May. Ellen asked him not to say such things. Archer does not want to apply too much pressure because he fears Ellen might slip away from him, so he softens his tone. He will not yet mention anything about his love for her, but he still asks her to give him a few hours of the day. Ellen finally agrees, but she needs to leave a note for her husband before they leave.
Before they get on the boat, Archer asks Ellen about the last time he saw her at Mrs. Mingott’s summer home. He tells her he had walked down toward the pier and waited for her to turn around in recognition of his presence. He said he had felt disappointed when she did not know he was there. Ellen confesses that she knew he was there. Not...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
Archer and Ellen find a small inn and ask for a private room and order lunch. During their conversation, Ellen tells Archer that though the people of New York had been kind to her, she tired of society. She discovered that she was too different from the people who surrounded her and moved to Washington to get away. Part of her reason for moving was also to remove her aunt from the influences of Dr. Carver, who was prone to converting people to his strange ideas. Then Ellen admits that some of Dr. Carver’s concepts were a lot more interesting than the “blind conformity to tradition” to which most of New York’s society members cling.
Archer asks her, if she were so tired of New York, why did she not return to Europe? Ellen confesses that Archer is her only reason for staying in the States. She thanks him for the changes that have come over her. Archer answers that she has transformed him so much more than he has affected her. He tells her that it was because of her that he married May. Ellen admits that their not coming together had been done for May’s sake: they separated so he could marry. Archer is disturbed by this comment. If Ellen had chosen not to be with him so his marriage would be a success, then they both have wasted their efforts because his marriage is a farce. He adds that Ellen gave him a taste of what real love and real life are all about, then she made him live in a false relationship with May. His current situation, he complains, is beyond human endurance. Ellen is agitated also. She tells him that she is suffering the pain as well. Archer is surprised to learn this. He had not imagined that their separation had hurt her.
As they talk, Archer notices how far they stand from one another; yet, even without touching, he can feel the passion between them. He has known physical love. That type of love seems superficial in comparison to what Ellen and he share. His love for Ellen penetrates deeper than his bones. He does not need to feel her body in order to express his love for her. As long as he knows she feels the same way, he will never feel alone again. This feeling of temporary bliss suddenly subsides, though, once he realized that no matter how much they love one another, no matter how close they feel to one another, they will always be tied to two separate destinies.
He asks her how long she can hold out. Ellen answers, as long as he can. She will be happy as long as she knows she is...
(The entire section is 486 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
As Archer ponders on his morning with Ellen, he thinks of it as a failure. He did not touch her, even to kiss her hand. He does not know when or if they will ever see one another again. He feels ill from unsatisfied love. In spite of this, he is bewildered by the calmness that surges about him. He conjectures that this is perhaps caused by Ellen’s perfectly balanced insistence that they be loyal to May and yet remain honest with one another. He is in awe of Ellen, so much so that he is not tempted to lure her into an affair. As he reflects on their relationship further, he realizes that even though their situations dictate that they give up so much, they still have so much more than most other couples he knows. He also feels satisfied that Ellen will never go back to her husband unless Archer presses her for more than she is willing to allow him to give. As long as he holds back from making physical love to her, which would be the downfall of his marriage to May, she will remain his.
By the time Archer reaches New York, his mind is in a fog; he can think of nothing but Ellen. All the images that pass by him are a blur until one face catches his attention. It is not an ordinary face. It looks more European than American. Then he remembers he had seen that same person in Boston. This thin man had been walking outside the building when he had been waiting for Ellen to deliver her message to her husband’s emissary.
The man approaches Archer and reminds him that they had met in London. Then the memories connect. He is the French tutor, Mr. Riviere. Archer comments that Mr. Riviere has indeed made it to America as he had wished. Mr. Riviere agrees, but he adds that he came under special circumstances and is soon to return to Europe. Before he leaves, he wonders if he might meet with Archer. They agree on a time and then part.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Riviere punctually arrives at Archer’s place of work. Mr. Riviere is a very serious man, Archer concludes, as the young man remains standing, intent on sharing some critical information. Mr. Riviere tells Archer that he has come to the States on a mission. Madame Olenska’s husband has made a very generous offer if she will return. As Archer knows, Madame Olenska has refused. Mr. Riviere states that he failed in his mission to Madame Olenska, and he would like Archer’s help in ensuring it fail with her family as well.
Mr. Riviere came to convince...
(The entire section is 554 words.)
Chapter 26 Summary
Mrs. Archer gives her annual Thanksgiving dinner. As her guests sit around the table, they discuss the disintegration of New York society. Miss Sophy Jackson notes the trend toward extravagance in dress. Women are wearing dresses from Paris in the same season they buy them. This is against the accustomed practice of storing new dresses for at least one year before putting them on and exposing them in society. When Miss Jackson went to the opening of the opera that season, she recognized only one dress that had been worn the previous season. Every other woman had on an outfit that was completely new.
The conversation quickly turned from quips about fashion to Ellen Olenska. Newland’s mother comments on Mrs. Struthers’ Sunday night entertainments, of which she highly disapproves though even May is now in the habit of attending the parties of music, dancing, and smoking. Mrs. Archer condemns Ellen for making these events so popular. People of her ranking, Mrs. Archer contends, should lead the way in exposing proper behavior—that is, doing what has always been done rather than breaking down old standards.
Archer notes that no one seems to be in favor of Ellen Olenska any more. Even her grandmother has been promoting the idea that Ellen should return to her husband. After Ellen spent the summer with the Blenkers, most people in society deemed her as having become Bohemian. Archer has not seen Ellen for months, not since their last encounter in Boston. He had sent a note to her in Washington, asking to see her, but she refused him.
When the men retire from the dinner table, Archer learns from Mr. Jackson that the Mingott family has considerably reduced Ellen’s allowance in an attempt to force her return to her husband. Mr. Jackson agrees that this would be the best thing for Ellen to do. Stirred by these comments, Newland cannot control his emotions any longer and blurts out that it is the last thing Ellen would do. Newland is aware that old Mr. Jackson is analyzing everything he is saying as well as how he is reacting. The fact that the other members of the Mingott family apparently knew about the reduction in Ellen’s stipend and Archer did not tells a story that Archer would rather not have exposed. These actions make it apparent to everyone that the family now considers Archer to be too close to Ellen to objectively counsel her, so they have cut him out of their communications. Upon reflection of the...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Chapter 27 Summary
The next day, everyone is talking about Mr. Beaufort. His banking practices have been found to be fraudulent. Everyone who entrusted him with their accounts will be financially damaged, some more than others, and Beaufort stands to lose a large portion of his estate.
Despite the calamity, Newland Archer does not want to alter his plans to go to Washington. There is a legal case in which Mr. Letterblair is involved that is scheduled for a Supreme Court ruling. Archer will use this as his excuse to travel. As he is making his plans, however, Archer receives a message from his wife. Mrs. Mingott, May’s grandmother, has suffered a stroke. Archer is needed in the family. He is to go immediately to Mrs. Mingott’s home.
When Archer arrives, he learns that Mrs. Beaufort had come to visit Mrs. Mingott the previous night. Beaufort’s wife had pleaded with Mrs. Mingott to save her husband from financial ruin. Mrs. Mingott had refused. However, the nervous tension took its toll on Mrs. Mingott’s health, and as a consequence she has suffered a minor stroke.
While at Mrs. Mingott’s home, Archer overhears all the conversations. Mrs. Beaufort is part of the Mingott family, but her wanting old Mrs. Mingott to rescue her husband from his financial disgrace is unthinkable. A wife’s place is next to her husband, everyone agrees. The family would normally support one of its members, but in Beaufort’s case, the man had been dishonest and is now disgraced. Mrs. Beaufort should never have considered her family’s assistance in attempting to cover up her husband’s dishonor. It is no wonder that Mrs. Mingott has suffered a stroke, the women say. The idea of Mrs. Beaufort’s appealing to the old woman for help was unthinkable.
As the women of the family continue to discuss the current affairs, Mrs. Mingott’s daughter-in-law enters the parlor and announces that Mrs. Mingott is now requesting that a telegram be sent to Ellen Olenska. This brings a new round of shock to the group. May is the first one to voice the opinion that if Mrs. Mingott has made the request, then it must be followed. However, there is no one available to send the telegram. The maids are too busy and all the women present in the house have other errands that must be done. May turns to Archer. He is free; he could send it, she says.
May writes the message. When she hands the note to her husband, she says it is a pity that...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Chapter 28 Summary
After receiving a telegram from Ellen Olenska stating the date and time of her arrival, May’s mother takes it upon herself to arrange the transportation necessary to get Ellen from the station to Mrs. Mingott’s home. Mr. and Mrs. Welland are too busy to meet her, and it would not be proper for May to go by herself. Mrs. Welland takes the opportunity to criticize Ellen for always seeming to cause trouble. Next Mrs. Welland finds it strange that of all the grandchildren in the family her mother would insist on seeing Ellen. After all, Ellen had refused to honor her grandmother’s wishes that she go back to her husband. There is a chance, though, that her mother’s thinking was not very clear. Her mother is getting very old and her recent stroke may have caused more damage than the doctor noted.
In the midst of Mrs. Welland’s comments, Archer volunteers to pick up Ellen at the station. Mrs. Welland graciously accepts Newland’s offer. However, when Newland and May are alone, May questions how he could meet Ellen if he is leaving for Washington before Ellen arrives. Archer tells his wife that the legal case in Washington has been postponed. May says she finds this odd because she had seen a note from Mr. Letterblair stating that he was going to Washington for that legal case. Archer stammers as he explains that his trip is postponed because Mr. Letterblair is taking on the case in his place.
As Newland offers his explanations, he curses himself for all the lies he has told. He remembers reading somewhere that a clever liar provides many details to cover his dishonesty; however, the most clever liars give none. He is torn between the contrary descriptions. Then he tells May that, as it turns out, it is a fortunate occurrence that his boss should take over the legal case because it leaves him free to help his family, which is currently in so much need. He says this with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. To add a touch of veracity to his portrayal, Newland purposefully looks into May’s eyes so she will not think that he is avoiding her gaze. While he stares at her, he realizes that she might be reading his thoughts deeper than he cares for her to go.
May agrees that the circumstances are very convenient. She also mentions how much her mother appreciates Newland’s assistance. Newland responds that he is glad to help. As he says good-bye to May, he thinks he might be seeing tears in his wife’s eyes....
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapter 29 Summary
Archer meets Ellen at the train station and assures her that Mrs. Mingott is not in serious danger. The stroke was mild, and Mrs. Mingott is already recovering. Then Archer tells her that when he first saw her there at the station, he hardly recognized her. This is not because he did not remember what she looked like but rather that it was not until he saw her that all his feelings for her rushed back in, making him realize how much he had missed her.
Through the beginning of their journey back to the city, Ellen remains somewhat removed, as if she does not want her emotions to be roused. She asked if they are riding in May’s carriage; they are. Then she comments on how nice it was of May to send Archer to get her. Archer feels somewhat angered by Ellen’s reference to his wife and mentions Mr. Riviere, the man who had brought Ellen’s husband’s message to her. Archer wants to know if it had been Mr. Riviere who helped Ellen leave her husband. Ellen says that it was. She adds that she owes Mr. Riviere a great debt. To this, Archer calls Ellen the most honest woman he has ever met. Ellen downplays his assessment, saying that she merely looks at life as it is. When Archer says that she must know then that they cannot continue their relationship in the same vein—being together and not being together—Ellen agrees. She also says that Archer should not have come to meet her. Archer responds that Ellen has no need to be afraid of him.
As Archer and Ellen continue to define their relationship, Ellen confronts him by asking what type of arrangement he is considering. She reminds him that both she and he are married. She wants to know if he intends to keep her as his mistress. Archer denies this, saying that he wants them to go away to some place where distinctions such as that are not necessary. He wants them to live where they will only be defined as two people in love. Ellen says there is no such place.
Their discussion continues, but it does not dissolve the distance between them. No matter where they go, Ellen says, he would always be Newland Archer, the husband of May, and she would be Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife. Together they would always be a couple of people who were trying to be happy behind other people's backs. When Newland attempts to claim that he is beyond society’s definitions of him, Ellen will not allow it. She says he is in the middle of it all. She, on the other...
(The entire section is 523 words.)
Chapter 30 Summary
That evening, Archer is home alone with May. She looks pale and tired to him. May asks him what became of him. She had waited at Mrs. Mingott’s for him and felt surprised when Ellen arrived by herself. May wants to know if there was something wrong. Archer makes up an excuse and says he had some letters to attend to at the office.
Through the rest of the evening, Archer feels annoyed. He chooses to read a history book because if he had picked up a book of poems, May would have wanted him to read aloud. He knows that May has no interest in history. Then he paces the room, claiming the air is stuffy. When he opens a window to the winter cold, May warns him that he might catch his “death.” Archer thinks to himself that he has already caught it. He is dead. This thought takes him to another—May might die. That would be one way for him to be free of her.
A week passes after Ellen’s arrival in New York, and Archer does not hear from her. He also notices that no one in the family ever mentions Ellen’s name in his presence. Then one day May announces that her grandmother, Mrs. Mingott, has asked to see him. When Archer suggests that May accompany him for the visit, May makes it clear that she has been there so often, she does not want to bore her grandmother by showing up yet again. Archer is pleased. This will be his chance to finally see Ellen. He needs just a few minutes with her alone. He wants to know when she is returning to Washington.
Upon his arrival at her home, Mrs. Mingott teases Archer about Ellen. When Mrs. Mingott apologizes for her looks and Archer compliments her, she says she is not as pretty as Ellen is. Then she makes a reference to Ellen’s having arrived alone on the day she came from Washington. She wants to know what he had said to Ellen to make her force him out of the carriage before it stopped at her house. Mrs. Mingott also announces that she has invited Ellen to live with her again and adds that she is going to restore Ellen’s allowance. She had been wrong to allow the family to coerce her into disowning Ellen only because Ellen refused to go back to her husband.
As Mrs. Mingott talks, Archer wonders what Ellen’s living in New York might mean. He wonders if Ellen has consented to this arrangement so she might be closer to him. It is possible that she is offering a compromise. She might not run away with him, but maybe this is a way they could be partially...
(The entire section is 569 words.)
Chapter 31 Summary
The more Archer attempts to figure out why Ellen has decided to stay at Mrs. Mingott’s home, the less he understands. He cannot fix on a reason that makes sense to him. He feels sure that Ellen did not agree to the arrangement out of financial necessity. Although her allowance had been diminished, Archer knows that Ellen can live on a smaller budget. He has seen all her financial records and knows she has enough money to keep both herself and her aunt housed and fed. Ellen does not need the extravagances that the other women in the family deem necessities.
Archer can only conclude that Ellen’s reason for returning to New York must have something to do with him. She had told them that they must remain apart, but he recalls how she had leaned her head on his chest while they were riding back from the train station. He surmises that she was merely fighting her fate, clinging to her resolve that they should not betray anyone else’s trust. However, Archer hopes that in the ten days since they saw one another, Ellen has resigned herself to the compromise Archer had suggested. It would be better to be with one another from time to time than to not see each other at all.
At first Archer had wanted it all. He had even imagined that they might run away to Japan to get away from everyone. When he discovered that Ellen was not going back to Washington, he considered having a clandestine affair with her. Now, when he considers that proposition, he notices a growing distaste for the arrangement. He does not want to be like so many other married men who have affairs. He does not like all the constant deception that is required.
As he contemplates the choices before him, Archer turns from his doorstep and walks in the opposite direction, toward the Beaufort home. He knows Ellen will be there. As he nears the Beauforts’ front door, Ellen appears. As she descends the steps, he greets her and asks if they might meet in private as soon as possible.
The next day, Ellen and Archer meet at the art museum. Again they discuss their relationship and what to do about it. Ellen asks if Archer thinks it is better now that she will be living in New York. He tells her it is worse. Ellen has to agree. However, she still does not want to further their involvement because it would cause irreparable harm to everyone around them. However, she is willing to make a concession. She will “come to him” once before she goes home,...
(The entire section is 554 words.)
Chapter 32 Summary
At dinner at the van der Luydens, the invited guests discuss the Beauforts. The van der Luydens returned to the city because of the scandal caused by Mr. Beaufort’s fraud. The presence of the van der Luydens at dinner in their home and later an appearance at the opera will show everyone that despite the visible cracks caused by the Beaufort scandal, New York’s most elite families are still united.
It takes only a small conversational step to move from the topic of the Beauforts to Ellen Olenska. Everyone heard that she drove Mrs. Mingott’s carriage to the Beaufort home and parked it out front for everyone to see. This is an unforgivable offence. Although Ellen had been raised with a different set of principles and despite the fact that most of the people at the dinner party considered Ellen as having a gentle heart, what she did goes against all the social customs.
Later, at the opera, Archer cannot help looking across the audience to Mrs. Mingott’s box, hoping to see Ellen, but the box is empty. When he glances back at May, he is reminded of the first time he saw Ellen, sitting next to May in the family opera box. He also remembers having gone to May in Florida before they were married. He recalls May’s telling him that she could not marry him if he loved someone else. She could not have her happiness conceived out of a harm done to someone else. Recalling May’s sentiment, Archer feels an uncontrollable urge to tell his wife the whole truth about his love for Ellen. He wants to throw himself on May’s generosity in the hope that she might set him free.
Archer is determined to go home and tell May everything. He feigns a headache so he can leave before the opera ends, and he asks May to make excuses and come with him, which she does. Once inside their house, May suggests that Archer go to bed. However, he tells her he needs to speak to her first. Although he had practiced how to begin, the first words that come out are “Madame Olenska.” Upon hearing Ellen’s name, May puts up her hand to stop him. She confesses that she has not been very nice to Ellen over the past couple of years. She judged Ellen too harshly, she says. Then she pauses to ask if this discussion about Ellen is really necessary because it is over now. Archer has no idea to what May is alluding, so he asks her to explain. May tells him that Ellen is returning to Europe. Ellen’s grandmother has conceded and agreed that Ellen...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
Chapter 33 Summary
May decides to give a dinner party for her cousin Ellen. It will be a send-off from members of the family to demonstrate their unity in wishing Ellen well in her new life in Europe. For May, it will be the first large party she has ever arranged. As May’s mother declared on the morning before the dinner party, no one would be able to say that May and Newland had not given Ellen a proper farewell celebration. The event will also leave a pleasant impression on Ellen, Mrs. Welland adds.
Archer tries his best to stay out of the way as preparations continue throughout the day. When he has a chance to escape to his library, he comforts himself by silently saying that it will not be long, which suggests that he, too, will soon be leaving.
Ellen has been gone ten days, having returned to Washington to prepare for her departure. Archer did not hear from her during that time. He assumes that her silence means she is still fighting her fate. Archer is thankful that, at least, Ellen is not returning to her husband, so there is nothing stopping him from following her, no matter where she goes. Once he has taken that step, having made it evident that he is leaving May, Ellen cannot send him away, he thinks.
A few days before the dinner, Mr. Letterblair had asked for Archer’s assistance in going over the trust Mrs. Mingott has set up for Ellen. Mr. Letterblair evaluated the gift as a very “handsome arrangement.” He had wanted to extend the discussion, hinting that there were many rumors about Madame Olenska’s misjudgments in relation to her marriage, but Archer had stopped listening.
In another meeting with Mrs. Mingott, Archer had to endure even more insinuated insults against Ellen. Mrs. Mingott felt as if Ellen had deserted her. She believed that Ellen was bored with her and that was why she left. Archer did not attempt to provide any other reasons.
When the guests begin arriving for the dinner, Archer is distracted until Ellen suddenly appears at his side and May suggests that he escort Ellen to the table. Although they sit next to one another, Archer barely says a word to Ellen. He senses that everyone is watching them, as if they all believe he and Ellen are lovers. As the dinner progresses, his thoughts coalesced around the idea that the dinner has been staged for their benefit. The dinner is a symbolic gathering of the family, brought together as a rally for May’s benefit. Their...
(The entire section is 735 words.)
Chapter 34 Summary
Twenty-six years have gone by. May is dead. Her and Archer’s three children are grown. Their oldest boy, Dallas, is now an architect and calls his father long-distance to invite him to go to Europe for a short trip.
The invitation to travel stirs memories. Archer thinks back over the past decades. He had gone into politics for a short while. The governor of New York had convinced him that the political system needed men such as he. Archer had taken the man’s advice and served in the state assembly but was not re-elected. This convinced him that maybe the governor had been wrong. Archer then returned to writing articles for magazines in attempts to affect politics. Otherwise he had continued his contemplative life. Because he was inclined to think deeply, people often sought out his opinions.
Although his life had been full, Archer knows he missed “the flower of life.” Now when he thinks of Ellen Olenska, he does so abstractly, as someone might think of a story he had read. The thought of her and what they might have had together had, over the years, kept him from desiring other women. His marriage to May could have been described as dull, but if nothing else, it had been dignified.
As Archer listens to Dallas speak, he is amazed at how clear his son’s voice sounds. The telephone is one of the new changes that Archer truly appreciates. Dallas also reminds him of a statement one of Archer’s friends had made even before Dallas was born. The man had predicted that one day society would deteriorate to the point that one of their children might even marry one of Beaufort’s “bastards.” This makes Archer smile. His son, Dallas, is engaged to one Beaufort’s daughters, the product of the man’s second marriage. For Archer, this marriage is a sign of how far the world has traveled in the past thirty years. People are too busy to concern themselves with the social issues of the past. They are more fascinated with movements and reforms.
Dallas convinces his father to travel to Paris with him. As Archer stands looking out of his hotel window at Paris in spring, he reflects on how many times he had imagined what it would be like when he finally made it to this French city. Now he is an old man and feels old-fashioned in the current mode of time. In the midst of his recollections, Dallas interrupts his thoughts with the announcement that he has arranged an appointment to see Madame Olenska. He...
(The entire section is 681 words.)